March 27, 2019

Lead(H)er: Kate Smith, Head of Marketing at Openbay

A group of people in suits sit around a conference room table, watching as someone at the front of the room walks them through a concept for a new ad. The presenter points to sections of a storyboard, explaining how this ad might look on television and flipping between posters, before the group offers feedback.

Is this an episode of Mad Men? Or is it a day in Kate Smith’s early career? Trick question -- it’s both.

“I still have sketches from storyboards up in my office from the days when television commercials were actually sketched out by an artist,” Smith said. “That’s why I loved watching Mad Men -- I lived the final days of that.”

Smith, now the Head of Marketing at automotive-repair marketplace Openbay, found herself in the midst of incredible opportunities at pivotal points in the evolution of marketing throughout her career. But she doesn’t miss the old days very much. She’s embraced each change in marketing as it’s been introduced and chased new developments in the field during her career.

Smith began her career with large companies like Nestle and Johnson & Johnson, where she focused on packaged goods marketing. She often found that she was one of the latest in a line of brand managers for a product that had spent years in development and eventually craved a faster-moving facet of marketing. Smith then transitioned to footwear and apparel, working with brands like Rockport and Timberland, where the fashion cycle allowed her to go to market with a new combination of products and services every six months.

When the need for speed and newness struck again, Smith became the Director of Integrated Marketing at Zipcar. There, she helped bring the company’s marketing strategy up-to-date by creating a strong, tech-focused foundation. Zipcar gave Smith an appreciation for the mobility space, and that, combined with the unique opportunities offered at Openbay, led to her latest role.

The company connects car owners with mechanics who compete for their business instantly, disrupting an industry that had yet to advance fully into the mobile and digital age and requiring a focus on both the customer and provider all in one space.

“You need both brand awareness and customer demand for the whole model to thrive, so as a marketer, it really is a huge, once-in-a-career opportunity,” Smith said. “You have a chance not only to take a brand and set its strategy and plans for growth, but you get to do it on two sides of the marketplace.”

At Openbay, Smith focuses on building a core performance marketing engine, and digital and mobile efforts will be central to that goal. These data-heavy strategies will also provide Smith and her team with an unprecedented amount of information that can help them create a personalized experience for each user. Different vehicle owners have different preferences when it comes to their cars, and Smith believes that Openbay’s success will lie in pinpointing and addressing those preferences for each user using the technologies available today.

“The kinds of marketing that I did even in 2008 when I worked at a fashion brand, have changed,” Smith said. “You didn’t have the same kind of social community that lived digitally, or the same opportunities to personalize.”

As she has throughout her career, Smith is keeping her eyes open to spot the next marketing and tech developments that will impact how she goes about creating brand awareness and demand. Lately, she’s been paying attention to the ways that voice assistants, like Alexa and Google, are changing the ways in which people search for information and communicate with their devices.

“When you think about the future, that’s really today,” Smith said. “It’s been exciting to embrace every new capability that comes into marketing, and now it’s faster and more exciting than ever. Imagine a day when all you have to do is say, ‘Alexa, schedule my oil change,’ and she goes, ‘Okay, contacting Openbay!’”

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

I am a dedicated hockey mom. I have two 10-year-old boys who are on a hockey team, so my free time is spent all around New England cheering them on. It’s a commitment, but like most commitments, it’s got really rich rewards. It’s great for family time, and it’s a good reminder every week of good life lessons, like the power of teamwork and results that come from hard work. It sounds funny, but it’s my weekend touchstone to how I can think of life overall, work, and my career. It always reminds me of how valuable it is to have a strong foundation in a tech and startup world. Some days are really hard, and some are really exciting, but I see how my kids have a goal and put a little more elbow into it and am astounded by what they can achieve, and it’s the same thing at work. I didn’t expect it to be that much of an analogy, but it really is.

How do you manage feeling stressed?

It took me a long while to learn to do this, but I have really found that I have to carve out a little time for myself, otherwise I wear out a lot faster. In startup life, there’s always one more thing that can be done, one more idea to think about, but managing your stress makes you smarter at the work that you’re doing. So I have to carve out a little time for my mind, and a little bit of time for moving and exercise.

