The Art of Being Unflappable: An Interview with CEO Kathy McCuskey on Her 10-Year Anniversary

June 16th, 2021

Last month, our CEO, Kathy McCuskey, celebrated 10 years at the helm of the Yamamoto.

For those who haven’t met Kathy, you could describe her in one word: unflappable.

There’s nothing she can’t solve or sort out, no brand problem that can’t be overcome. No mountain too big to move.

Even the turbulence of the industry during COVID-19 was just another storm to be weathered, to a woman who has seen it all in her long, illustrious career.

Kathy’s known for creating a rare sense of loyalty in an industry where the majority of people seem to constantly be looking for the next great opportunity.

So, it’s no wonder clients follow her anywhere. And Yamamotoans stay at the agency for record lengths of time.

Maybe it’s her certainty in the agency’s singular vision and the capabilities of her team.

You would think she was cut from the CEO cloth, but it may surprise you to learn that was never her plan.

Originally, she wanted to be a large-animal vet but ended up in an ad sales job through a roundabout path.

There, she learned the key to success in this industry is all about relationships, being a good partner and being there when your clients need you.

Her tenacity landed her a role at the first of several big-name agencies in town — including Campbell Mithun, Hunt Adkins and Periscope — before going client-side at Starkey Hearing Technologies.

Her next chapter began when she was invited to apply for CEO at Yamamoto.

Kathy, what was the agency and industry like when you took the reins 10 years ago?

Yamamoto as an agency was down from 100 people in its heyday to about 17 when I got here.

My early strategy was something one of my old clients suggested. It was to watch, listen and learn for 30 days before making any major changes.

It turns out, our biggest opportunity for growth and creativity was to stay and play after the brand was created — doing the advertising, digital and experiential work that was needed.

We decided if we are going to put client success and creativity at the center of what we do, we need to have the best, most talented people to bring it to life.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over the last decade in the industry?

Ten years ago, social and digital did not exist the way they do today. The evolution has been a tremendous change to consumers and to those of us creating content through the newer channels like Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat today.

Keeping pace with digital in terms of tech, audience, attribution, content — it was a big change for traditional TV-oriented agencies. Many of the digital shops early on had a difficult time with consumer insights and brand strategy. Off-setting from this continuum gave us room to play and grow.

We added an independent digital agency to our team and could deliver big digital transformation to our clients. That expansion, along with co-locating with the Media Kitchen, a sister MDC agency, was all the special sauce needed to round out digital innovation.

That’s when we truly became a full-service advertising agency — versus the design shop we started as 43 years ago.

And now, we are part of the Doner Partners Network, a collaboration of six MDC agencies with complementary expertise allowing us to scale as clients require, with an A-plus custom bench to meet any client needs.

Any predictions for the next 10 years?

I think we are in another wave of creativity through tech. Companies are playing with augmented reality and all kinds of 3D tech that takes brand experiences to a whole new level.

Watch for the augmented reality (AR) space to become ignited in the next two years. Yamamoto will be a part of this growth as well.

What’s your vision for the agency’s future?

We will continue to focus on moving the mountains before our clients. For us this most often means brand-related engagements that evolve, refine and amplify, with digital at the core.

It comes down to pushing our creativity even further to create brands and campaigns that deliver emotion by using technology to deliver targeted brand impact and predict performance.

The key will be putting brand and creativity at the center and being open to the ways it’s expressed.

Looking back, what has been the biggest lesson of your career?

Change is inevitable. The minute you stop changing, you start dying. The faster we as individuals recognize that, the better. You can either make your own change or wait for it to happen to you.

That’s what we do here: Push ourselves in three ways – curiosity, creativity and courageousness. So much can be accomplished by embracing the intention of these values. Together we are stronger, smarter and more resilient.

Because of this mindset, we’re not just going to be reacting when that next wave of "next” hits. We are purposefully shaping brand experiences for a new future.

Cheers to you, Kathy.

So how about it? Are you ready to team up to make your own change for your brand or business?

Contact one of our New Business Directors: (Minneapolis) or (Chicago).