How Kimberly Blackwell became a national marketing voice: Be bold and overdeliver
The CEO of PMM Agency has developed a standout national marketing brand. Now it’s time for Columbus to know her better.
Kimberly Blackwell has superpowers: “I can see around corners and provide solutions,” says the CEO of PMM Agency, the Columbus-based marketing, advertising and new media agency.
And, like many superheroes, Blackwell has a secret identity. Sort of. While she’s not exactly a stranger to the C-suites of Columbus, “I do seem to be better known nationally than in Columbus,” muses the head of PMM, which has provided services for several well-known brands including Toyota, Walmart, Jackson-Hewitt and ViacomCBS.
Like other superheroes, Blackwell’s origin story also is clouded in a bit of mystery. For example: her age. “Forty-something,” is all she’ll say. PMM? “I don’t say what it stands for, we just use the initials.” So many possibilities for three letters. And then there’s her father, Ken Blackwell. “He had a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys,” is all Blackwell initially said about her father, when describing her childhood in Cincinnati.
She didn’t divulge he’s “the” Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of the Queen City, former Ohio State Treasurer and Ohio Secretary of State, and the first African American major party (Republican) candidate for governor. Kind of a big deal.
“I can’t even tell you one time she played off her father in any way, shape or form,” says Larry James, a longtime family friend and the managing partner of the Columbus law firm Crabbe Brown & James. “She made sure to earn everything on her own merits, and it’s a double whammy for a Black female—it’s twice as hard to do what she’s done. Her thing is, let me do this on my own, and she did do it on her own.”
Blackwell has done it on her own, and she has remained true to who she is: A Black woman CEO determined to break barriers for herself and her company and to open doors for others. “For me it’s always been, go big or go home,” says the outgoing, confident Blackwell. Along the way, she has developed some strategies that other entrepreneurs might want to latch onto and adopt, such as: Deliver more than you promise; diversify your network; leap out of your comfort zone; and understand the concept Blackwell calls “invited, not included.” She might be writing a business book about these and several other successful strategies, but that’s a bit of a secret, for now.
“There aren’t that many people who bring the combination of brains and fun to meetings that Kim does,” says, John Lowe, CEO of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.
Blackwell served in the Obama and Trump administrations as a member of the National Women’s Business Council (NWBC); was named one of the “Most Powerful Women in Business” by Black Enterprise; has been awarded the PR News’ Top Women in PR, and has been listed in the Ebony Power 100.
While Blackwell didn’t initially go into detail about her famous father, she bragged hard on her mom, who broke through several barriers. Rosa Blackwell was a teacher who worked her way up the educational administration ladder, eventually being named superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools in 2005. “They were truly best friends, and I grew up in a house of love,” Blackwell says of her parents. “My dad still writes my mom love letters.”
The Blackwell house was filled with love—and a lot of students.
“My mom is one of those village moms, one of those teachers who brought her students home with her to make sure they got their work done and weren’t getting into any trouble,” Blackwell says.
As for her dad: “I’m very proud of him, but I don’t lead with him.”
Another role model was Ross Love, her father’s best friend, whom Kimberly Blackwell calls Uncle Ross. Love was the first African American to be named vice president of advertising at Procter and Gamble, and, for an encore, he created a successful network of radio stations, Blue Chip Broadcasting. Ken Blackwell was an investor.
Her parents and Uncle Ross gave Blackwell the confidence to think big and the tools to succeed.
Learning the business
After graduating from Syracuse University, Blackwell spent some time as a teacher and briefly thought about medical school. Then she discovered her love of business and eventually went to work for the Columbus Quest in marketing and communications. The team won the American Basketball League’s championship in 1997 and 1998, led by Katie Smith and Tonya Edwards. Blackwell them moved on to Zero Casualties Inc., an urban apparel business, as vice president of marketing and advertising, splitting time between Columbus and New York. These first two jobs “allowed me to build a strong contact list and create campaigns and product placement and endorsement deals,” she says.
Despite these successes, Blackwell wanted more. A lot more. And had a plan.
Blackwell incorporated the “secret” PMM initials as far back as 1999. “I was doing some consulting, some brand strategy, execution and planning on the side…my side hustle,” she says. “And people were telling me I was really good at it, and that companies pay big money for this.”
A couple years later, in the early 2000s, Blackwell made the leap and went all in with PMM, working from her 600-square-foot apartment the first few years as a sole practitioner. Toyota was one of her first clients, followed by Nationwide, Macy’s and Fifth Third Bank.