For my mind, I read. I’ve been a big reader since I was a little kid, so it’s like breathing. I always have to have a book, and I read just about anything. Most recently, I read 1984. I kind of felt like this was the time and the place to give it a read, and it was fascinating.

For moving, at Zipcar, someone signed the whole department up for an indoor cycling class. I put myself in a dark, back corner, but then I loved it. I’ve been indoor cycling for years now because of that one, cool team outing.

What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?

I commute to Cambridge on public transportation, and I take the ferry from Hingham and then hop on the T. I really love Boston Harbor -- it’s this pocket of nature in the middle of the city. There are birds and fish, and it’s different every day. It’s a totally different world, and what I love about it is that anybody can take a trip on an MBTA ferry. It’s the city’s most affordable harbor cruise. It’s a chance to be on the water every day, and it’s so unique to Boston. It’s just this hidden jewel in the city.

What’s one of your greatest accomplishments so far?

I have been privileged to really play a pivotal marketing role of pivotal times with amazing companies, but I have to say Openbay really gives me the chance to bring it all together. I believe deeply that this is a once-in-a-career opportunity to build a marketing model and disrupt an industry. So I know it sounds like a stock response, but I really think my biggest accomplishment is what I’m able to do at Openbay and the fact that with my team, I’m creating a marketing model that will accelerate growth and help the brand and the business scale. Karl Lagerfeld had a similar philosophy to me in some ways -- someone asked him what he thought of his career, looking back, and he said he didn’t look back, he looked forward. I think the same is true for startups and for me in my career, so I think the biggest accomplishment is the one that this incredibly smart, talented group of people and I at Openbay are about to implement. 

The other thing I’m proud of is the success of the people I've had a chance to mentor. It's really an honor to coach and guide talent. That isn't limited to people at the very early stage of their career. People are really thinking about how they build their careers, and so for me, it's been very rewarding to share my expertise. In the very traditional working world, it was common to learn from the person who was ahead of you as they moved up to the next level. You would take their role, so they were cross-training you for that role. In the years of working, the economy changed, and how business works changed, and one of the things that unfortunately I don't think carried through was more experienced generations teaching others what they know. It doesn't come automatically anymore, so I always make sure that I make myself available to coach and mentor people because it was a gift to me during my career.

Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

No, but in a really good way. I read something recently that said CMOs believe marketing has changed more in the last five years than the 35 years that preceded it. Thinking about 10 years ago, Facebook was four years old and Instagram didn't exist. I could never have imagined all of the marketing tools and resources that exist today to help create awareness for brands, acquire customers, build loyalty, and engage and retain them in a way that is database-driven and allows for a super personalized experience for that customer. Ten years ago, we had to do marketing plans with a really broad paint brush. We wouldn't have been able to do what we’re doing at Openbay in the same way. We wouldn't have the customer data, be able to understand personalized behavior or communicate with them instantly in the method that’s most relevant to them.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

Any opportunity is the chance for them to make an impact on a business and a chance to learn.  Karen Kaplan, the CEO of Hill Holiday here in Boston, is amazing. I was at an event a couple of years ago, and she talked about how she started in a very different day and age as a receptionist, where she approached her career by deciding to make herself essentially the CEO of receptionists. She would add value, learn from her role, and use that learning to unlock her next opportunity. So she really took that role and mastered it and then continued onto this incredibly successful career. I follow that advice all the time, and so I’d say the same to somebody coming out of college. Have an idea, broadly,  about what might interest you, but take any opportunity that’s given and add value to the company to unlock your next great move. I think in this day and age, everybody closes their eyes and has a short list of the places they want to work, and anything short of that doesn’t feel like a success. I would encourage people to look at it through a different lens. If you want to be in the startup world, you have a huge opportunity to make a difference, so think about what you can give and what you can get that might not be on your immediate roadmap. 

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.

Images courtesy of Kate Smith and Openbay