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Nancy Kramer: Founder and Chairman, Resource/Ammirati

Nancy Kramer was an early believer in the transformative power of personal computing. Her ad agency pioneered interactive digital marketing before that meant anything to the masses, and her team of in-house technologists created the first branded app for Google Glass, the futuristic, augmented-reality eyewear.

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

But Kramer is no technophile, at least not primarily. She’s a humanist first, and an unshakable conviction in the inherent value of people runs through nearly every topic in our conversation. She believes strongly in self-expression, individualism, and the superior worth of personality and capability over superficial demographic designations. She leaves her cell phone in a different room during the interview—an anxiety-inducing mistake for many, but for her it’s a deliberate divorce from the distraction of technology. She wants to be present in the moment.

When talking about TEDxColumbus—the conceptual, tech-heavy forum she co-organizes annually—the focus remains on deeply human concerns. Decker Moss, an associate at Resource/Ammirati, gave Kramer’s favorite talk ever, about his gender transition from a woman to a man, a process Kramer encouraged him to discuss. Her own TEDx talk explained the Free the Tampons movement, which lobbies for complimentary feminine-care products at work and in public spaces. The cause was inspired by her initial trip in 1982 to Apple’s California headquarters, where she discovered free tampons in the bathroom, but her mission was first pressed into action as her daughters hit puberty and she couldn’t stand the thought of them being embarrassed in public without easy access.

Even the closest, most noticeable symbol of the high-tech revolution has a strong personal undercurrent. On display by her corner-office cubicle is an exhibit of near-ancient machines, a chronological lineage of Apple computers sitting in a row like models of the evolutionary human. They trace all the way back to the Lisa, an early personal computer that Kramer first used while Steve Jobs leaned over her shoulder to ask her opinion. It’s an antiquated collection that would be all but useless to someone in her position at another agency, but it’s priceless to her, a constant reminder of the ubiquitous brand she helped to build and the connections she’s made along the way.

What first piqued your interest in technology? I started reading some things about this company that was a start-up in California called Apple Computer, and I thought that it was just incredibly interesting. Steve Jobs and I are the exact same age, and the more I read about the idea of having a personal computer, the more I found it really interesting. And I thought that the whole idea of what I was referring to then, and now, as the democratization of information that the personal computer was going to bring to our society, I thought was very compelling.

So you started Resource Interactive, now Resource/Ammirati, in 1981. Is that what inspired that decision, your interest in the personal computer and the democratization of information? Absolutely. Apple was our first client. They provided the funding for us to start the business, so that was kind of unique in itself. And with that, then it was really pursuing helping market Apple and then other technology brands.

At that point Apple was only about five years old. Was it a big deal having them as your first client? You know, most people had not heard of Apple. Most people thought that I was crazy. No one thought then that computers were going to have a place in our personal life. They were really thought only of almost like an extension of a typewriter…there’s this old saying that if—I’m not sure if Steve Jobs said it, I really don’t know who to attribute it to—if you asked people what they wanted, they’d say they want a faster horse versus a car. So there was just nothing to compare it to, the whole idea of a computer.

I had turned down the opportunity to take a job for MTV before MTV had gone on the air in New York, and I thought that that was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard, and that was super risky ’cause I couldn’t understand how, why, who was gonna watch music on TV. Back then in 1980, I thought that was a really silly idea. So that was the road that I didn’t take. So it’s just kinda funny because probably people had a little bit easier time seeing how MTV was gonna work than Apple.

Steve Jobs has become this iconic figure. Some people look at him as a visionary, and others see a conflicted and tortured person. On a personal level, what was your take on him, and does the way that the rest of the world views him surprise you? I think both are true. I think that he’s brilliant and one of the—if not the—most brilliant person I’ve ever met, but at the same time, when your index is so high in one area of your life, it’s certainly gonna be low in another area. There’s gonna be a void. That’s just kind of human nature. He was impatient, and he was demanding, and nothing was ever good enough, and he was very singularly focused on some levels, very broad but yet singular. He’s this dichotomy of personality characteristics, and I think he did far more good and added so much to our life. I miss him. I miss his voice. I miss the way he was a provocateur. I miss that.

When I worked for a PR firm in Seattle, the founder of our company had a rule against working with cigarette companies. Do you have any types of boundaries in terms of clients you won’t work with? Well, it’s really more on a case-by-case basis. We wouldn’t work with a cigarette company; we wouldn’t do that. We last year were asked to respond to a request for proposal for SeaWorld, which we turned down. Just as an example.

