Nancy Kramer talks tech, and other corporate leaders listen.
When the thinkers and the doers behind Smart Columbus usher the city into its future, Nancy Kramer will be there to greet us.
The woman who in 1981 hitched her startup marketing firm to a young company called Apple and a new concept called personal computing has been a few steps ahead of the rest of the world for much of her career. She has helped make technology fashionable—literally, in the case of an internet-crashing 1999 Super Bowl ad for the first live webcast of a Victoria's Secret fashion show—and has helped clients enter the worlds of e-commerce and mobile apps.
Kramer, who founded Resource Interactive and has served as chairman of Resource/Ammirati since announcing the sale of her company to IBM in January 2016, has been a bridge between Silicon Valley ingenuity and Midwestern practicality since a time when casual work attire and open offices were novel concepts in these parts.
But with Smart Columbus, Kramer sees her hometown on the leading edge of what's coming next. The $500 million-and-growing effort, backed by the US Department of Transportation, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, and both private and public local sources, is designed to make central Ohio a showcase for new transportation technology. Leaders hope such innovation can be leveraged to address issues from poverty to prenatal health and infant mortality.
“I'm all in on all of it,” Kramer says.
Kramer describes herself as “very future-focused” and has the vocabulary to match. She scoffs at the idea that some people feel trepidation at the thought of driverless cars and other not-too-distant advances. As a child growing up in Columbus, she loved the library and all of the information it held about people, places and things far beyond her hometown. As a college student at Ohio State University, she majored in journalism—“I'm an observer, a seeker of truth”—but started her marketing agency just four years out of school after a brief career in radio sales.
Apple was her first client and her only client for three years.
“The personal computer was a new thing,” she says. “I was very inspired … that it was putting in our hands access to the world's information and I, even then, could sense that it was the democratization of information. For me, a kid who was born and raised in Columbus and lived here my whole life, the idea that I could be here and access the world was incredibly compelling to me.”
A conversation with Kramer seems to touch on much of the world's information. If she was inspired by the advent of home computers in 1981, she's even more captivated now by the potential of technology to have still more profound and more beneficial impacts on people's lives. “I think it's fun. I think it's exciting. I think it's wonderful.”
She's a huge fan of TED Talks, the worldwide series of idea exchanges, and recently listened to 80 speakers in four days in Vancouver. She recommends New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's latest book, Thank You for Being Late, an explanation of why the world seems to be changing so fast and a reassurance that things will be OK.
A conversation with Kramer touches a plethora of topics: street lights and other technology that can monitor traffic volume and alleviate highway congestion, sensors in garbage cans that can alert trash collectors, self-driving vehicles, smart homes, smart mobility, artificial intelligence (Kramer prefers the term “augmented intelligence”), economic development and access to jobs, the future of the retail sector, IBM's Watson supercomputer, quantum computing, and more.
Each topic ties back to the three macro trends that Kramer sees shaping our future—technology, globalization and climate change—and each is a box that's ticked off with the possibilities of Smart Columbus.
“I was talking to somebody about this the other day who's a data scientist,” she says. “In the same way the commercialization of the internet created the dot-com bubble, I feel as though we're at the epicenter—it's hard for me to know if it's the beginning; it's kind of at the beginning-middle, I guess—of another huge transformational change.”
Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, says Kramer's knowledge and vision are invaluable for the organization of central Ohio business leaders. She's a member of the executive committees for both the Columbus Partnership and Smart Columbus, and she organized a visit for 30 local CEOs last year to Facebook, Google, Stanford University and other Silicon Valley institutions.
“Nancy's perspective on business and our community and, most importantly, innovation has really been a driving force for how we think about upping our game,” he says.
Fischer asked Kramer to help with last year's pitch to the federal officials who issued what they called their Smart City Challenge to communities across the country. Seventy-eight cities applied for $50 million in winner-takes-all grants for next-generation transportation initiatives, and seven finalists were invited to make presentations.
Kramer's team at Resource/Ammirati came up with a three-minute video that eschewed the skyline shots, talking-head officials and people-on-the-street interviews shown by Austin, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland and San Francisco. Animated only by words and graphics and backed just by music with no spoken script, the Columbus presentation focused on local plans for transportation solutions to community issues and the hallmark collaboration that would see them through:
In Columbus, we've built an unprecedented culture of collaboration. We've knocked down silos and built up partnerships to become the Midwest's fastest-growing city. Our culture of collaboration is the Columbus Way. It is how $50 million becomes $140 million.
We will set the pace for Smart City transformation. We will connect hard-working people to jobs. We will lift a low-income community out of poverty, give students of all ages unprecedented access to education, give expectant mothers access to prenatal care, and get more children to pre-K.
