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POV: Interview with Lori Senecal, CEO of kbs+

By:   Date posted: July 18, 2012

Lori-SenecalAs the Chairman and CEO of kirshenbaum bond senecal +, Lori Senecal oversees more than 500 employees and works with major brands such as BMW, Puma and Vanguard. Justin Bieber even tapped the shop to launch his “Someday” fragrance. Senecal left her role as the president of McCann Erickson NY in 2009 to lead kbs+, immediately reinvigorating the team and leading the agency into new territory as it launched a startup investment firm and a technology shop.

Tell us more about kbs+ and the type of work you do.

At kbs+ our product is creativity and our purpose is to “Do Things That Matter.” We create ideas that come in all kinds of forms, but they all have the same aim – to drive positive change and meaningful business growth for our clients. We are big believers in the power of creativity for growth. Every brief starts with the challenge, “How will we unleash our creativity to turn this opportunity into real business gain for our clients?”

In addition to the general advertising we do as creative AOR for leadership brands like BMW and Vanguard, we actively use all the new possibilities that technology brings to get closer to consumers, enhance brand experiences and create entirely new business opportunities.

For instance, in launching BMW’s first all-electric car, (besides creating awareness with influencers via documentaries, PR and social media), we were able to leverage tech and mobile to offer genuine utility that allowed consumers to actually “try on” the product. We created the BMW EVolve app so that consumers could physically monitor their daily commute and evaluate whether they would be good candidates for an all-electric car. This app went a long way in tangibly addressing the biggest fear electric car prospects have – range anxiety. It helped them see for themselves that they would not run out of charge mid-travel during their daily routine. Every car available was leased this spring, and they are now on the road. That’s progress on several fronts. And it’s a good example of how we approach each opportunity with the mindset of a startup. We must be bold and innovative, but we must also own the results.

To keep us honest, we need to own our clients’ outcomes, so we invented something called the kbs+ Client Stock Index. It’s a fund comprised of all of our clients’ stock, which all kbs+ employees share. It aligns employee rewards with client financial performance so that all employees start their day looking at our clients’ stock price and spend the rest of their day thinking about how to create ideas that are powerful enough to not only drive market share for our clients, but also how to drive shareholder value for all of us.

As Chairman and CEO of kbs+, explain how you’ve helped the company grow and how your prior experience as President of McCann NY has played into the success of kbs+.

One thing that I have learned is that just driving growth from the top isn’t very effective anymore. To grow the business at kbs+, I encouraged (and encourage) everyone at all levels of the company to adopt a growth mentality and essentially be a creative entrepreneur.

My first month on the job, I hosted an open call for anyone to come and pitch a big idea that would grow the agency. The kbs+ Client Stock Index actually came out of that competition — that set the tone. Since then, we continually encourage our employees to pitch us their business growth ideas, and when they are great, we incubate them.

Some examples of the growth engines that our kbs+ creative entrepreneurs have launched include the following:

  • kbs+ Ventures, our in-house investment arm that invests in early and mid-stage ad tech companies, launched by Darren Herman;
  • kbs+ Spies & Assassins, our creative technology shop that develops innovative hardware and software products completely in-house, launched by Ed Brojerdi and Matt Powell;
  • kbs+ Content Labs, our practice that creates engaging, high-frequency, editorially-focused content, launched by Jonah Bloom and Tom Buontempo;
  • kbs+ Action Sports, which is infiltrating the world of skateboarding, surfing and the like in a very authentic way, launched by Marco Cignini.

This approach to growth has opened up more ways to create powerful business-building ideas for our current clients and created more doors for new clients to enter. It also has a great side-benefit of helping to attract and retain great entrepreneurial talent.

kbs+ has partners, such as The Media Kitchen and Ramona, for several of your services. How does this relationship work and how does partnering with other firms help achieve your overall business goals and strategies?

Agenda-free collaboration is one of our key advantages. We understand that we’re all in it together. After all, it’s hard to think of a modern idea that doesn’t incorporate many influences like social, content, PR, technology and multicultural, just to name a few.

To make it happen, we all operate under the same P&L in a wall-free environment so there are no barriers – physical or otherwise – to getting together and doing the right thing for our clients. You can’t expect the same team of people to be the best at everything. It’s really important to be able to put the right people and capabilities together to create bespoke ideas based on the business opportunity at hand. It’s the same whether the partners are our own (like The Media Kitchen and Ramona) or from other companies. For instance, three employees from Matlock, BMW’s African American creative agency, just moved into our offices to maximize collaboration across all BMW customer messages. It’s why we have a “+” at the end of our name…it signifies that partners are welcome.

kbs+ created the iPad wall and used it for Puma as an innovative retail solution in Europe and Asia. What was the creative process for this initiative? How has it resonated with customers in Europe and Asia? What cultural considerations did you have to keep in mind when this project launched?

