Capitol Communicator is running “Up Close and Personal” profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this profile we feature Kelly O’Keefe. Photography for the series is by award-winning Cade Martin, wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire and Sybil Street for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson, Janice Kinigopoulos  and Lori Pressman for THE Artist Agency.

Kelly, please provide a short bio.

I’m proud to hold two roles, both working for innovative branding organizations. I’m a professor and head of the Creative Brand Management track at the VCU Brandcenter, a graduate program where I’m honored to teach some of the brightest young minds in the industry. I’m also a co-founder of Brand Federation, a network of the best independent consultants in the branding field. In both roles, I am surrounded by brilliant colleagues who are focused on building brands that are powerful, original and responsible.

Are you involved in any other organizations?

I love working with organizations that make our communities stronger. I’m currently on the boards of Virginia Humanities, Richmond Symphony and Tricycle, a leader in the field of urban agriculture. With my students, I’ve been able to work with over a dozen important causes taking on issues that range from the bullying of LGTBQ youth to programs to address hunger, to recognizing the sacrifice of our military. We all have fun working together to chip away at problems much larger than ourselves.

What are the things you are most proud of?

I’m probably best known as an entrepreneur and innovator, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I just like to solve problems. If I can solve them using existing methods, that’s just fine with me, but sometimes the only way to solve the problem is to create a new approach. I think of myself as a reluctant entrepreneur.

The thing I’m most proud of is my work to help talented people discover their full potential. This is what I do with my graduate students. It’s how I’ve raised my four children. And it’s how I interact with my clients. Most people are capable of more than they can imagine and if you can help them to see that, they will do great things. I love seeing others do amazing things with the right support and encouragement. That’s the drug I’m addicted to and I share that addiction with everyone I work with at the Brandcenter.

Who is your personal role model?

Harry Jacobs, who was formerly Chairman of the Martin Agency is someone who built a reputation as one of the most important voices in advertising, but not just for his own work. In fact, most people would find it difficult to remember even one of his ads. What Harry was especially gifted at was mentoring other talented people. He reached out to me when I was completely unknown, struggling to make my small ad agency work. Harry assured me that my best days were still ahead, and he encouraged me to push myself further than I thought possible. A few years later, when my agency was named Agency of the Year by Adweek, I had the opportunity to thank Harry. For years, I thought I was unique, but when Harry passed away, I heard from people all over the country with the same story. The idea that one man could influence hundreds of careers inspires me every day.

What advice helped you in your career?

The very best advice I’ve received in my career came from my wife, Cristy. Just before starting my first company, I talked to my wife about the possibility and I told her I was worried we would put everything we had accumulated at risk.

She said to me, “Do you remember when we were first married, and you were still going to school in New York? Do you remember how broke we were? How we lived in a basement in Queens and had to apologize to our landlady for being late on the rent?” I said “yes”. Then she said, “do you remember if those were good times or bad?” I told her “they were great times, some of the best in our lives.” Then she said, “so what’s the risk?”

When we become prisoners of our own success, we start to lead lives of “quiet desperation” as Thoreau put it. The greatest risk is not reaching our potential.

What advice do you have for others?

How you measure success matters. Fame and fortune should never be your focus. Doing great work and helping people are more worthy objectives. If you do your best work and you focus on helping people, recognition and economic success will follow.

I have a box of thank you notes in my office that I prize more than any award and I protect more than my bank account. The only way that box gets full is when I find a way to help someone. That’s my personal measurement of success.

What’s on your Spotify and Pandora playlists?

I love great songwriting, from any era. Some of my favorite writers include Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, Leonard Cohen, Billie Holiday, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin.

What’s your favorite restaurant?

There’s a little place on Richmond’s North Side, called Enoteca Sogno, that reminds me of some of the small joints in Little Italy I frequented in New York. They have delicious, unpretentious, Italian food and wine in a quiet atmosphere.

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

When people tell me I can’t do something, that just makes me want to do it more. People thought I was crazy to study art and design because I was born colorblind, but I was unwilling to accept that as a limitation. Over my career I’ve won more than a hundred international awards for design. Our biggest obstacles are always in our own minds.

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One Response

  1. Gordon Russell

    Kelly- great article, much of which mirrors my thoughts and career. Someone asked me if I was retired. I don’t think anyone that has the same background and feelings about the creative industry as you, retires. We just change type faces. I’d love to have lunch with you, again, since I have returned to Richmond.

    Reply

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