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Two-Way Street: Kerry Guard's Story Part 2

Kerry Guard • March 26, 2022 • 11 minutes to read

Told from the perspective of our co-founder and CEO, Kerry Guard.

This first chapter is a three part blog series, or your welcome to download the whole chapter and read it as a PDF.

The island

After about six weeks in working for Bacardi, I decided that given my experience on Verizon, I loved media planning, but planning for billboards only was too narrow of a focus and I needed to branch out.

So, I picked up the phone to call the one person I knew could provide me with a clear starting place in finding my next job:

"Hi Uncle Sean."

Uncle Sean informed me that Publicis Modem had won the behemoth account for the General Mills brand. Publicis Modem was to run all of General Mills’ digital creative, media planning, buying, and trafficking. While taking the bus home from Universal McCann, I had an HR screening. The HR person immediately scheduled me for an interview the next day with three people at Publicis Modem. The day after the interview, the agency offered me a job: it was a demotion to assistant as I didn't have digital experience, but at a 20% raise. SOLD!

That's when the recruiter told me I was the easiest negotiation ever.

Noted, as I would make sure that never happened again.

General Mills had 50 brands. Publicis hired five people to work the account. That’s right. Five. A director, supervisor, two seniors, and myself. Goodbye frying pan. Hello fire.

The first few months were basically triage: who needed me where and how could I help. I called publishers for plans and rates, sat next to directors as they put massive presentations together and talked them out loud, ran for coffee, negotiated rates, trafficked media, and pulled data for any and all brands: Green Giant, Honey Nut Cheerios, Betty Crocker, Yoplait. While I gained a TON of experience very quickly I felt like a chicken with its head cut off. Every day felt brand new and there was zero structure or process to any of it.

They finally hired a VP of Media, Sacha Xavier. In doing so, they created structure, broke us into teams, and created clear ownership and lanes. A blessing and a curse.

They gave me Yoplait. You read that right. They didn’t put me on the Yoplait team. I was the Yoplait team. A 10 million dollar account that I owned completely. They backfilled for the senior and supervisor roles on most teams, except mine. I was an assistant reporting directly to the vice president of media. I planned, negotiated, purchased, and trafficked all $10MM of the budget. They even flew me out to Minneapolis to present to the clients on a few occasions.

My saving grace through all this was the marketing director on the Yoplait account, Marie Demato. At first, I had to earn her trust which was super hard and stressful. I never felt more alone than when I was in a room with this brilliant, charismatic woman. Remember, I had a traditional media background. At Universal McCann I planned TV, print, and billboards. I had three months of digital media experience, all of which I learned on the fly.

While our VP Sacha was out of town at General Mills presenting to the Pillsbury team, the Yoplait client came to visit us in New York. Marie was leading the meeting and she asked me to join as the representative of the media team. (Remember: I had three months of digital experience.) The clients had a lot of questions about how digital worked. Back then, the field was still really new and exploding in terms of how much money companies were spending and the technology that was becoming available. I was constantly put on the spot to answer their questions. Luckily, I was able to pick up some of Sacha’s metaphors and examples to use. Fake it ‘til you make it had become my mantra in those early months at Publicis Modem. It was certainly true at this moment. When that meeting was over, I rushed out of there, straight to hide in the bathroom.

When Sacha got back from out of town, she told me that Marie thought I did a great job and thanked me for stepping in. I did not see that coming.

But after that, Marie had my back. She thanked me constantly and even gave me a Starbucks gift card now and then. That was my coffee for a whole week, which meant I could treat myself to a nice dinner instead of the cereal I was living on.

One thing Marie did that I never had at any other agency was kickoff meetings. She called in the ENTIRE team across all service lines to rally around a campaign. She set the parameters of what the client was looking for: geography, budget, audience. Then she’d open the floor for brainstorming. We’d riff for a bit, hearing from strategy, creative, and me (media). Then we’d exit to our corners and pull together more information. This was my favorite part of the job, the one time I wouldn’t feel like an island and part of something bigger. Marie was a great leader who knew her people and knew how to activate them to get great results. I always felt like I had a voice in the room even though I was the youngest and least experienced.

We were working late one night, me, Marie, and the creative team, planning the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign. Yoplait would have people send their pink lids from the top of the Yoplait containers to help raise money for breast cancer research. This was a big deal, since it would only run for one month. A short four weeks to spend a lot of money.

The creative team came up with this idea to basically offer up our media budget in donations. Instead of spending the money on advertising, we’d donate it. The whole idea was that people on Facebook would do the advertising for us in a grassroots movement. The more people shared our campaign, the more money we’d donate.

I loved the idea, but as someone who didn’t participate heavily on social media other than to give a status update here and there, I felt like we were leaving out a huge audience. Because of Marie’s confidence in me, in always having my back, and giving me space to voice my opinions, I felt comfortable sharing this point of view. I felt even more comfortable suggesting that we take a little bit of the budget to activate a small audience that would lead to a grassroots movement. Just because we build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. So let’s use our media budget like a megaphone to market to a very small, active audience and then let them take it from there.

And in that moment, my small voice shaped the heart of the strategy.

Remember how I said the new structure was a blessing and a curse? The blessing was that in owning Yoplait I learned a ton and had a huge responsibility at a very young age that allowed me to leap forward, as you’ll see in the sections ahead. But it was a curse because I had zero mentorship or support on the media side. I learned by the sink-or-swim method, which was exhausting and a drain on my mental health.