The creative process behind the iPad wall is a testament to our creative entrepreneur philosophy. One of our technology product architects used his iPad at a concert to request a song — sort of like a mini-billboard. The lead-singer saw it and said: “Hey, you with the cool digital billboard: this one’s for you!” That same week, our client PUMA came to us with a challenge: Bring an interactive layer into the PUMA retail experience. These two experiences collided and the iPad wall was born. It now appears in their flagship stores in Paris, Beijing, London, Santiago and New Delhi.

One of the great things about the iPad wall is that people all over the world, regardless of language, know how to interact with it. So people in each of these international cities approach and engage with the walls almost naturally or intuitively. Our product development teams have made it easy for each store to set each device to the appropriate language and the games and art installations are really culture-agnostic, which is why they’ve been such a success for PUMA.

We’ve been having a lot of fun making things – physical products like the iPad wall – so we’re excited to see it debut in the Soho store this fall so that everyone in the agency who contributed to making the unique hardware and software can now get to experience it just down the street.

In your opinion, how does technology play a role in engagement? How does your agency stay at the cutting edge and make sure to incorporate new digital and mobile strategies into campaigns?

The examples just mentioned, such as the PUMA iPad wall and the BMW EVolve App prove the importance of tech in driving the creative process. That’s why technology is at the center of our agency, both figuratively and literally. In 2010, we partnered with Popular Science magazine to create the kbs+ Test Kitchen, which is a dedicated room at the center of the agency decked out with the latest tech products before they’re even available to the public. This room is dedicated to hands-on experimentation with the devices that will define the next ways that brands will connect with consumers. It’s curated and constantly refreshed by Popular Science so that it continues to serve as our telescope into the future.

This is also a big reason why we created kbs+ Ventures— to tangibly invest in the future of the next generation ad tech companies that will impact how we do business down the road and give our clients a first mover advantage. To date, we’ve already invested in eight companies and several of them are currently doing pilots with our clients.

kbs+ is working to re-brand diesel fuel. What was the thought process behind this, and what challenges do you expect to face as the campaign launches?

The German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) opportunity came to us through our BMW relationship. Our efforts are focused less on diesel fuel per se and more on the advantages of light diesel vehicles overall. Clean diesel vehicles are far less common here than they are in the rest of the world, representing less than three percent of total US sales volume last year, despite offering significant advantages both in terms of fuel efficiency and ecology.

In a recent article on Media Bistro, you mention that it’s getting harder to recognize the difference in consumers’ behavior between online and offline due to mobile devices. How is kbs+ making sure that your clients understand how their consumers are interacting with them in every space?

It’s not that it’s harder to recognize online versus offline behavior. It’s that consumers expect a continuous brand experience. So you have to ensure that your online, mobile and brick-and-mortar experiences, among others, all work seamlessly together. Yes, there will be multiple sales and marketing platforms, but one seamless experience for the consumer is always the goal.

Based on your experience to date, what advice would you give to young female leaders, marketing-connoisseurs and the like?

When it comes to career advancement and compensation, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and need. My experience is that women often think that if they put their heads down and work really hard they will be rewarded fairly. But that’s not always enough. You have to speak up and stand up for your interests. Even if it goes against your nature, sometimes you have to be the squeaky wheel.

What new trends in the advertising industry are you most excited about?

I’m interested to see how brands can employ need-based and location-based mobile commerce apps moving forward. It’s one way to deliver the elusive “last mile.” I’m also interested in what more can be done with gesture-based interfaces to create more intuitive interactions and experiences – an opportunity to use technology in a way that feels like it’s actually been removed.

A few weeks ago, you tweeted “Change what works and change everything else.” Can you explain what you meant by that?

It just speaks to the need to continually reevaluate not just that which isn’t working, but also that which is. If you need to create change as a reaction, it’s probably too late.

Favorite Ad: I love the Nike ad from 1995 called “If You Let Me Play.”  It’s a great example of how a great ad has the power to instigate meaningful cultural change.

Mentor: Two mentors stand out: Tony Miller and MDC Partner’s Miles Nadal. Both encouraged me to take big leaps. First, Tony encouraged me to make the leap from Toronto to New York, and then Miles encouraged me to leave the big agency life and take the entrepreneurial plunge at kbs+. I’m grateful to both for their incredible belief, generosity and support.

Most inspirational book or artwork: I love Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” It’s so honest and full of perspective. And I love Richard Diebenkorn’s art. It makes me feel closer to the ocean.

Music that gets you in your zone: I’m a long-time Wilco fan. They are particularly amazing live. I’ve been to a bunch of their shows in great cities like Montreal and Paris, and I’m looking forward to seeing them in Brooklyn this month.

One reason you love what you do:  I am inspired by the new kinds of ideas that expand our canvas and move our industry forward everyday.

Connect with Lori on Twitter @digitalori or on LinkedIn

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user alangrlane.

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Natalie Stezovsky is the Vice President for Digital Talent Agents, a company that helps experts build their businesses through thought leadership and content marketing. She's directly involved in developing agency partnerships and when she's not doing that, she's competing with her horses at an international level. Connect with her on Twitter @nstezovsky or LinkedIn.

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