From tech to finance to hospitality: One marketer on her role as a ‘change agent’

Story of my CV: Hilton CMO Kellyn Smith Kenny thrives in challenging environments, from the “epic” moment of getting her break at Microsoft to being in the trenches at an embattled Uber.

Digital transformation

Kellyn Smith Kenny doesn’t want to coast. From the six years spent at Microsoft to being vice president of marketing at Uber, a fast-paced and challenging environment has always been important to her.

“If you need someone for the big ideas, for the problem-solving, to be a change agent — that’s me. If you want someone to run something 1% better than the year before that feels to me a misallocation of my resources,” she says.

Starting out as a consultant, Smith Kenny spent her early career honing her skills in technology before realising she wanted to be a marketer: “I loved how intellectually rigorous Accenture was but I felt like I was too far away from the customer.”

She went back to university to do an MBA in marketing and then secured a job at Microsoft when the company was at its peak, just before the launch of Window’s Vista. However, it didn’t go down well with PC users and, alongside the rise of Apple, she was working round the clock to take back market share. “The way the time zones worked I think I only slept about two to three hours a night because there was always a call in the middle of the night.”

[Uber] was incredibly educational and exhilarating, and was one the toughest but most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.

Kellyn Smith Kenny

From tech to finance to hospitality, nearly every role Smith Kenny has taken was a new one for the business. She explains: “There was nobody in [each role previously] – it wasn’t established, I would need to come in and create everything from scratch. Almost by definition I was totally unqualified for all the roles.

READ MORE: Why did we put up with it? Aviva’s Jan Gooding on her early days in advertising

“But every challenge is an opportunity and I like moving into roles where there is a bit of a blank canvas and you can create something great. There are times when being a change agent is like riding a wave because there are lots of change agents beside you, and other times it’s much harder because the current is not moving in your direction and you have to inspire people to see themselves in that future mode.”

She became CMO of Hilton this year – the first role she’s had in a decade that already existed. She says despite the diversity of her career she has learned that the importance of people never changes: “It’s about how you’re motivated by them, how you motivate them, how generous you are with your feedback and your time. At a certain point everyone is smart enough and works hard enough and it is about being the type of leader and teammate that people gravitate to.”

The power of data

Accenture, senior technology consultant  (1999-2003)

“I came straight out of undergrad, where I studied economics and computer science. I wanted to make sure I used the tech side of my degree before I became out-of-date, so for two-and-a-half years I was hands-on-the-keyboard coding and a true developer. The thing I learned at Accenture was the power of data and how much better your decisions will be if you have that.

“I learned about the types of information that can be at our fingertips and buried in tables and hard to access. That’s helped me ask better questions as a marketer and even now allows me to talk shop with product and tech people. I can really contribute to the conversation and understand what’s going on.”

The highs and lows of tech

Microsoft, various roles including marketing director, stores (2005-2011)

Microsoft

“It was this epic moment when I got to tell people that I was taking a role at Microsoft. At the time Windows Vista was the most highly anticipated product launch in the world, no exaggeration. However, it went from that to launching with a giant thud. We had to reflect on a failure to figure out how to be successful.

“We were also working at breakneck speed, as we were losing market share every day because of Apple. Watching the company and the leaders go through that much change, that quickly, with such fierce determination and optimism fundamentally changed who I am.

“I had some incredible leaders at Microsoft. Mika Yamamoto and Brad Brooks were incredible champions of me and my career. They spent time with me and as I explored other opportunities and they were always very generous with their time and honest about where my skill set would align.

“Their advice didn’t just extend to work they also talked about what was happening at home and how they navigated that. They were very human; watching two very successful executives navigate both work and personal life made me think I can do both things and not let everyone down.”

A change of pace

Capital One, various brand roles (2011-2016)

“I loved Microsoft, but life happens, and when there was a health issue on my husband’s side of the family we moved to Washington DC, where he’s from. I began commuting to Seattle every week but after six months I came to this bittersweet conclusion that I knew I wanted to be spending more time with my husband and that I couldn’t mature and grow at Microsoft while I remained in DC. I didn’t want to be on the road all the time.

“I took a few months to think about what I wanted. Peter Horst was CMO at Capital One Bank and we had a phone call and very quickly he said: ‘We need someone like you, when can you come in for interviews?’

“At the beginning my head was spinning as I tried to figure out how to do things quickly in a way that was compliant with the industry regulations. I spent my entire career in tech and I didn’t realise that not everyone thought holistically about tech in terms of marketing. In Capital One, there was a separate digital team and at the time it was jarring to see how regulated financial services was – it slowed stuff down and I noticed we couldn’t move at the speed of tech.”

The steepest learning curve

Uber, vice-president of marketing (2016-2018)

Uber

“I was ready for a new big challenge when Uber got in touch, as I felt like I’d done all I’d set out to achieve at Capital One. We had to move to San Francisco for Uber. I asked my husband, ‘Are we really going to move our whole family across the country for this job?’ and he said to me, ‘Kellyn there’s only two companies in the world you do this for. I don’t know what the second one is but the first is Uber.’ So, we did.

“It was incredibly educational and exhilarating, and was one the toughest but most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had – and definitely the steepest learning curve in my career. When I got there the company wasn’t even seven years old and the marketing team grew from 30 to 500 in my first 18 months.

“A lot of people at Uber didn’t realise they needed brand-building and marketing. So I was thinking: How do I build an organisation? How do I recruit the right people? And how do I help the entire company come up the learning curve on what world-class marketing looks like? My biggest challenge was recruitment because the people who understand the tech are very different to those who understand the storytelling.

“I took the job when one of my children was not even one. It was incredibly difficult balancing home and work and something I did not do well. It was all hands on deck seven days a week, 365 days a year. When I first got there it felt more manageable than at the end. When the company was experiencing some of the reputational damages, marketing was deeply in the trenches.”

Fierce competition in a dynamic category

Hilton, CMO (2018-present)

Hilton

“While I was at Uber I got a lot of outreach [from recruiters] but Hilton really stood out. I knew I wanted to be part of a company that was quick on its feet. It’s incredible to see a company of this size have such an entrepreneurial feel.

“The category itself was also a big attraction for me. I love it when you’re inside a dynamic category with fierce competition because when companies compete it’s a better outcome for customers and we have to innovate.

“I am working on personalising the experience at Hilton and using my tech background to do that. So much of our offering today is about making sure we build out tools and experiences for our customers so that they feel emotionally connected to Hilton. We’ve started this through out new ‘Expect Better’ campaign, through which we want to encourage people to trust us through our promise that consumers who book directly on Hilton’s channels are getting the best value and the best experience.”

Kellyn Smith Kenny’s CV

Hilton
CMO
2018-present

Uber
Vice-president of marketing
2016-2018

Capital One
Various brand roles
2011-2016

Microsoft
Various roles including marketing director, stores
2005-2011

Accenture
Senior technology consultant
1999-2003

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Comments
  • Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 8 Jan 2019 at 12:05 pm

    Chameleons are the very opposite of “change agents”. They only change themselves.

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