Kate Whatley





International Academy of Merchandising and Design, Advertising Design

Kate Whatley knew social media was going to revolutionize how the world looks at advertising. Unfortunately, the traditional advertising agency she worked for didn’t really agree. Repeatedly — and unsuccessfully —pitching social campaigns, Kate even resorted to covertly adding social support to multimedia campaigns.

Growing increasingly more tired of watching advertising agencies getting left behind, senior art director Kate decided to do the same and found Social Forces. Built on a passion for social and interactive media, Social Forces — or SoFo as Kate lovingly calls it — is all about helping brands create meaningful connections with their consumers. “I couldn’t stand by and watch the advertising industry get flipped on its head,” says Kate, “I’d just have to go build the future of advertising.”

While the move made sense, it also meant a big career switch from a creative focus to that of account management. Kate admits that things were Ramen-every-night-for-dinner rocky at first, but given time and the right people, things started to fall into place. “It’s been a hard path, [but it’s] my path and … I can’t imagine any other one for myself.”

I have to be strong, even when it feels like the sky is falling.

How did you discover your current job?

I created it. In early 2009, before I co-founded SoFo, I was 26 and working as the senior art director at an advertising agency — directing photo shoots, art directing campaigns, etc. But the world of advertising was changing. Social media was emerging as a valid way for brands to market to consumers. The significance of the potential for brands to have a two-way conversation with consumers could not be ignored.

In my job, I eventually got to a point where I couldn’t stand by and watch the advertising industry get flipped on its head without being a part of it. A couple significant news stories breaking on Twitter before mainstream media, including the Hudson River plan crash and the turmoil in Iran, sealed the deal. I’d just have to go and build the future of advertising. I resigned from my cushy agency job and co-founded Social Forces. It was rocky at first. We started the company at the low point of the great recession. There were no budgets to be found and we had no business or sales experience.

It also was a career switch for me; going from the creative side of the business to the account side. As an account professional, I would no longer be responsible for the aesthetic creative product. Instead, I’d be in charge of new business development, setting campaign strategy and developing/maintaining relationships with clients.

Over time, I discovered I could hire people who were good at doing the parts of my job that I wasn’t great at and didn’t really enjoy. With each addition to the team, I was essentially creating a job for myself that I was more and more suited for. It was along this journey that I discovered what I was truly great at—and honestly, I surprised myself!

What responsibilities do you have in your role?

I’m responsible for establishing and making sure we deliver on the promises we make to our clients and prospective clients. These promises are typically in the form of anticipated results or solutions to their social shopper marketing challenges. All of the campaigns we execute for our clients have clear objectives with results outlined and agreed upon. We hold ourselves accountable for accomplishing more than just checking off a list of completed project deliverables. Everything we do has to actually affect consumer behavior to be considered successful. And we promise a high level of service to our clients in the process of doing so.

Another way of saying this is that I’m responsible for managing new business development and client services. I’ve found that the most effective and rewarding way for me to make sure these responsibilities are met is to focus most of my energy on mentoring and helping grow the careers of the people on my team. As they learn more about our niche industry, and as our clients seek them out directly for advice, they become more capable of making higher-level and more complex decisions. Then I, too, can continually advance my career forward—and the business as a whole.

What is it about your job that makes you feel it’s the right fit for you?

My job requires a lot of guts. I’m the one who has to be okay with taking risks. They’re calculated risks, but still, they’re huge risks that could make or break everything that myself, my partner and the rest of the team have been working on for years. I have to be strong, even when it feels like the sky is falling. My brain is always strategizing how we can move our figurative chess pieces around the board to solve a series of problems and get SoFo to the next level.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

I have some tactical concerns that ail me temporarily: How will signing and accommodating this 34-page contract rider affect the profitability of this account? How will the next media frenzy over consumer data privacy affect the types of data that our clients are concerned about collecting, and will this make it harder for us to accomplish our goals for them?

The more significant challenge is less resolvable. How will I power SoFo forward to the next industry innovation or get us to the next level? And speaking of which, what the heck is the next level we’re trying to reach? It’ll be impossible to get there if I never define where we’re trying to go. And given that the last five years have been a series of redefining ourselves — pivoting, if you will — how do we stay flexible, yet focused enough to climb the next step?

Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

It’s been a huge problem. I’m constantly trying to get better at dealing with it. There are two main “must-dos” I’ve discovered for myself:

1 / I must go on vacation. It’s always difficult getting ready to leave and always difficult catching up when I get back. In my situation, opportunities are inevitably missed and someone is inconvenienced by my absence, but it’s necessary for me to turn off my brain and come back recharged. If I didn’t get to take a break at least once a year, I wouldn’t have made it this far in such an intense role.

2 / I must take time each week to just think. I sit by myself. No phone, no music—nothing. And just sort out my thoughts. It may look unproductive or lazy, but for me, this time has proven to be nothing but the opposite. I make physical fitness a priority. Even when money and time is tight I make the time and spend the necessary money to eat healthy, workout and have the guidance of a physical trainer. It’s vital for me to be both mentally and physically prepared for challenges as they present themselves. I may not need to bench press my bodyweight to win a new contract, but I may have to work three consecutive 14-hour days, then hop on a plane at 6 a.m. and show up a meeting across the country looking flawless, speaking articulate and projecting nothing but confidence—all of which require both physical and mental stamina.

Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?

It’s difficult for me to distinguish the difference between personal career accomplishments and SoFo accomplishments, because both are so intertwined. I’ve had a series of moments when I’ve felt like, “NOW I’m running a real business!” These have been everything from moving into the first SoFo office, to brining the team onto payroll, to taking an “off the grid” vacation knowing my team had things under control. On a more personal career note, I had a feeling similar to that when I was invited to speak on Social Shopper Marketing at the Coke Innovation Center in Atlanta.

What are some of the sacrifices you’ve had to make to get where you are, and were they worth it?

I’ve had to make some enormous sacrifices. I gave up a prestigious, well-paying job at the bottom of the recession. At the lowest point, my diet consisted of ramen noodles for an entire month, well after college, when most of my friends were buying new cars and moving into management positions. I had to sacrifice pride, wardrobe, my diet (at one point, I had to open my vegetarian eating preferences up to include chicken for personal budgetary reasons), my fitness (14-hour workdays often do not allow for yoga classes). The list goes on.

In some ways, it’s impossible for me to distinguish if it was worth it. I subscribe to an economist’s perspective on the sunk costs fallacy, as well as the tendency for humans to place a higher value on something once they’ve invested in it. I can’t in good conscious say, “It was worth it! Quit your job and start a business doing something no one is ready to buy into because the upside will be worth it.” I can tell you it’s a hard path and that it’s my path. And that at this point, I can’t imagine any other one for myself. I’m very proud to be so involved in shaping the future of advertising.

What are some of the rules you live by?

Mind and body are connected. Both need to be healthy to be a strong, influential and powerful person.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?

On a micro-level: An understanding of how consumers behave, how social media marketing works, what is and isn't achievable with the media, pricing, project definition, client mind reading and negotiation skills.

On the macro-level: Thick skin, huge ambitions, empathy, good intuition, guts, endurance capable of relentless pursuits, vision for the future and executional skills for the present.

What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?

You are good enough, smart enough and strong enough. The only thing standing between you and everything you could possibly dream of is very hard work and smart decisions. And you can work that hard. You’re going to have to work harder than you ever imagined you could. You’re going to have to pick yourself up and do things you never thought you could do. Don’t sell yourself short in your career, personal or relationship ambitions. You’ll earn a life full of impressive successes.

PS: You probably have no clue what hard work really is.