Wake The Town
Stuck in Motion
Contemplative Reptile
  • International Edition
  • USA Edition
  • UK Edition
  • Australian Edition
  • Canadian Edition
  • Irish Edition
  • German Edition
  • French Edition
  • Singapore Edition
  • Spanish edition
  • Polish edition
  • Indian Edition
  • Middle East edition
  • South African Edition

5 Minutes with… Jenny Nicholson


Executive director, brand experience at McKinney speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about her childhood in the woods in Tennessee with no electricity and no running water and why she loves devouring well-crafted email newsletters

5 Minutes with… Jenny Nicholson

Jenny Nicholson spent her childhood in the woods of Tennessee with no running water and no electricity. She had no idea that advertising existed as a career but what her upbringing lacked in television or convenient showers, it made up for in opportunities to develop her imagination. 

That imagination has been put to good use: by chance of an extremely happy accident, Jenny's career in advertising now spans over 16 years, all at Durham, North Carolina agency McKinney where she started out as a proofreader and is now executive director, brand experience. 

LBB's Addison Capper caught up with her to find out about "living like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but in the mid ‘80s", her love of inspirational email newsletters, and why brands must earn people's attention. 

LBB> Your bio says that nobody taught you the rules of advertising – so, how did you wind up in this industry? Was it a bit of a happy accident?

Jenny> It was an extremely happy accident. I actually wanted to be a therapist, but the year I graduated with my masters in social work, the state mental health system was in upheaval and I couldn’t find work. I applied for two jobs to hold me over while I waited for the dust to settle: a substitute teaching job and a proofreading position at an ad agency. Thank goodness the school never called me back!

The moment I walked in the door at McKinney, I felt like I’d found my home. The agency has always embraced my quirkiness and energy, traits I’d spent my entire life being told to tamp down. I worked for two years as a proofreader, then transitioned into the creative department, which changed the course of my life, in so many amazing ways.

LBB> Where did you grow up and what sort of kid were you? How did you feel about advertising? 

Jenny> Though I spent most of my childhood in San Diego, from second grade to sixth grade, I lived in the middle of the woods in Tennessee with no electricity and no running water. My mom and her boyfriend bought 40 acres of land from an ad in the back of Mother Earth News. 

Imagine living like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but in the mid ‘80s. My mom was a waitress at Shoney’s and my sister and I went to a normal suburban school, but then we’d come home and do our homework by lantern light. We were almost like time travellers, traversing over 100 years every day. Nothing has shaped me more than that experience.

As for advertising, I had no clue that it existed as a career until I wandered into McKinney. But my mom was one of the most creative people I’ve ever known. She was always coming up with ideas for products and commercials, just for fun. (One example: She had the idea for a tampon multipack over 10 years before P&G filed a patent for it.)

LBB> You're still at McKinney! Nowadays you are the executive director of brand experience at McKinney – what does that entail? And how does it differ from your prior CD roles?

Jenny> The BX team is a cross-functional group of strategists, creatives and technologists. Our entire focus is helping brands invent new ways to prove out their purpose, to actively add value to people’s lives, to give them new reasons to engage with the brand.

We do a lot of educating – helping clients use social listening differently, giving them roadmaps on emerging technology, showing them what’s possible. But the core of it all is our conviction that brands must earn people’s attention and they can’t do that by just talking about how great they are.

It’s a big shift in thinking for advertisers. But it’s a critical one, because the balance of power between brands and customers has fundamentally changed. And our industry has a lot of catching up to do. Just look at the language we use to describe the people we’re trying to reach. When we call prospective customers the ‘target’ or the ‘audience’, there’s a whole worldview hiding inside those words.

LBB> Which piece of work from your time in this role are you most proud of and why?

Jenny> We have several things in development that I can’t talk about (though I am DYING to!). In general, I’m proud of the BX team’s bias toward action. One example: we came across a study that found turning your camera off can reduce the environmental footprint of video calls by 96%. Five days later, we launched the Camera Offset Project. And now I never again have to explain why my camera isn’t on during video calls.

LBB> As we mentioned, you've been at McKinney for your entire career. What is it about the agency that you love? 

Jenny> McKinney’s purpose is all about unleashing untapped potential, and I feel like a living embodiment of that. As my career has evolved and my skills have grown, McKinney has evolved and grown with me. I always say that I feel like I’ve worked at ten different agencies in my time here.

LBB> What was your first day at the agency like? Did you pick up any lessons that have stuck with you?

Jenny> I spent my first day feeling so, so, so lucky to be there (and embarrassed, because I’d managed to dislocate my thumb the day before I started, but that’s a different story). Advertising can be a roller coaster and remembering that first-day feeling helps me stay grounded when things get tough. 

LBB> I heard that someone once called you an "idea juggernaut" which is a pretty great nickname. What's the one idea of yours that you've always been particularly fond of and why?

Jenny> It’s hard to pick just one idea – I love them all. Even, maybe especially, the ones that never got made. (Get a few drinks in me and I guarantee you’ll hear about at least one loved-and-lost idea that never got to see the light of day. I’m the worst.)

But I’ll always be most proud of SPENT, a game that challenges people to survive 30 days on a minimum wage income. 10 years in, it gets more daily users than when we launched. It’s been the topic of dozens of academic articles. And it’s become integrated into the curriculum of high schools and universities around the country. I used to have a lot of shame about not using my MSW, but SPENT was the perfect opportunity to bring all of my skills and experience together.   

LBB> What trends in the industry do you find yourself sounding off about the most and why?

Jenny> Like many people, I’m talking a lot about Web3. Some of the hype around NFTs and the metaverse is just that, but in the background, an entire ecosystem is quietly assembling and it’s exciting to watch it evolve. Plus, everyone is figuring it out on the fly, which is my very favourite thing to do. I’m a member of a couple DAOs and being part of these communities has fueled my bullishness on the space.

I am also obsessed with AI, especially as it relates to creativity, generative art, and natural language. Collaborating with a machine can be a strange experience, but I am continually delighted by what’s possible. (Side note: it’s also fascinating to see how our human biases find their way into the machines that we train.)

LBB> Outside of work, what's inspiring you right now? (I read that you even have a subscribable email dedicated to this!)

Jenny> I could legit be inspired by a rock, haha. But seriously, my superpower is being able to ingest enormous quantities of information and then make weird connections between them. I read about 100 books a year. I subscribe to at least 40 newsletters (and yes, I actually read them! I really really love a newsletter). Some of my favourites: After School, Sociology of Business, Web Curios, Patent Drop, Inside XR, DesignTAXI, and Dirt. And I don’t start my day without checking out what’s new on Product Hunt.

I am terrible about keeping up with my newsletter, but whenever I publish something, I remember again how much I love doing it. 

view more - 5 minutes with...
Sign up to our newsletters and stay up to date with the best work and breaking ad news from around the world.
McKinney, Fri, 11 Mar 2022 15:55:32 GMT