How a degree in theology led to a career in marketing for Slack’s top marketer
Get to Know Slack's Head of Global Marketing, Kelly Watkins.
Slack’s head of global marketing came to her career in an unusual way. Unlike many marketers who hold business and marketing degrees, Kelly Watkins earned degrees in theology from Abilene Christian University.
When asked about her start in marketing, Watkins said she is fascinated by the ways people build systems that help them understand the world. For anyone who uses Slack, Watkins has found a near-perfect environment for understanding how people work and the business-communication systems they create.
In her role at Slack, Watkins leads all aspects of the brand’s product, platform and growth marketing, as well as overseeing its advertising, events and editorial efforts. Right now, Watkins says her team is focused on Slack’s international expansion — aiming to grow its usage beyond the current 40 percent of Slack users who live outside of the US.
“I’m most excited about this because we have the opportunity to stretch ourselves and think creatively about how we extend the Slack brand in a way that maintains our voice, but is relevant and resonant for different cultures,” says Watkins.
“We’re wrapping our brains around how Slack can fit in environments with different norms around work and business, but stay true to the fact that at the end of the day, we’re all human beings looking to do our jobs the best we can.”
Before joining Slack, Watkins served as Bugsnag’s VP of marketing. She also spent time leading brand and product marketing for GitHub. While at Github, she launched GitHub Enterprise on AWS, Atom, Electron and the GitHub Developer Program and helped grow the number of developers using the open-sourced software development platform from 3 million to 10 million.
What mobile device can you not live without?
My phone — it’s my lifeline to everything.
Can we take a peek at your phone’s home screen?
Which apps do you use most often for work?
Slack and Atom (the text editor) — the first one is probably not too surprising as we use Slack to build, market and run Slack. I started using Atom when I worked at GitHub and still use it today for any sort of personal writing or note taking.
What social media network or website do you frequent most when you’re not working?
I’m on Twitter the most, as it’s consistently the best source for the things I want to know more about. Instagram is a close second, though.
What’s the first thing you check on your phone in the morning?
Slack, Twitter, and my calendar to see what’s on for the day.
Take me through your typical workday.
I usually get up around 6:00 a.m. and make coffee. I’ll also make a packed lunch for my son to take to school and call my mom to say hi. I’ve been trying to head to the gym a few mornings a week before work. Weightlifting is a huge stress relief for me.
Once I get to the office, I’ll usually grab another cup of coffee, eat breakfast, and then make a to-do list for the day. I still write out a to-do list on paper because I get so much satisfaction from crossing items off the list throughout the day.
The work day from there varies depending on what needs to get done that week. I have regular one-to-ones with all of my direct reports each week, and have a one-to-one quarterly with every person in the marketing organization.
We’ve also been growing the marketing organization at Slack this year, so I’m often meeting with candidates to learn more about them and answer any questions they might have about how we do marketing.
I head out from the office between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m. so I can spend some time in the evening with my husband and son. Family dance parties and some fierce games of Go First are a staple in our house.
If there’s work I need to review in more depth, I’ll often save that for the evenings when I have more head-space to provide detailed feedback. Then I usually head to bed around 10:00 p.m.
What has been the most exciting work development during the past year?
In January, we launched a new product — Slack Enterprise Grid. It enables large companies to use Slack in ways that are more customized to how their business is structured.
The launch event was a multi-month effort, and it turned out more amazing that I could have hoped. We hosted it at the SFJazz Center, complete with a live jazz band who played along to all the different parts of the event.
It was a huge moment for us as a company, and I am still so proud of all the work my team put in to make that event happen.
What does your work space look like?
My desk is a mess right now, and I don’t tend to spend that much time at it during the day. We’ve been running a consistent print advertising campaign for the past six months, in addition to a few newspaper ads, so the right-hand side of my desk is a large stack of magazines featuring Slack ads.
On the other side of my desk, I’ve got a growing collection of Smiski figurines that surround a trophy I didn’t win, but often enjoy pretending like I did.
I’ve also kept a handwritten note from Anna Pickard, Slack’s Creative Director of Voice and Tone. She stole a bunch of wine gums from my desk, and apologized with a letter in the style of “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. It’s pretty great.
How many miles have you traveled in the last 12 months?
I tend to travel quite a bit for work and for fun. I was in South Africa for my wedding last November, which was amazing, and also traveled with my ladies’ vacation club to Portland and New Orleans.
Recently I headed to London in May for the opening of Slack’s new office, and have an upcoming trip to New York planned to meet with some of our customers on the East Coast.
In a previous life, when I did client-facing work, I had the chance to travel all over the world for project work. My favorite series of trips were to Nicaragua and Bolivia, where I spent time researching opportunities for a micro-finance institution to expand their services for women.
What work challenge keeps you up at night?
One of the biggest strengths at Slack today is our ability to be nimble and ship faster than our competitors, whether on the product or marketing fronts.
I’m often up at night thinking about how to hold on to that way of working and mulling over things I can do to make process efficient and minimal so that my team can move quickly.
Can you tell us about a campaign or work project you’d like to do over?
While I was at GitHub, we created a video series that featured companies who used GitHub to build and ship software. The video team there was amazing, and the videos themselves were really well done. We lacked a solid distribution strategy, though, and I don’t think we got as much out of those videos as we could have.
Tell me about the people who have been most influential in your career.
Much of my drive and my ambition comes from my Dad, who has always modeled grit and determination.
I’ve also been fortunate to be mentored by some amazing people — Jen Anderson and Martha Piper at New Profit, who taught me so much about what is means to be a leader, and my former business partner, Will Novy-Hildesley, who gave me a thorough education in brand strategy.
What traits does a person need to succeed in your position?
A relentless focus on removing friction from work. I think the role of any leader, whether in marketing or another function, is to keep the path ahead clear of roadblocks for their team and to hustle to make sure people have what they need to get work done.
Curiosity is also important — you learn so much when you start with questions rather than conclusions, and it sets an important tone for how others can work with you.
Can you tell us something about yourself that your team would be surprised to know?
In high school, I raised a dairy cow named Cloe.
Why did you go into marketing?
After finishing degrees in systematic theology, I’d worked my way through religion personally, but remained fascinated about how people come to build systems that help them understand the world.
What other career would you like to try, and why?
I’ve always wanted to open a bakery that served pastries paired with teas. I’d love to decorate it like a cozy house with great chairs for reading.
What’s the last business book you read, and what did you think of it?
It’s not really a business book per se, but I recently finished “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam” [by Pope Brock].
As a marketer, it was a fascinating look at how an idea builds a following.
Outside of your company’s efforts, what ad campaign caught your eye recently?
I loved Spotify’s end of 2016 out-of-home campaign where they used data about songs people had played to highlight all the ways people consume music in their lives. The ad copy was delightful, and the whole campaign was extremely well done.
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