Arnold's new CEO has zero agency background, and that's her 'biggest advantage'

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Kiran Smith
Kiran Smith Credit: Alfred Maskeroni

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On the first day of her new job as CEO of Arnold Worldwide last month, Kiran Smith broke her foot. What could easily be interpreted as a bad omen turned out to be a blessing in a cast: Smith says the boot she's had to wear these past five weeks have endeared her to new staffers and broken the ice with clients.

She could use all the help she can get: In its second-quarter earnings release last month, parent company Vivendi blamed weak organic results of its agency network Havas on "the impact of Arnold's underperformance." Smith had only just started and could hardly be blamed for the results. But if the pressure is on now, she's not showing it.

"I don't feel like I am answering for past performance," she says on the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "Right now my responsibility and my mantra in terms of what drives me every day is 'who are we going to go after, who do we want to work with, who are partners that we really feel our capabilities and what their problems they want to address are going to match well?' That's a great position to be in."

Smith is a veteran marketer—her most recent gig was as chief marketing officer at Brookstone—with no agency experience. A computer science major who got her start in management consulting, Smith says she brings with her a fresh perspective to a gig that is sorely in need of one.

"What I'm finding is that the biggest advantage I have in this role is that I do not have an agency background," she says. "What we're looking to do is to create a model that is serving a modern-day CMO and what I would be looking for as a CMO on the other side was for someone who understood the business issues I was having, the insight that I needed, in terms of making some of the decisions I needed to, and tell me how my dollar was working for me. That's very different from an agency relationship than what's maybe traditional."

Smith also discusses the current state of the CMO, data-informed creativity and what she's learning from clients like Progressive and Jack Daniels.

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