As the VP of media, Sacha was brought on to lead the Pillsbury and Yoplait accounts, twoof the biggest General Mills brands. I actually think Pillsbury was the biggest out of all 50 General Mills accounts we worked with. She was an amazing, strong kick-ass Black woman. I loved working with her, which was mostly in our mini status meetings each morning and on some of the big strategy presentations. I was in awe of how she commanded a room. But these accounts were big and she wasn’t given enough staff. She had me on Yoplait and a supervisor and senior planner on Pillsbury. The three of us were supposed to be across both accounts. She was traveling back and forth between New York and Minneapolis and navigating partner relations with the traditional media buyers as well. Her plate was overflowing.

Unfortunately, in the midst of her overflowing plate was my Facebook page. Coworkers who I added on Facebook could see my updates like, “It’s almost Friday,” “A light at the end of the tunnel,” and “Just keep swimming.” In their concern and thoughtful initiative, they approached Sacha. I don’t know exactly what they said, but it was enough for her to pull me into her office where she told me to “get it together.”

I took a few things I took away from this. One, don’t add colleagues to personal social media channels. Two, I was there to make Sacha’s life easier, not harder, and all that noise from other people was one more thing she didn’t need. Three, this experience impacted how I have built and led MKG Marketing so no one ever feels like Sacha or I did. In our core value of People First, I clearly state and continue to shout from the mountain tops that no person is an island. This conversation between me and Sacha was a symptom of the company structure that isolated us both.

The love

New York was a tough life to live. I shared an apartment next to the East River on the top floor–6 stories with no elevator. I have some super fun stories about laundry days or forgetting things by the time I got downstairs or carrying an air conditioner solo up all five flights, one landing at a time.

The point is, living in New York was no picnic. I turned into a zombie to go through the daily motions: my 15 minute walk to squeeze onto the rush hour subway train, transfer trains, buy my caramel macchiato, weave through the sea of people in Chelsea Market Place, then up the iron spiral staircase to the office. Then to do that same trip home each night, in the dark, as a woman. I had to zone out to survive. Zombie.

While at brunch one morning with my two best girlfriends we decided we needed a vacation. We hadn’t had one in over two years and now that we were making money we deserved it. Overdue. I jokingly said Hawaii. Jokingly because it’s fucking far. But sure enough, 48 hours later Vanessa and Christina had a travel agent on the phone and were locking in a date–May 9, 2009. So, I hopped online and booked right behind them.

On the third day, we were on the beach of Waikiki swimming in the clear blue ocean minding our own business, when we noticed four boys playing frisbee. Again, jokingly (my friends can’t take a joke) I said, “I’m open!” pretending to catch the frisbee. But sure enough, Vanessa whirls around and yells, “MY FRIEND WANTS TO PLAY FRISBEE WITH YOU!” then I dunked her.

But I should be thanking her because I’m now married to one of those boys, living in Europe, with our twins.

Why am I telling you this “footnote” of a story in the middle of why I think remote leadership is the future? Because for those of you who would be wondering why I would ever leave New York, now you know.

The life

I moved to Seattle in September of 2009 to live with my British boyfriend who was working for Microsoft on a green card. I freelanced for the New York agency for about two months before I quit. They kept booking meetings at 6 AM. I am not a morning person. Never have been. Never will be. My brain gets in gear around 10 AM. So, I quit without a backup plan.

It was the break I needed. Like a detox. A New York detox.

In January I started looking for a job in Seattle and within a week of serious searching, without Uncle Sean’s help, I landed a senior planning position at MEC Global on the account.

This new agency was important. This was the first time a company treated me as a valuable person. Not employee.... person. They offered me $5k more than I asked for and a promotion. It came with benefits including a fully paid bus pass, which cost $99/mo. For 24-year-old me, that $99 went a long way. The office was new with white furniture and an open floor plan. Four cubes down was my boss. Not in an office, but sitting beside me. The whole team sat together. Assistants all the way to directors.

I left at 5PM almost everyday… along with everyone else! This agency had service level Agreements. This set boundaries with the client in terms of turnaround times. If we’re asked to do a small task like updating a tag, we’d do that in 24 hours. Reporting was due two weeks after the month ended. So on and so forth. I thought I landed on a different planet. In New York, everything was due yesterday.

One time I called out sick. A nasty head cold. I decided to work from home and my director pinged me and told me to stop. That never happened in New York. If you were sick but could still work, you absolutely did.

Finally, real balance. A company treating me as a whole person. Did I mention they threw me a surprise wedding shower with champagne?

MEC also had the ability to lean into individuals and their individual superpowers.

The reporting at this agency was grueling. We had so much data to comb through every month and back then all we had were spreadsheets. So using fancy-schmancy (to me) Excel functions like SUMIFs and VLOOKUPS, I created an automated dashboard. I set it up once, then each following month, dropped in the raw data and the numbers would update across each sheet. It saved HOURS of my time.

Because of this, my supervisor asked me to look into our finances. We had to bill hourly. He gave me our rates and access to our hours system. I created a process for people to document their hours then downloaded the data. Each sheet fed a dashboard so we could bill by brand.

Was I a finance person? No. But my team saw a problem and took my solution from one place and applied it to another, allowing us to recover over $250,000 a year.

Continue to Part 3 and see how Kerry went from MEC to MKG.

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