Q&A With Karma Agency's CEO Kate Allison and President Caroline Kennedy
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Q&A With Karma Agency's CEO Kate Allison and President Caroline Kennedy

January 8, 2020

CEO Kate Allison and President Caroline Kennedy share the story of how Karma Agency came to be — and what they learned along the way.

  1. When was Karma founded? What motivated you to create the company?

The agency has become what it is today over 20 years. Founded by Kate in 1999 and incorporated as Alta Communications through the acquisition of the Philadelphia office of Golin — a top-10 international PR firm — the agency became known as Karma when Caroline joined as a partner in 2008. We recognized an opportunity to build a brand management offering that would bring clients a broader set of strategies, tools, and tactics.

  1. What previous work experience did you bring to the table?

Kate was managing director of the Philadelphia office of Golin for more than nine years where she led public relations strategies for clients such as McDonald’s, Bank of America, ICI Global, Ashland Chemical, Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection, and Campbell Soup Company. While at Golin, Kate had the privilege of learning from Al Golin, a legendary industry pioneer. Previously, she spent ten years in banking and was the Vice President of Public Affairs for a large Pennsylvania bank during the deregulation period that brought about massive consolidation across the industry and the introduction of truly competitive marketing to the financial services sector. There, Kate oversaw public affairs, external communications, corporate social responsibility and community engagement, and learned crisis communications. Kate also spent time working in the U.S. Capitol as an intern for Congressman Al Gore.

Caroline worked in agencies in both the UK and the US, starting with a concentration of financial sector clients — including a portfolio of work across an Australian multi-national bank, a Dutch trust company, and a global Italian provider of insurance products. Heading back to the US, the opportunity to shift categories presented the occasion to work on content and distribution brands just as digital technology revolutionized media and created new products, channels, and transactions. Companies like Comcast and Cablevision and brands like Bravo, Turner Broadcasting, and the Rainbow Media Networks had different and exciting marketing challenges as their business models were threatened, new products came to market, and their relationships with customers fundamentally changed. Working with two creative partners who had a vision for developing a vertical specialization in content brands, we built a team and a book of business in Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, and LA. The interest in disrupted categories has become a career theme, which Caroline has developed further at Karma. Today, we are keenly interested and engaged in healthcare and higher education, among other sectors contending with category disruption and the demand for innovation.

  1. What surprised you the most about founding your own company?

Kate: The layers and intricacies of responsibilities that become yours to consistently uphold.

Caroline: Just how much open water there is to cross between a big idea and strong execution. Sometimes the wind’s in your sails; at other times, you’re contending with a storm of challenges. Sometimes you end up in a place you didn’t expect. There’s plenty to claim your attention, even as you’re trying to bring the next destination into view. This is a high wire act for entrepreneurial leaders and gives us a firm appreciation for what our clients have at stake in building their businesses. And an even greater appreciation for those who are committed to building and growing the business with us.

  1. What challenges did you face as you grew your company, and how did you overcome them?

We’ve faced a few. Some of them, not uncommon to businesses like ours, were people challenges — building and retaining the right (and right-sized) team and talent, nurturing professional and personal growth, fostering consistent values, aligning expectations honorably, and creating opportunities to do meaningful work. You have to take some risks, make some investments, recognize both potential and limitations, and sometimes make difficult decisions to address these. In a professional services business, you never totally overcome the people challenges. The team and talent — including our roles as leaders — are a perpetual work in progress.

  1. What’s one thing a lot of people don’t know about you?

Kate: That having special needs siblings is an unexpected gift that never stops giving, especially when you have parents who teach you that exceptional comes from difference.

Caroline: That what I learned about performance from playing the piano over 14 years taught me most of what I know about presenting persuasively and empathically.

  1. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned that has made you a better leader?

Kate: When you believe in people, they believe in you.

Caroline: To ask more questions — both fallacies and insights reveal themselves to curiosity. You can always find a way forward if you stay curious.

  1. What do you think makes a strong company culture and why?

Strong cultures grow from compelling ideas, consistently applied values, and artifacts. This is true because we are universally motivated by meaning. In our work life, we recognize such meaning through the ideas we engage in, through the framework that consistent values provide for how things get done, and from the artifacts of success, failure, and experience that we produce. The more we share those ideas, values, and artifacts, the more we develop and reinforce culture.

  1. What’s your favorite thing about working with the brands you partner with?

When we develop a shared understanding within our team and with our client of how to activate a communications insight to create business value — whether that’s a brand positioning move, a reputational strategy, or a consumer journey trigger — that’s highly rewarding. That’s when we see the impact of human-centered, creative, insight-driven communications that often have resonance in organizations beyond the stated project goals. We recognize our purpose as a client partner in these successes and it’s what makes it all worth it.

  1. What are some of the challenges you see brands face during a rebrand or in the process of launching a new marketing campaign?

Brand is not only an intangible concept for most of us (despite the fact that daily living is suffused with brand relationships) but also, effective marketing blends art and science, leaving much room for interpretation and taste. So, the most common challenge we see among the brands we work with is uncertainty and the related struggle of achieving change momentum. Except in rare circumstances, there are many stakeholders in a rebrand and new campaign launches. Those stakeholders need strong rational arguments and data-driven insights to promote consensus; but they also need to perceive authenticity and connect emotionally with both strategy and execution. For CMOs, there’s a difficult pressure to be simultaneously entrepreneurial and persuasively sure of brand investments and outcomes.

  1. What are you most proud of about what Karma has accomplished?

Caroline: I’m most proud of the fact that Karma has flourished because our clients have been realizing growth and deepening their relationships with their most important customers. This is the best evidence that we’re more than creatively generative — we’re creating value.

Kate: For me, it is the number of career doors I have helped opened over the years. Many have thrived at Karma for a long time and others have gone on seizing amazing opportunities and finding new paths to success.

  1. What are you most excited about for Karma in the next year?

Caroline: Our new peer group at LRW Group is going to strengthen our value proposition for clients. And it’s going to create amazing opportunities for the Karma team to develop and diversify.

Kate:  All that is not yet.

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