My story

The word that best describes how my career has unfolded over the last thirty years is serendipity.
KateSmith Header AboutMe

How I got my start

I was born and brought up in Bath in the south of England, the eldest daughter of Irish parents.  Like many children of immigrants,  I was ambitious.  As I grew up,  I wanted to be a jet fighter pilot, then a racehorse vet  then a surgeon but ironically for someone who has usually had ‘planning’ somewhere in her job title, I fell into my career by accident.

I left Durham University in the mid 80s determined  be a journalist.  While waiting for a call-up from The Guardian, I temped at a small ad agency in London.   I’d suggested advertising as a career option to my university careers advisor, but he’d told me that it ‘was horribly competitive and full of rather unsavoury people’.  After the agency won three pieces of new business in six months, my boss took me out for lunch and offered me a permanent job. He said ‘I know it’s not what you really want to do, but you’re good at it’.

Thus my advertising career was launched.

Lessons from Trott

Much of what I know about strategy I learned from Dave Trott.   I worked at  Gold Greenlees Trott in the mid 80s when Trottie and his team of working class renegades was shaking up the ad industry in  London.

Dave signed off every brief. He would read a brief in silence. If he picked up his pencil, you knew you were in trouble. He would circle the problem area, quietly ask one or two questions to which the hapless brief writer would often have no satisfactory answer, and you would be sent on your way to have another go next week.

I often felt physically ill on the mornings I had to take a brief in to Dave.  But through dozens and dozens of painstaking interrogations of briefs, Dave taught me to crystallise a problem  in a way that created fertile ground for an answer.

Moving to New Zealand

After working for a decade in London at various agencies,  I decided it was time to try my luck overseas.

I began talking to Adam Morgan about moving out to LA to join Chiat/Day – the agency most famous for the Apple ‘1984’ commercial, – to replace him as Planning Director.  My sister was upset – LA was so far away from the UK.  Shortly afterwards, she rang to tell me that that she and her husband were moving to NZ and the next day I had a call from a headhunter to say that Saatchi & Saatchi NZ were looking for a Strategic Planning Director.

I made a whirlwind trip around the world, visiting LA and meeting Chiat/Day legends Lee Clow and Bob Kuperman, on to NZ to meet Peter Cullinane and the rest of the S&S NZ team, and then back to London to decide what to do.

On paper, Chiat/Day job was clearly the better job – more money,  more status, famous clients, amazing work.  So when I called Adam to tell him that I was going to follow my gut and go to NZ he was uncomprehending. He said “You’re at the peak of your career, why would you go there? People go to NZ to retire.”

It was one of the best decisions of my life.

The Saatchi years

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Saatchi Wellington was an ideas powerhouse, recognised as one of the most creative agencies in the world.  During ten intense years I was lucky enough to work with and learn from some of the best creative and business minds in NZ;  people like Peter Cullinane,  Kim Thorp,  Howard Grieve and James Hall.

Kim Thorpe of Saatchi and Saatchi with some of the agency's awards Kim Thorpe of Saatchi and Saatchi with some of the agency’s awards – Photograph taken by Phil Reid ca 21 August 1993

I developed strategy for pretty much all the agency’s clients which at that time included many of NZ’s largest and most successful companies and brands.  We developed campaigns for Telecom, Toyota, Lotto that people still remember today.  In 2000 we developed an online brand called ‘stuff’ for INL – now NZ’s largest website.  We launched the Super 12 for the NZRFU and worked on adidas’ global sponsorship of the All Blacks.

They were great times from a professional perspective. But by the early 2000s, the team in Wellington was breaking up and I was paying the price for 15 years as a work hard/party hard MadWoman.

It was time to leave Adland.

Out on my own

After leaving Saatchis I took almost a year off.  I went travelling. I trekked and climbed mountains and went through the painful process of disentangling Kate from Saatchi Kate.

When eventually I had to turn my mind to how I was going to earn a crust, I decided that I wanted to work for myself.   The question was what do I have to offer,  what do I do that is of value, that a client might possibly want to pay for?

I had built my career to that point as a team member.  At Saatchi,   ‘there is no ‘I’ in team (but there are two in ‘idiot’)’ was an agency mantra, so this was not an easy question to answer.  Eventually, and with help from colleagues and friends, especially Kim,  I worked out that am good at crystallising and simplifying problems and working with others to see where solutions might lie.  More than fifteen years later,  that still lies at the heart of every project I do.

Over the years I have worked on hundreds of projects with clients of all types and sizes in all sorts of different industries and markets facing all sorts of different challenges and opportunities – from Unilever in India to a small school in Hawke’s Bay.   I have learned that there is no magic process, no matter how clever or how snappily named, that will get you the solution.  Process is a huge help,  but it is people that do the work and bring strategy to life.  Without being able to bring people together and have conversations that matter,  strategy is just words.

I believe that  building empathy and earning trust is at least as important as strategic and intellectual horsepower.  A client once asked me  ‘are you good at banging heads together?’ My answer was a qualified yes – but only as hard as is really necessary and with minimum impact on the heads and egos involved.

The part of my work that I enjoy most  is the people I meet and the things I learn.  My aim is always to work with people who want to make progress in some way that matters, people I can learn from, who I can enjoy spending time with and with whom I can build trusted relationships (and in some instances, lasting friendships).


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If there’s any issue or project you feel I might be able to help you with, please do get in touch.
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