‘I thought I might retire, but fell in love with IBM’: Q&A with Nancy Kramer

In 1981, Nancy Kramer started the award-winning marketing agency Resource/Ammirati and for the last 35 years has played a key role in transforming the advertising industry. When she sold her company to IBM in 2016, it became part of iX – a design and consulting division that works with clients as a digital agency through 38 global studios and employs 15,000 people. Kramer spoke with Globe Content Studio at The Gathering conference in Banff, Alta. The following is an abridged excerpt of their conversation.

Q: Your career includes a number of highlights, and you’ve been recognized by Advertising Age as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising in history. How did you get your start?

Illustration by Maia Grecco

A: I’m a first-generation college graduate, and put myself through Ohio State University working at Kroger as a cashier. When I graduated, I worked in media sales and met two distributors for Apple Computers. I had been reading about Apple because I thought this idea of a personal computer was magical. The idea that we were going to have access to all this information was like having a library at my fingertips.

One thing led to another, and we ended up starting a business distributing Apple products. The company gave us seed funding to start the business and we were off to the races. Eventually, Apple did away with this distribution model, so I bought those two men out of the business.

But by that time, I had a firm footing inside Apple and started working with other tech companies. I became an entrepreneur when the word wasn’t even in the vernacular.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to start a business?

A: No. This was something I stumbled into and I knew that if it didn’t work out, I could go back into sales. So, here I am 35 years later having sold my business to IBM.

Q: Would you say technology has always been an interest or was your foray into tech a result of some fortunate coincidences?

A: It’s a little bit of both. As a young kid growing up in the Midwest U.S., I think that you’re either curious about the world beyond or you’re more parochial. I was definitely interested in the world outside, so studied a lot of cultures, communities, and geographies. The idea of a computer, and the way it had the ability to connect these things fascinated me. But we didn’t necessarily call it technology at the time.

I also always knew I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom, like my own mother. Every day, I’d walk in from school and she’d be sitting at the kitchen table drinking a Coke, smoking a cigarette, talking to her mom on the phone. I’d say ‘What did you do all day?’ I’m sure she wanted to slap me, but I just thought her life seemed so boring.

“I’ve always been an explorer, and technology is – in many ways – about exploration.”

Q: How did it feel being a woman in tech at that time?

A: There weren’t many of us at the time. Frankly, I felt as though I was always proving myself because the minute somebody looks at you, he makes a judgment call.

I wrestled with my own demons: When I was a kid, my mom used to call me her ‘dumb blonde’ and that’s something that’s stuck in my head. So often people say things and they’re just teasing, or they say it casually, not intending for it to have an impact on your psyche. But that stayed with me. Thankfully, we’re moving beyond this and now women in technology is much more common.

Chief evangelist for IBM iX, Nancy Kramer, discusses ‘The Future of Brand Experiences, Fueled by AI and Brand Belonging’ at The Gathering summit in Banff, Alberta (Photo courtesy of The Gathering)

Q: Tell me what it was like to work in tech in the 90s, just as the internet was gaining serious traction.

A: For about the first 15 to 20 years, all of my clients were tech companies. When the internet commercialized in the mid-1990s, we started working with companies that weren’t tech companies like Victoria’s Secret, Procter and Gamble, and L.L. Bean, to name a few. These companies needed help in understanding the potential of the internet.

Then the dot-com bubble burst in 2000 and our business plummeted 70 per cent in 90 days. During that time, I was also going through a divorce and had three children who depended on me. It was a perfect storm.

Our company regrouped and merged with another company, but I realized our values and ethos weren’t aligned, so I negotiated an option to buy out part of what I had put into this merged entity. From that point on, I worked to build the largest independent digital marketing agency in the country, and certainly, the largest female-owned.

In 2016, I was trying to figure out the next chapter of my company Resource/Ammirati. I had already decided I wasn’t going to sell it or turn it over to one of my children. I felt as though things were happening so fast that strategically for our clients and our associates, I needed to make a decision. I looked at the landscape and, perhaps not surprising, ended up being acquired by IBM.

I wasn’t really sure what I personally was going to do at the company. I thought I might retire but I ended up falling in love with IBM.

Q: What attracted you to IBM?

A: I was inspired by the way the company has transformed 70 per cent of its business to services, and the way they’ve created iX, a digital agency inside IBM. I said to Paul Papas, global leader of digital strategy and iX at IBM, that I might want to stay around if I could and he asked me to write a job description and a title. After I did that, he didn’t change a word. I often tell people that IBM is very entrepreneurial. You just have to be willing to jump in and make it happen. So now here I am spreading the gospel as the chief evangelist for IBM iX.

Q: Tell me about the connection between design, creative work, and artificial intelligence, specifically IBM Watson.

 

A: AI gives us the opportunity, as marketers, to deliver these highly personalized experiences in the ways that we always dreamed we could. Increasingly we can deliver a much more personalized experience to anyone, but that’s fuelled by machine learning and all the design of a system that is creating that experience for you.

Two-thirds of CEOs say that their competitive advantage is going to come from innovation with customer experience. But what does that look like? I have an example that I like to share with people. I was in San Francisco about six months ago and I was using Lyft. The driver I had wasn’t very friendly, and his car was dirty, so I gave him a rating of three.

IBM’s Watson technology was used to help select brands honoured at The Gathering  (Photo courtesy of The Gathering)

Within seconds, I had a note from Lyft in my inbox that said: ‘Ms. Kramer, we’re really sorry that your most recent Lyft experience didn’t meet your expectation or ours. And we’ve already credited your account w

 

ith ten dollars.’ I didn’t ask for it. That is an incredibly powerful experience. The Heath brothers talk about the power of moments. That was a moment for me that was fuelled by machine learning and AI that made me incredibly loyal.

 

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of operating in the industry you’re in?

A: Technology can be intimidating. Eighteen months ago, I was asked to give a talk at Cannes on AI-infused customer experiences, and I was like ‘I don’t even know what that means!’ The fact that I could string those four words together was like a new party trick for me. But sometimes it’s our own minds that are our biggest barrier. Technology isn’t scary – it’s a cycle, and there’s no need to be intimidated by it.

Q: You seem like a person who likes to keep busy. What do you do in your down time?

A: I journal and meditate every morning before I get out of bed, and do yoga twice a week. I also either bike or run two or three times a week and Pilates once a week, so I stay active, even in my down time!

Katherine Scarrow is the deputy head of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.