Biro searches for 'unicorns' to spur Strategic Interactive

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As a junior in high school, Kathleen Biro attended a special program at the New York University School of Engineering to prepare gifted math and science students for a career in engineering. On completion, Ms. Biro, the only female in the program, received a certificate. It read, in gold letters, "Mr. Kathleen Biro."

"That might as well have been a telegram to me telling me that engineering wasn't a field for women," said Ms. Biro.

Now president-CEO of Strategic Interactive Group, Boston, Ms. Biro, 46, has always found herself representing the minority in a still-male-dominated industry.

`IT GETS KIND OF LONELY'

"As one of the few women in technology at this level, it gets kind of lonely," she said. "You don't see women assuming senior-level management positions in technology, despite the fact that 40% of business school graduates are women. But if there ever was an opportunity for women to even the score in terms of salary and level of responsibility, it's in technology-related industries."

Ms. Biro has been doing her part to help even the score by leading Strategic Interactive Group, the interactive arm of direct marketing agency Bronner Slosberg Humphrey, since its founding in 1995.

Before that Ms. Biro was senior VP-marketing director at Bronner, overseeing work for L.L. Bean and IBM Corp. She also spent several years working in the financial services industry, helping to develop home banking systems and other banking technology projects.

At SIG, she wanted to build not just an interactive advertising agency, but a business partner for clients.

"I had been watching personal computer penetration since the mid-'80s, and by 1993 or 1994, I thought the time had come for us to build relationships with customers using this new technology," Ms. Biro said. "I had a vision of a company that would be a think tank--we'd recruit the best and brightest holding the best degrees. Our business model was different, too, in that we didn't want to be a job shop, we wanted [large]-scale, long-term relationships with clients."

As a result, although it maintains a staff of 250 people in offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco and more recently London, SIG's client list is short.

LIMITED CLIENT LIST

While it continues to seek new clients, including the recent addition of Coca Cola Co.'s Diet Coke, the interactive shop currently works with only 12 companies. But the roster includes industry leaders such as American Express Co., Federal Express Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Johnson & Johnson, General Motors Co. and Kraft Foods.

By keeping that list short, Ms. Biro said, the agency has been able to focus on developing electronic commerce and return-on-investment strategies for clients, strategies tied to Ms. Biro's view of the Web as a direct marketing channel.

PASSIONATE ABOUT TECHNOLOGY

"When you look at our roster, we have more e-commerce experience than anyone else," she said.

Ms. Biro's challenge now is to continue to attract the talent that catapulted the company to profitability. She said she hopes to attract "unicorns," as she calls them--people who are passionate about technology but also have a strong business background.

SIG will also continue its efforts to expand geographically, she said. The London office it opened recently serves its multinational clients.

Copyright February 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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