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Amidst the sparkling promenade of the 70th Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2023, Les.Monks Café serves as a pop-up sanctuary just steps from the thoroughfare. The café, adorned in charming forget-me-not blue shutters, is teeming with possibility. Conversations about strategy, creativity and tech—are not just happening; they are falling bang inline with Media.Monks' strategic direction.
As I sit, sipping my iced decaf flat white and dressed in a white and blue linen dress, a nod to the glamour of Côte d'Azur, Kate Richling enters my view. The hyper-strategic CMO at Media.Monks whose savvy manoeuvres in the market had me scribbling away on LinkedIn earlier this year, is approaching. My post, which lauded Media.Monks' strategic New Biz strategy, had garnered her attention and today, she's my conversation partner.
"Kelcie, it's such a pleasure to meet you," she beams. There's an immediate sense of kindred spirit. We both relish the audacity, calculation and imagination that defines Media.Monks. The pleasure, undoubtedly, is mutual.
"I absolutely loved your write-up of us on LinkedIn," taking her seat, she continues, "Your understanding of our approach and priorities is spot on." Les.Monks Café, for me, is the corporeal essence of Media.Monks' rebellious spirit. It's not just their prowess but their nerve, commandeering an intimate space where conversations evolve organically, distant from the restless main event. Where the noise level is low enough to pay attention to your own creativity.
As we sink into our conversation, the hour ahead hints at idiosyncratic stories—from the zen of kickboarding to heists within Grand Theft Auto. This isn't just an interview; it's a jam session. Seated al fresco and enveloped by the architects steering the planet's most illustrious brands, we unfurl the first threads of our chit-chat. Welcome to Kate Richling's cosmos.
"Working with Kate is amazing, she's just a marketing machine that helps us position, push, promote, and provoke," says Wesley Haar, Ter - Founder of Media.Monks. "It's so easy for companies like ours to be middle of the road and run of the mill, but with Kate as the CMO, we're far more interesting and insightful."
What excites you about working for Media.Monks?
Mostly that man right there [briefly fixating her gaze across the terrace, on Sir Martin]. I would never work for another agency because I believe the promise that we've made to market to be a disruptor. I’m also a strong advocate for Wesley. He's one of the smartest, most emerging leaders in the space. And so I very proudly work for him and report to him, and that's the reason I came to Media.Monks in the first place; I trust him. And I think there's a large group of people at Media.Monks who feel the same, they're in flow with his synergy. Between that, all the incredible people, and the promise of one integrated company under one name; the commitment to that is probably my top pick.
What stood out to you when you joined and got to know Wesley? What are three qualities that you admire?
His leadership style. Wes gives great advice. I don't know if I can summarise it into three things, but he's the most captivating, engaging presenter. He is so authentic. Anytime he speaks somewhere, we get ten real leads. One of the best things he's ever told me is ‘I get super nervous, I get embarrassed, all the things happen, but what I try to remember is just be excited in every opportunity you do. You've never seen a speaker and been like, oh, they were too excited.’ And he was like, ‘just be excited, and then if you mess up or you forget what you're saying, no one will ever blame you for it because at least you felt like it was an honour for you to be there and be excited.’ And that’s what I've always tried to keep in mind. When you see him speak, he is so pumped to be there that it makes it very authentic and natural, and I think that that resonates through everything he does. Never playing it too cool for school, just embracing, being present and, essentially, awesome.
What criteria do you use to evaluate the clients you work with, given that your role as CMO at Media.Monks is more internal-facing? What makes a client ideal for PR opportunities and brand positioning?
As CMO, I oversee PR, marketing and internal marketing for Media.Monks. My team is about 30 people, and everything we do, from thought leadership to press opportunities to events and activations like this, we're pushing the Media.Monks and the S4 brand, versus social, awards, so on and so forth. I work with clients if they're open to PR opportunities or mentoring or awards. In terms of what I look for in a client, my ideal clients are those who are willing to go out with us and see the value in positioning their purpose. Lots of brands aren't like that for a variety of reasons. That totally makes sense. But the brands who understand that positioning themselves with an agency or a partner and allowing them that moment to shine in varying capacities is my favourite, because those are the ones we get to have the most fun with.
What do you think brands often underestimate about the benefits of partnering with an external agency like Media.Monks, as opposed to taking their agencies fully in-house?
We work with a lot of in-house agencies, and in some ways I think in-house makes a lot of sense. I mean, I work for an in-house agency for Media.Monks. So, I completely understand it. When I became CMO, I ended all of our PR agency relationships and hired internal PR folks because I wanted them to live and breathe our brand and know our people. They know our beats, and our beats are constantly changing. So I need that internally. But I think there's a place to go and I think we can come in, especially with that deep subject matter expertise. Take AI being such a topic of this year's event and Metaverse last year, and it's a constant revolving door of topics and trends that's really what an agency or a partner can bring. Media.Monks’ whole model is about being able to scale up and build out those teams really quickly and being the first to market as those trends emerge. That's what we help bring to the table.