Through collaboration, we get things done. By sharing data and leveraging advanced analytics, we will clear congestion and improve safety like never before. We will demonstrate how a city can leap ahead.
You see, we know how to lead, to collaborate, to set a bold vision and best of all, we know how to deliver results. So let's transform Columbus. Let's build a connected, cutting-edge, sustainable, smart city.Smart Columbus will move America forward. We're ready. All of us.
“This is what I do for a living, but Nancy has a day job,” says Fischer, who calls Kramer a perfect example of what business leaders call the Columbus Way. “Her most significant contribution has been as a thought leader.”
Kramer relishes not just the collaboration that drives Smart Columbus but the collaboration that she sees driving all major efforts here. She remembers a time when she didn't see that dynamic in town, when government and private business and OSU each pretty much did its own thing.
“I believe that over the last 20 years there's been a culture of collaboration that's been built. Slowly, but now it is somewhat engrained,” she says. “It's part of the personality of the Midwest. I think you'd be hard-pressed to have a true, authentic culture of collaboration in a market on either coast, because that's just not culturally aligned with the people and institutions that are based on either coast. But it's a real and authentic characteristic of the Midwest.”
Not that she hasn't learned a thing or two from Columbus' coastal counterparts over the years.
Kramer says her more recent experience with New York-based IBM colleagues has taught her the benefits of touting local successes and virtues.
And now, as Kramer recalls her early days in business as a regular traveler between Columbus and Apple offices in California, she says the experience with people such as founder Steve Jobs shaped how she has run her own business. Kramer helped Jobs' company market its computers to consumers as Apple and early competitors such as Radio Shack and Texas Instruments ventured into the home market.
“I was spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley, and that had a huge impact and influence,” she says. “The first 15 years, every one of our clients was a technology company, and not one of them was based in Columbus. They were all based in California.”
That West Coast influence remains today, Kramer says, in the way her company operates. Resource/Ammirati has a wide-open office Downtown—it relocated from the Arena District to 250 S. High St., in 2015—where employees dress casually and are welcome to bring their dogs and kids to work.
“It's a pretty laid-back culture from a business standpoint,” she says. “Which is also conducive of a creative business. … I think all businesses should be creative myself, or have a creative focus. Why would they exist if they're not? That's just my personal editorial.”
Since 2008, when now-CEO Kelly Mooney coauthored a book called The Open Brand, Resource has been a pioneer in a more interactive form of marketing that uses social media, digital networking and other emerging modes of communication. The idea is that people aren't passive consumers anymore, and businesses must find ways to make customers part of a brand “experience.”
For client White Castle, that meant a four-part video series that featured chefs reinterpreting the Slider and inviting viewers to do the same. For Sherwin-Williams, it was a mobile app that allows users to snap photos that include favorite colors and then find paints to match. For Pink, the Victoria's Secret line for younger women, Resource created an online community of promotions, events and design contests called Pink Nation.
Clients today include Procter & Gamble, Purina, Nestle, Newell Brands, B&G Foods, North American Breweries and the beauty-products service Birchbox. And while Resource has expanded to both New York and Chicago—its offices are on Union Square in the former and in the Wrigley Building in the latter—Kramer says she never has considered moving the business to a bigger market. New York, San Francisco and Chicago, in that order, are the top cities in the country for marketing professionals, according to Forbes.
So instead of building her company's future in some other city, Kramer now is helping to build this city's future through Smart Columbus. In her mind, future Columbus is a carbon-neutral place where mass transit thrives and where the major automakers have converged to transform not just the vehicles we drive but also the road and highway system on which we drive them. It's a city where technology hasn't thrown people out of work but has created new jobs and fields of endeavor.
And her influence on the next generation of Columbus residents, not just technology, no doubt will continue.
“Nancy Kramer is a role model and inspiration for tech entrepreneurs, women and community leaders working to challenge the status quo and make a difference in the world,” says Falon Donohue, CEO of VentureOhio, the statewide trade association for venture capital firms, business incubators and others that back and support startup companies.
Over the last 20 years, Kramer says, she has seen Columbus evolve from a city of figurative silos to one marked by collaboration and a common vision. The Columbus Way, she's convinced, helped the city win the Smart City Challenge and head down the path it's now on.
“This is really just the beginning of what I think will be the next generation of our community's economic development and way of life,” she says. “I think in 20 years we'll be looking at this and saying, ‘Wow, that US Department of Transportation grant was the catalyst to really get us to think more strategically about the future of our city. That was a great catalyst that kind of made us look at ourselves differently. And wow, look at us.'”
Bob Vitale is the associate editor.