Blackwell was a marketing consultant for Toyota, hired to write speeches for executives, expand and diversify the company’s supply chain, and to organize events that would help the automaker reach a more diverse population. For Nationwide, Blackwell “helped them partner in underrepresented segments, with African-Americans and Latinx,” she says, adding PMM helped recruit spokespersons from the sports and entertainment worlds, and created national Nationwide tours that promoted financial education, economic empowerment and entrepreneurship to underserved populations.
“Kim really worked well with our marketing team as it relates to diversity work,” says Gale King, Nationwide executive vice president and chief administrative officer. “She brings what we’re looking for when we hire an outside partner, which is, do they understand who we’re working with, and she understands the African American space and what we need to be doing in that space.”
Reaching out to African Americans and other underserved minority populations is often how Blackwell and PMM first get their foot in the door and into meetings. But once she’s got a toehold, Blackwell really goes to work and utilizes her superpowers.
“My thing is to never just meet expectations, but to always exceed them,” Blackwell says. “Always overdeliver.”
This strategy was the key to survival in the early days of PMM.
“I’m Black, and I’m a woman, and I’m playing in a space dominated by white male [chief marketing officers],” she says. “So, it’s understanding how to seize an opportunity, and the highest form of compliment I can get is when a client says to me, ‘You really delivered, but we had no idea it would be like this.’ ”
Blackwell and PMM are frequently hired initially to consult on how a company can reach a more diverse audience. “Welcome to my world,” she says. “We’re often seen as the first responders to the Black box or the brown box.”
She’s OK with this because Blackwell is confident she will overdeliver, impress the heck out of the CMO who hired her, get to meet with other C-suiters and have the opportunity to say to CEOs: “What are the things that are keeping you up at night that I can help you with? Maybe I can help.”
This strategy has enabled Blackwell to expand beyond the pigeonhole she was hired for “and now I have leaders saying, ‘PMM can help us with this area too,’ ” she says.
Larry James calls what Blackwell is up against “the Black tax. And so, you have to go in and keep your ego in check and then outperform your competition,” he says. “She has done this multiple times.”
Diversify your network
“Opportunity does not come in one way, shape or form or person,” Blackwell says. And so, she reaches out to anyone and everyone and serves on several local and national boards to contribute and make connections. “I’ve always been a people person, a good networker and, sometimes, you’re only as strong as your network.”
Lowe has become a member of her network, and a friend.
“We first met when we were on the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and immediately hit it off and became friends,” says the Jeni’s CEO. “And now, every once in a while, I’ll call and ask for some advice. You don’t have to be around Kim long to realize she can help you in meaningful ways.”
James believes the time Blackwell spent on the National Women’s Business Council, getting to know other successful women CEOs from around the country, has been a key to her success. “She did make a lot of connections,” he says. “And, I think she’s a case study of how, when you’re in a small market [like Columbus] with little opportunity, this is how you create and seize and take advantage of these opportunities when you have them.”
Invited, not included
Meetings are the key to success, right?
Blackwell has a different interpretation: “I’ve come to learn that often the meeting before the meeting [that you weren’t invited to] is where a lot of the decisions are made. And, then there’s often a pre-call before the meeting before the meeting, so, you need to figure out where you fit into this value table.”
To do this, Blackwell says, you must take advantage of the invitation to the meeting after the pre-meeting. “Start asking questions, not to be combative, but to develop a reputation and so people will develop an appreciation for how you think. This happens over time, it’s a journey, you have to be patient and you need mentors and champions to help you navigate the politics involved.”
Be your brand
Like it or not, Blackwell says, everyone is their own brand these days, so you might as well embrace this fact. Her brand is to be (1) bold, brilliant and decisive; (2) overdeliver and impress; and then (3) take on new tasks for a client, and then repeat steps 1 and 2 over and over again.
Blackwell has 40,000 Instagram followers. Her posts feature her accomplishments, photos with famous friends, and more than a little glamour. This woman knows her to dress, and she can even make a mask look stylish.
One of a kind
Blackwell says there are still times when she’s in a meeting, serving as a member of a board or committee, or making a presentation on behalf of PMM, and feels “like a unicorn.”
“It can’t just be the diverse leading the diverse,” she says of the lack of people of color and women in positions of power. “We have to unlearn all this and reimagine the way we do business. How do we get more women and minorities to the table? That’s why I’m on these boards, that’s why I was on the National Women’s Business Council. To prime the pump, to look for younger and different Kimberly Blackwell, and create a pipeline, create solutions.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.
CEO, PMM Agency
In position since: 1999
Previous: Director of basketball operations for Columbus Quest; vice president of marketing and advertising, Zero Casualties.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Syracuse University; master’s degree, Xavier University.
Personal: Resides in Columbus
1301 Dublin Road, Columbus 43215
Business: Marketing, advertising and new media agency
CEO: Kimberly Blackwell
Revenue: Would not disclose