We work with a lot of in-house agencies, and in some ways I think in-house makes a lot of sense.
What are two elements of Media.Monks' marketing strategy that will remain constant in 2024, 2025, and beyond, irrespective of economic fluctuations or evolving trends?
PR. My background is in PR. So I think press opportunities and earned press opportunities, like we call our speakers bureau the Subject Matter Monks, so the SMMs instead of the SMEs because it's such an important part of Media.Monks, so many smart people. I think giving a voice to those people on a platform to lend their thought leadership in a variety of capacities and in different, unusual ways. The example I always use is Lewis Smithingham who's our SVP of innovation. At peak COVID we were having a friendly conversation and he was like ‘Oh last night I robbed a bank with the CTO of Condé Nast in Grand Theft Auto’ and I was like oh my gosh that's such a great press story. And so I pitched it to the New York Times and it ended up being a story on how during COVID, agencies were meeting with clients in the Metaverse and in video games.
It's the modern update of what used to be golf. Finding ways to have those experiences and moments together and new ways to think together. Those are the kind of PR opportunities I look for. I love interesting ways that we can insert ourselves into the cultural zeitgeist. And that's a perfect example.
So that's one thing. Next, I would say Content Writing. That was my first hire, a content writer.
My number one priority was: I need a really great writer because we have so many great thought leaders. And aligning their viewpoints and making sure we don't all have to say the same thing, but it needs to ladder up in the same general direction.
So, having someone who can help hone that messaging and work with the team is crucial. It's not just about writing blog posts or articles; the content they create permeates everything we do—be it pitch decks, slides, or even what our leadership says on calls. It's a core component that I could never lose.
I love interesting ways that we can insert ourselves into the cultural zeitgeist.
What are the top two priorities for a small, independent agency looking to elevate their new business and PR efforts?
Well, that's actually kind of how I got my start. I was working for a really traditional PR agency in Alaska, like in my early 20s, and I got recruited to work at a digital agency. They were only about 30 to 40 people, and they decided to hire a full-time marketing and PR person, which at the time was weird. Like, no one really did that. And it made such a world of difference. I was able to make an impact so fast with having someone focus on it. The thing about marketing your own agency is it always gets pushed to the bottom. Client love will always come first, and that was super important for me. So my team has all of our own resourcing. We have a designer, we have a developer, we have a writer. We're not borrowing from one another. Because it would never happen. We especially need an editor and a designer; that's my thing. Guarantee that sourcing and everything will be dedicated to it.
Can you share an example of a transformative moment that has changed your perspective as a leader?
I've had mentors be like, ‘you should make a 20 year plan or a 10 year plan and visualise where you want to go in order to get there’, but I have never taken that advice. I'm very much someone who's take whatever's next and whatever sounds the best, follow the opportunities and I have no idea where I want to go or what I want to do yet. The world has changed so much even in the 15 years that I've been working that I don't know what else there will be to do. I have people who work for me who are very much like this is my plan and these are my goals and that's so great. But that is not how I am. Being this way allows me to be so focused on the present that I can be as intentional and as strong with that work rather than overthinking how it will affect maybe something from 10 years from now.
So what are your biggest triumphs and what are your biggest regrets in your 15 years of working life?
It's not my personal triumph because I didn't make it happen, but I joined Media.Monks six months before Sir Martin bought us and that I could have never imagined. I joined Media.Monks when we had 800 employees and now we have 9,000. I had no idea that was going to happen. That moment in time, I remember hearing it. Then later, becoming CMO and just thinking about working for the business and the opportunities and platform that so quickly happened overnight. And I remember thinking, it is bonkers that I get to do this.
What did that shift look like?
Sir Martin opened so many doors for us. When you have a PR machine and speaking opportunities; we used to have to campaign and try hard to get speakers placed and let into rooms and reach certain press outlets and things like that. And immediately we had Sir Martin who was so willing to lend his contacts to enable the company and help find success. So, if I want to pitch something, I can put Sir Martin on it to get someone interested in the opportunity and then find someone from Media.Monks who wants to work alongside him. So things like that. I think like I had never been able to openly go to The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times and The Times in London - outlets like that.
Can you delve into your experience working as the CMO of Media.Monks alongside Sir Martin Sorrell?
