Happy Hour with The Paragraph Project


V&V friend and team member, Marcie Cohen Ferris, sat down to chat with Dave Alsobrooks and Gwen McCarter Nagle from one of Durham’s groundbreaking market research firms, The PARAGRAPH Project. Read their conversation and then come hear more from Dave and Gwen at the next Vert & Vogue Happy Hour event on Friday, June 21st, from 5:30 – 6:30pm. They promise to speak about their innovative approach to market research, strategy, and planning services—Slow Culture.



Dave Alsobrooks

Partner, The PARAGRAPH Project


Dave is an artist from the South who sees the region rife with inconsistencies, if not outright contradictions. Listening to the Geto Boys on the way to church. Humidity and suits and ties. Integrated schools and segregated towns (even today). New South. Old South. These cultural contradictions have always interested Dave and continue to feed his interest in how people connect to each other and the world around them. For the past two decades, he’s worked with a diverse world of clients to shape their brands and narrative, including ESPN, Schlitz, Starbucks, Lowe’s, and Quiksilver.



Gwen McCarter Nagle

Insights Director/Associate Partner, The PARAGRAPH Project


In a past life, Gwen pursued a career as a professional student that took her to the University of Virginia; Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg, Germany; Harvard; Dhofar University in Salalah, Oman; and Duke. These experiences stoked her enduring love of languages, coffee, and getting lost in new cities. Her passions focus on examining the different ways that people think, connect, say what matters, pick a fight, destroy what came before, and build something new. Gwen gravitates toward questions inspired by cultural anthropology with the aim of helping brands tell relevant, powerful stories.





Narrative and messaging are very important to both of you. Tell us a story (‘PARAGRAPH’-size, of course!) about your childhood that remains with you today.


Gwen: When I was 13, I agonized over whether to go to the magnet school for international studies I’d gotten into or the public high school I was zoned for. What about all the things I’d miss out on? The night before decisions were due, I had a revelation that the “normal” high school experience, such as it was, sounded like the worst thing ever. I didn’t care about that stuff, but a childhood of being labeled one of the weird kids conditioned me to crave normalcy of some kind. After my epiphany, I went to the magnet school and embraced the weird. I dyed my hair blue and shipped off to nerd camp. I became a vegan and went to Fugazi shows and on and on. That phase was a little contrarian, but it set me on a path that I’ve been grateful for ever since.


Dave: When I was in elementary school, I learned two lessons about self-expression both related to vehicles that transported me to school--like in front of ALL the other kids. One was a large Ford LTD painted white. The hood alone---the size of today’s cars---was painted like an American flag (the blue being a distinct “Ford” blue). Oh, and the rims (wheels) were painted the same shade of blue. The interior was burgundy. The other lesson involved a green step-side Chevrolet truck. The kicker here was two-fold. Bull horns were applied to the hood and a long CB antennae with the obligatory tennis ball that offset the bouncing of this necessary apparatus. Yes. Those were formative times that taught me it’s OK to do you. Thanks, Dad!





The inspiration behind your company name, The PARAGRAPH Project, lies in a parable posted on your website that begins as follows, “I was having a conversation with a CEO and I asked him if he would ever let research override his intuition. He said he would, I asked him if he believed in genius – or if he believed in love.” 


What happened next?


The rest of that parable is up on our website, but in a nutshell, we realized he didn’t believe in anything. Nothing other than profit and commerce, that is. He wanted to hire someone who would tell him what to do. And that’s when we knew we weren’t destined to work together.



The PARAGRAPH Project operates in a community and region known for its outstanding academic institutions. It’s clear that academia informs your process and thinking, and even your love of ‘concise expression!’  How so? 


Rigor is key to how we do things, and we have a soft spot for grand theories and deep inquiries. At the same time, we want our work to have a practical impact for those we serve, and we strive to simplify things that easily veer off into complexity. We infuse creativity into each step of our process. Blending the academic and the creative helps us distill everything we’ve learned into something that feels not just informed, but also inspiring.





CREATIVITY is at the core of your commitment to bring your clients to new breakthroughs in communication.  Can you share a couple of examples?


Yes! As we mentioned before, creativity is part and parcel of what we do. But we try not to think about our impact in terms of silver bullets. So often, clients come to us wanting to move the needle on something lickety-split, and they’re so excited about that prospect that they skip over some pretty important questions. For example, why their brand exists, and why people should care. When we do our job well, we reframe the conversation to help answer questions of that sort, and in the process, we strengthen the health of the brand in ways that will ultimately have the impact the client was looking for in the first place.



You have an expansive and fresh take on the real value of data, research, and analysis in the marketplace today.  How do you turn that ‘stuff’ into compelling and meaningful communication?


We’ve had this phrase, “death by data,” rolling around in our heads for several years now. It’s so easy to get seduced by the promise of what more information can do for you as a company, but we find that that generally leads to more confusion, not more clarity. One of our favorite things to do is sift through a ton of data and find the story. Making that story meaningful requires knowing our audience, so we spend a lot of our time trying to understand what makes people tick and what will resonate with them as a result.






As a marketing research firm, your focus on understanding culture and society---rather than merely tracking the ‘trendwatching treadmill’--- is a unique aspect of The PARAGRAPH Project.   What sparked this approach?


Grounding our work in what’s happening around us has always been important at PARAGRAPH. But the idea of adopting what has essentially become an “anti-trend report” mentality crystalized for us around 2013 when we noticed how much our industry was relying on surface-level explanations for why someone might buy something. We felt strongly that people were increasingly getting cast as one-dimensional characters. We wanted to put a stake in the ground that offered an alternative. That became the Slow Culture initiative, but it also became a lens that we apply to everything we do nowadays.




Your SLOW CULTURE initiative explores motivations that form the foundation of choices we make and the ways we consume. What motivates each of you?


Gwen: We think everyone has his or her own motivational fingerprint, with some of the eight “eternal motivations” we’ve identified through Slow Culture showing up more prominently than others. I’m more of an individuality-and-renewal-kind-of-person. Artifice makes me cringe, and I tend to get restless. But if you ask my husband what motivates me, he’d probably say rescue dogs and Parlour ice cream. He wouldn’t be wrong.


Dave: I’m motivated by lots of things, but mostly the notion of expression, but an unbridled expression. That doesn’t mean my own, but I cherish the opportunity to do so unoppressed. Most inspiration comes from everything created around me by everyone around me. We are fortunate to reside in an inherently inspirational and reciprocal community. So I constantly ask myself:  How can we make our research communicate and inspire as an artform? How can I inform my art to provoke deeper questions? And finally, how loud are my sneakers today?



Your top secret food/snack that fuels The PARAGRAPH Project.


We keep our heads down so much that we forget to eat on an embarrassingly regular basis. Currently on the lookout for new snack recommendations if you’ve got ‘em.  (Marcie suggests peanut butter-filled pretzel bites!)



And, as it is Happy Hour, what libation best inspires the courage to act and think creatively?


Gwen: Sour beer all the way. But it has to basically be verging on vinegar for me to like it.


Dave: I’m going to wave a Union Jack, channel the summer heat, and go with a classic Gin & Tonic. But with a lemon. It’s medicinal, no doubt.