Read the whole Digital Mad Men/Women series.
When ad giant Omnicom decided to invest in interactive startups back in 1996, it turned to Felice Kincannon. An elegant former agency chief who could have been the older sister of the young startup founders, she was charged by Omnicom CEO John Wren to cull a list of 25 prospective shops down to six, in which the holding company would buy significant minority stakes. From her Boston base, where she once managed ad shop Hill Holliday, the "broad from Omnicom" hopped around the country to size up - and woo - digital marketing's emerging leaders.
She was infinitely patient, except with those "stupid" traditionalists who warned her she was wasting her promising career. After the deals were finalized Wren promoted Kincannon to managing director. Her job was to bring work from existing Omnicom agency clients to the startup partners - an exercise in intricate diplomacy. Her stable of digital talent was impressive: Agency.com, Interactive Solutions, Razorfish, Red Sky, Think New Ideas and Organic. A few years of that was enough; in 1999 she left to start a marketing consultancy with a Harvard professor friend. These days Kincannon is still press shy as she chases the cutting edge, quietly advising major brands on how to thrive by being sustainable and socially responsible.
ClickZ: What was it like visiting all those fledgling Web agencies?
Felice Kincannon: I was the afternoon entertainment at their offices. Their attitude seemed to be, "Here's that broad from New York, what does she know?" But for me, it was a blast. I'd get the meetings because these firms wanted access to holding company clients. Once I was there I could win them over because I understood how important the technology was and I really respected what they could do.
Keep in mind I was well into my 40s, about 10-15 years older than these agency guys. I was dressed in stylish, conservative pants and jacket, not jeans and a T-shirt or all leather. I represented a different culture, at first. In all, I visited 13 firms.
CZ: Once the six Web shops were brought into the holding company fold, how did you introduce them to the main Omnicom agencies?
Kincannon: My job was to go to the standing agencies and explain how they could use these interactive shops. Often I’d ask the [traditional] agency to show me some online work they'd done. And it would take forever to load - we called it the World Wide Wait. I’d show them similar online work from one of the interactive shops and it would load really fast. The agency staff would ask, "How did they do that?" And I'd tell them, "It's because they understand the technology. And they'll share that with you."
I was incredibly enthusiastic about the Internet, but it helped that I had spent 15 years in the traditional ad business.
CZ: With your ad industry roots, did your colleagues ever question your career path?
Kincannon: Some friends told me that I was wasting my time with Internet marketing. And I'd think that if people were going to be that stupidly negative, I couldn't convince them otherwise. But I knew I was right and they were wrong. In the end we saw that I was right.
In that vein, you've got to give credit to Omnicom's senior folks. The more they understood what the interactive shops could do and got to know the founders, the more weight they gave the category.
CZ: Did you run across other women at the Web agencies you visited?
Kincannon: Generally, I was the only woman in the room. At that time, the lack of [senior-level] women was true of business in general as well as the interactive industry. When I met with standing Omnicom agencies, sometimes another woman would be present. It helps to keep in mind that my role was unique. I wasn't a secretary, an account executive or a developer.
CZ: Who inspired you during that topsy-turvy era?
Kincannon: It's not you'd think. It's my grandfather, who was a phenomenally creative person. He was the art editor at Collier's magazine, he started Glamour magazine, he worked on a radio show and he published comic books. He had the ability to roll with the times. But most importantly, he could understand the essence of any medium and how to leverage that essence. I wanted to cultivate that ability of his as we learned how to grasp the essence of interactive media.
CZ: What do you miss from the 1990s?
Kincannon:I loved the rapid change and the opportunity to look around the corner and see what was coming next. I don't think the marketing world has had that since then.
Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.