Sir Martin responds to emails within three minutes all the time. And that was part of the idea, synthesis for the café. We have about 100 people on the ground and we wanted to facilitate a place for them to have meetings and be in one spot. But we also have leaders like Sir Martin, and we want him to be super accessible. And that's what's different from what's happening in other parts of the world. You never even see these leaders in the back room. And we wanted him to be sitting and be able to say hi to all of our clients and people. And that's why you see so many leaders in the cafe.
What is your approach to engaging and promoting new hires at Media.Monks? Do you have initiatives aimed at making the next generation feel like they have a seat at the table?
So we do a few different things. First, we had our own internal creative competition. We sent six Monks to Cannes as part of the Next Step Monks program. We started it last year and we partnered with Netflix and this year we partnered with Meta. We are the only company who actually works with Cannes Lions on it, so it's like a Young Lions playoff. It's for emerging talent, five years of experience or less in the industry, and they work on a real Meta brief and have Meta judges. And then those six winners got to come to Cannes. We have some programs like that and internal initiatives. Media.Monks’ scaling is so fast and is growing so quickly that it's hard for us to promote all new hires. What I try to do is I don't send out press releases, and I'm not a big press release kind of person anyway, but I try to bucket them into stories. What does this new hire mean for Media.Monks and for what we offer clients, our partners or our people? So that's the general direction I usually take with new hires.
How do you find the time to innovate and rethink your marketing strategies at Media.Monks, given the fast-paced nature of the agency?
I had a call with Sir Martin a few weeks ago, telling him some of the challenges I’ve been going through and feeling lately in my role, and he was like, you need to take some time after Cannes to think, like, the big picture about what you want to do. And I thought it was really cool that he, like, gave me that opportunity and suggested it. It was nice advice. Personally, I'm really lucky that I have a chief of staff. I always say that's one of the best things Media.Monks ever gave me, and that came from the MightyHive side.
MightyHive always had chief's of staff, and just having someone who can manage, and at that level, be able to manage people and work with my team and make sure that I'm being a good leader to my team, in addition to doing marketing and what my role and responsibilities are, helps take off a lot of the things that take up time and things you need to think about, like organising meetings, and coming up with an agenda, and thinking through everything you need to do. And then she also really helps me with my goals.
So, at the beginning of the week and the end of the week, we look at my calendar and look at all of my meetings to make sure we have the agenda, and that we know what we are trying to accomplish during that meeting. Then we also tie those to KPI’s: What are my goals? Do my meetings align with what I'm trying to get done and with what my initiatives are or do I need to shift things? How can we move things around or delegate things? For example, it’s like quarterly team meetings. Do people really need a quarterly team meeting? And she's like, yes, they do. And I'm like, oh, okay. And then she helps me do that so they can all be more effective and efficient in their roles, which is so important.
What do you look for in a chief of staff?
I got really lucky. So my chief of staff was Kim who is the founder of MightyHive’s executive assistant. So she learned how to be a chief of staff from his chief of staff while she an Exectuive Assistant. So she came in, and I remember the first day, I was like, I don't even know what a chief of staff is. I was like, I'm not that important, I don't need this. But on my first call, she was like, “Are you the kind of person who wants to work certain hours? Or do you like to work all the time?” And I said, “I actually enjoy working all the time.” She responded, “That's great.”
I was expecting her to advise against it, so I added, “I thought you were going to tell me I shouldn't.” She replied, “No, you are who you are, and you have your preferences. My role is to accommodate that.”
She's made me think about things and analyse things. I did a sports women's leadership program a couple years ago. And they do an assessment with a bunch of people you work with and who work for you to figure out what kind of leader you are. And I'm a pace setter, but when I don't like how something's being done or it's not being done quick enough, I just jump in and do it myself. So Ali is great because she constantly, I'll be like, do something and she'll be like, are you pace-setting? So she keeps me in check and things like that are so wonderful.
Would you recommend hiring a PR manager as the first priority for an independent boutique agency with limited funds?
Yeah, or building it into someone's role so that they're being held accountable. Also have those guardrails to be able to say this is one of my job requirements so I have to be able to fix it.
Where can we find you off the clock?
I like kicking, which is kickboarding. It's like my meditative thing. I don't really think of it as exercise, I’ve done it for years. I love it. I was in Amsterdam for a week beforehand, but I'm very proud that I've gotten in the pool every single day of this two-week trip. I wake up and it's like the first thing I do. I love being in water. It's so relaxing to me. It's silly, but like as a woman you don't have to get your hair wet when you kick. It's like, you know, you can listen to music and put your headphones in and that's like how I zone out. And even when I feel stressed out or I can't figure something out, if I get in water, it just makes you feel weightless and it makes the ideas come to me. So that is my go-to way to feel inspired and feel better. Just a daily routine.