Did you see Blackfish? Mmm hmm. I mean, everybody here saw it…we haven’t been asked by a tobacco company so I can’t say, but SeaWorld is probably the example that just too many people felt really uneasy about it.

Let’s say you started working with them 10 years before that, and then Blackfish comes out, could you see yourself severing ties with them for something becoming public knowledge that you hadn’t been privy to before? I don’t profess to even know enough about the SeaWorld situation to have a point of view, what’s right or what’s not right. Talking to Jack Hanna, I’m sure that there’s things that none of us know about that. So it was just at that particular point in time when they asked us to respond to this proposal, and people were like, “Eww, I don’t think I can rally and get behind that.” That was like, “Well, we’re not gonna go there.”

I call CVS our most courageous client. I think that it’s so much fun to work with them because here’s a big company that’s doing some super creative and courageous things, and so for us to be part of the [#OneGoodReason social media campaign]…they removed all the tobacco products from their retail environment, and that was a $2 billion decision for that company. That’s $2 billion of revenue off the top of their revenue stream that—poof—is gone. We can get behind that, and believe in that, and be excited about that, and do some really great work.

Resource has offices in several other cities now, but you’re still headquartered in Columbus. What has kept you here? For many years, to be perfectly honest, it was for family. My mom and dad were here, and I was the primary caregiver for my mom and dad. My mother just passed away five years ago so it hasn’t been that long. But over time I’ve seen the community grow and evolve in a way that makes it a fantastic place for a company like ours to be based.

We’re an anomaly in that most people would say that to grow a business like ours and not be headquartered on either coast is virtually impossible. And I think that that’s just the fuel in the fire that gets me going. I like to do things that people don’t think are possible, and so I think that that’s a motivation for us, too. You know, we’re always feeling a little bit like the underdog and like we’re gonna have to work harder to prove ourselves, and that can have its benefits. I was at HighBall Halloween [this year], and we had some friends in from out of town, and I’m like, “This is just amazing.” I mean, it’s amazing to see the creativity and the talent and the environment where people have the courage to be who they are. I just think that that’s a gift.

How did you balance your ambitions and your busy work life with that home life, having a family, raising kids, and keeping everything together? I very much love being a mom. It’s my most favorite role, and nothing trumps that. At the time, I would say that my life was just work and my kids and nothing else. There really wasn’t room for anything else, and so I was very disciplined in the way in which I did things.

I think that especially today you can be participating in your children’s lives and you can work full-time. I’ve been financially independent and have worked since I was 16. I put myself through college by working at Kroger as a cashier, and so my life since I was a teenager has been about working and supporting myself. I don’t know any different than working, and so that’s just been my life since I can remember.

Was it a challenge for you to be taken seriously when you started out, or did you ever struggle to get the same level of respect that a man would’ve had in a similar position? I felt to a certain extent I needed to prove myself. I certainly was mindful of the fact that in 90 percent of the meetings I was in I was the only woman, but I really wanted to be seen as a person, not as a woman, and so I think that that’s how most people feel. They wanna be seen for what their capabilities are. I think we all just wanna be seen for who we are, not for whatever happens to be the outside—whether it’s the color of our skin, whether it’s the sexual preference, whether it’s our gender. I think we all want to be seen for who we are personally, and I think our own personal self-expression is a lot of the reason that we’re here. I definitely was, in a lot of cases, the only woman. I definitely felt like I needed to prove myself, but I think I would have felt that whether I was a man or a woman. I don’t think that it was a gender thing, I think it was just a youth thing and a lack of experience. But I definitely was mindful of the fact that there were very few women around.

A man leading a company will be judged only on whether he and the business are successful, whereas a woman may also be judged on, “Can a woman do this?” Does that put extra pressure on you to be held up as a representative of your gender even though you didn’t necessarily ask for it? The older I get, I think, the more reflective we become, and I’ve been reflecting on that a little bit more. We’ll get to a point, I think, as a society where this all just becomes a buncha nonsense…I think that as a constituency we need representation across the board, across all ethnicities and sexual preferences and genders and all that sort of thing. I guess that there is some pressure, but I think it’s also a gift on some levels to have the opportunity to maybe be a role model or to show people what’s possible and that it shouldn’t be an issue. I think it’s a gift. I don’t think it’s a burden.

For more on Nancy Kramer and Resource/Ammirati, visit resource.com, and to learn more about Free the Tampons, check out freethetampons.org.