Finance & Management
Leadership Insight – Kelly Mackenzie

Leadership Insight
Kelly Mackenzie
Please provide a brief history of your career.
I am the founder and Creative Director of White Bear a brand and creative agency based in London and Dublin. I started the agency nearly ten years ago having worked across the globe starting my career in Dublin back in 2007.

In Dublin I worked with wonderful Irish clients like An Post and VHI. Having cut my teeth in the Irish design world I then took the leap to move abroad to Sydney, here I worked in Imagination and Landor, some of the largest agencies in the world. I developed my brand and experience… and really enjoyed the weather!

Deciding it was now time to get serious I moved to London. During my time there I really honed my branding skills and started playing a more strategic role in brand creation. I rebranded Cornetto Ice Cream, the first rebrand they had embarked on in over 50 years and worked closely with Lloyds of London, Unilever and The National Gallery before I left to set up my own agency. I had at this stage gotten to a point in my career where I felt I’d spent enough time working in other people’s agencies and building other people’s dreams that it was now time to go and build my own. So, I set up White Bear.

The idea for the philosophy of the agency came from an American psychologist called Daniel Wegner, he came up with ‘The White Bear Phenomenon’. Wegner, found that when he asked a group ‘not to think of a white bear’, they all failed. That’s because when a bold idea is planted in the mind, it becomes impossible to ignore. This concept drives what we as a team at White Bear do daily; creating memorable ideas for our clients. Last year I was very proud that White Bear was named Small Agency of the Year (globally) and I one of the top 22 female leaders of 2022 by Start-up Magazine London.

How difficult did you find starting your own business and how did you overcome the obstacles along the way?
I really enjoyed starting up my agency, I thrived on the hustle, and I was never one for staying in my lane when it came to job roles. I enjoyed wearing many hats as an entrepreneur and used to have a moto of ‘I’ll show up to the opening of an envelope’. I think naivety played a big part in my initial success, with so many ‘unknown, unknowns’ I ploughed ahead boldly with no fear. I joined some SME networking groups, found my accountant, lawyer and peers and gradually built structure, process and rigor around the business.

Challenges came into play however when I started hiring, renting bigger office space and scaling our offering, soon out-goings were soaring and having a fluctuating pipeline was untenable. This was and probably is our biggest challenge which is why we have adopted an ‘always on’ approach to marketing. As a B2B business knowing that at any one time 95% of our buyers aren’t ready to buy, made us build processes around always being front of mind and this has helped us to be in the right place at the right time.

How do you ensure you have the best people working for you and is it challenging as an SME to manage the recruitment process?
We are super proud of our brilliant team, without them we wouldn’t be able to do the work that we are doing or win the industry awards that we are. We hire on attitude not aptitude. With a strong set of agency values like; Hunger for growth, Purpose driven, Enterprising, Trustworthy and Bravery, we ensure that everyone on our team shows up demonstrating these daily. We reward action over analysis paralysis and encourage not staying in your lane.

We want our whole team to act like owners whether you are a senior leader or a junior eager beaver your role is important.

Recruitment is always tricky and takes a long time. I’ve learnt the hard way not to hire in a rush and always to put cultural fit above all else. Much like having an ‘always on’ approach to marketing we have a similar approach to talent. We hire based on people not job roles.

What would your advice be for someone looking to start up their own business?
Do it! Don’t wait, there is never a right time and when you start, really go for it. These are my top 5 Tips:

  1. Action:
    Being an entrepreneur is all about action, action, action. Perfection is the enemy of the entrepreneur, you won’t make traction if you are waiting for perfection.
  2. Follow Your Passion:
    Start with something you’re passionate about; it will keep you motivated through the ups and downs.
  3. Customer-Centric Focus:
    Prioritise your customers. Understand their needs, listen to feedback, and constantly improve their experience.
  4. Speak up:
    You need to be prepared to be vocal, ask for business and always demonstrate value.
  5. Adaptability and Resilience:
    Be adaptable and resilient. The business landscape changes, so stay flexible, learn from failures, and be ready to pivot when needed.

I must caveat, only set up your own business if you are comfortable with uncertainty, as uncertainty is the only certainty we have in the business of running your own business.

Office employees at conference table
As a business owner with two small children, how do you juggle everything?
I would be lying if I didn’t say it was absolutely a struggle at times. I have a six-year-old and a two-year-old and when Sonny, my eldest was born we had just moved back to Dublin in 2017. Running a young business and caring for a newborn didn’t go hand in hand too well and resulted in me travelling to the UK weekly for a couple of nights leaving Sonny with his Dad. After nearly a year of doing this, it didn’t feel sustainable anymore, so we decided to move back to the UK.

The demand to commute to London coupled with my husband’s love of White Bear led him to quit his job and us to decide to put all our eggs in one basket. He had always been a director observing from afar, so we decided now was the time and he joined the Bear Cave as our MD. This change made a fundamental difference to the business and our personal lives and started us on a very exciting new journey of being a family-owned business. David being an accountant added a much need string to our bow being a team of creatives.

What was really great was that by the time my second baby came around we had built a superb team of A players in the business that could run it and help it thrive while I was able to take a full six months maternity leave. This to me demonstrated the growth in maturity of the business and how far we had come. It is still very much a juggling act but at least we are all under the same roof and work and home are in the same country… for now.

What do you feel are the most important qualities that today’s leaders need to be successful?
To be a leader in today’s world, you’ve got to be adaptable, things change fast. In my short ten years of running my business I’ve had two children, moved country three times, survived a pandemic, Brexit, and continuous global uncertainty and we’re looking head on into another recession in the UK. If you’d asked me ten years ago could I have predicted these things, I couldn’t’ have.

It’s our job as leaders to be prepared for these uncertainties. We can’t predict the future (though many try) but we can be prepared, making sure we keep the lights on and are able to look after our teams.

Setting the North Star is crucial, I’m all about having a clear vision and goals. What gets measured gets done but making sure not to be too black and white about it. Having a high EQ is essential and being resilient and bouncing back when things don’t go to plan is a must too. l love embracing new ideas, championing diversity, and try to always keep up with technology too, I’m a big believer in continuous learning.

Lastly, good communication, building a strong team, and making fair decisions are absolute musts. If it wasn’t for our team, we wouldn’t have a business so I try never to forget that.

It’s a mix of these things that sets the stage for success in today’s ever-evolving world.

How do you unwind?
Unwinding has never been my strong suit, but on a good day, I love going for a run. It’s like a therapy session for me, allowing me to enter a state of flow and truly relax. I enjoy the rush of running as fast as I can, with my favourite song pulsating in my ears. Alternatively, there are times when I prefer a slower pace, accompanied by the wisdom of Steven Bartlett and his guests on “Diary of a CEO.”

Another way for me to unwind is by spending quality time with my children. Their presence has a magical way of pulling me away from the rat race and refocusing my attention on what truly matters. Whether we’re playing, having a laugh, or simply hanging out, these times take me away from the daily demands of being an adult. And let’s face it none of us want to adult all of the time.

Kelly Mackenzie headshot
Kelly Mackenzie
Founder and Creative Director White Bear Studio