I also just got a new puppy, so I'm also very excited. She's a Micro Bernaduke. She's Bernese Mountain Dog and 75% Duke. She has one blue eye and one brown eye - everyone thinks she's an Aussie sheepdog. For so long, I didn't get a dog, like during COVID. And I've always wanted a dog. But I was like, I travel too much. And I don't know if I'm going to stay here and so on and so forth. And I had a turning point around December where I was like, I can't keep living my life like it's going to change or that it's not free. I can make it work. And so part of doing that was feeling confident enough that I could make it work. And there's always an option. And that is my goal.
What's your vision for the future of creative and advertising agencies, especially in the context of holding companies, new agencies, and the freelance model?
My perspective on it right now is probably very AI-driven, so that's kind of the lens I'm looking through. Brands will figure out how to do things using AI, and we'll be able to see smaller, leaner teams doing more things for themselves like translation. A lot of companies can now take translation in-house, and so there are things that they used to go to different agencies for, and it's cutting the budget. So from that, I think agencies that can lean in and find value for themselves in disruptive ways to show up will continue to shine at one place. But I think that being said, it gives a lot of smaller shops a lot of opportunities to be really good and provide that niche expertise.
How do you balance proactive and reactive content creation? Do you work with a long-term content plan, or is it more flexible and driven by your writers' ideas?
Okay, so I constantly get asked from people outside the marketing team, do you have a content calendar I can look at? And I'm like, no, because it's so quick. We run a content calendar, we have a standing meeting as a team every Monday, we look at it and we go through the content for the week, and we try to plot things out. So for instance, you know it, but you still don't know what the topic is going to be and what's going to be on. And we have one content writer who is crazy fast.
So for instance, I really think when the metaverse started emerging, we were one of the first to put out a metaverse thought leadership and a report. He can crank out content like it is crazy. And he's based in Europe. Plus we have a team of writers. But he was my first hire, and he's still with Media.Monks. He just really has an interviewer, reporter type way to him. So we just get on calls together and interview people whenever some topic comes up. We just interview as many people as possible. And then we'll work through it together and try to figure out, okay, how are we gonna make this messaging align? Where do we wanna go with this?
What's your personal opinion on generative AI, especially given your agency's investment in AI? Do you see it as a friend or a foe?
It’s surprising but not surprising, the phenomenon around AI. We’ve been working with AI for so long now. Before the pandemic, I used to give talks about content marketing strategy, and I'd often cite the example of Netflix changing the images on its home screen based on user preferences. For example, my mum's Netflix will feature a woman on the icon, regardless of the movie's overall cast. She'll only click if she sees a woman. And so they change out the images, using multiple icons for the same content.
In terms of Media.Monks amongst this role in AI now, I think we're getting a lot of client interest and it's about being realistic and identifying what are some immediate things we can do now to actually workshop and find some small list solutions without thinking 10 years from now and building these impossible plans when the technology is changing so rapidly.
As our dialogue concludes, Kate pivots the conversation toward my own career—less an act of politeness, more a testament to her inquisitive nature. We part on a note of mutual admiration, and I return to the festival circuit, Hydro Flask in hand, ready for my next interview.
From the granular aspects of Chief of Staff roles to the macro considerations of AI's place in future marketing strategies, our conversation revealed Kate as a force in the field. Deftly navigating the complex landscape of modern marketing, blending public relations acumen with data-driven strategies to position Media.Monks as an industry engineer.
And it's not just me who thinks so highly of Kate. None other than advertising mogul Sir Martin Sorrell echoes this sentiment: "Delighted by the insight and energy Kate brings to our Marketing as CMO," Sorrell raves. "Kate is ideal for a purely digital, unitary, data-driven Company, faster, better, more efficient, like S4 and its operating brand, Media.Monks."
In a similar vein, Media.Monks Co-Founder Bruno Lambertini weighs in with his own endorsement: “Kate is as wonderful at her job as she is to all of us. We are extremely fortunate to have such a knowledgeable, driven, collaborative, and resourceful CMO in Kate. Her work speaks volumes both internally and externally."
Media.Monks itself stands as a testament to Kate's ambition and tenacity—an environment where strategy and creativity fuel each other, setting new benchmarks for what's possible. Where the entrepreneurial spirit of a founder-led agency has infused every level of the organisation.
In closing, this interview serves as a wake-up call that should ricochet into the marrow of all agencies: Investing in effective marketing leadership is essential for elevating industry status and new business. Kate exemplifies this, showing that such investments yield not just immediate gains but floods of ideas and innovations. An agency's success is proportional to its investment in its marketing leaders. And, in the case of Media.Monks, it's an investment that pays dividends.