Kate Oppenheim on the value of a support network

Kate Oppenheim is Executive Producer and Partner at m ss ng p eces, a progressive production and entertainment company based in New York City. As a business they're pushing the boundaries of possibilities between the fields of technology and film. Kate paved her way through the esteemed Associate program of Ogilvy New York before joining MP as a Partner at the tender age of 26. She's highly regarded in the industry for her dynamic approach to storytelling and has delivered award-winning integrated programs for the likes of CISCO, Unilever and Time Warner Cable. Even more exciting is the fact she's due to become a mother any day now.

Kate in her office at m ss ng p eces

Kate in her office at m ss ng p eces

What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was in high school I wanted to be a diplomat.

What single book had the greatest impact on you? 
A collection of poetry by E. E. Cummings.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up? 
I’m in bed by 11pm and up by 7:05am.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
Mornings, before 11am.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I would say my career started when I was in high school and I was interning for my aunt and grandmother. They started a business together that reviews children’s toys called The Oppenheim Toy Portfolio. They wrote a book every year and are the Today Show’s toy tester contributors. 

I was doing super basic work like checking that every 800 number in the phone book was accurate, proof-reading their press releases and answering the telephone. It gave me a little peek into how people did work at the highest level of media, which I don’t think I was conscious of at the time but I started to understand how professional people work, and specifically entrepreneurs, which I think is a very different thing.

When I was in college I did a couple of internships in DC with an environmental non-profit and then a marketing/PR agency that worked with non-profits. I was studying Political Science and I was very passionate about the issues I cared about. I really wanted to be either a policy expert or work in diplomacy but I learnt from my time in DC that I didn’t like the city as a place to live and I couldn’t see myself there in the long term.

I didn’t want to devote my life to making it there, it wasn’t for me, so right before my Senior year I started thinking about what I could do in New York instead.

I was very frustrated, not just with DC but with the process of working with non-profits who move very slowly. My experience with my family’s company was that they would make a decision and then go and work out how to do it. Of course they were just two people but they did an incredible amount of work and accomplished so much. When I was working with non-profits there was so much bureaucracy to comb through and they were filled with people who cared deeply about the causes they were working on but didn’t have the pressure you have at a for-profit company, to make stuff happen.

Ogilvy was recruiting on my campus that year which was really weird because very few companies (bar Consulting and Banks) recruited at the University of Chicago at the time. Through meeting the recruiter, I had the opportunity to go through an insane interview process to become an Associate at Ogilvy. The process is called Super Saturday and feels a little bit like being a contestant on the Apprentice. It’s crazy because for the vast amount of people applying to get in, only 13 of us became Associates that year.

The Associates program is such a great opportunity. It’s like another year of college because you go through every department in the agency. There were parts I loved and parts that drove me totally crazy – it’s a classic millennial problem. They bring super talented people into this program and then sometimes you get tasked with intern-level  tasks which, depending on the department you’re in, was good or bad. In addition to that we got to go through all of Ogilvy’s other entry-level training.

Through that I met my future boss, Doug Scott, who had just started the Branded Entertainment and Content group. I worked with him for the next 3 and a half years. It was an incredible experience because I joined the team when it was just 5 or 6 people. It was just getting started and it didn’t quite have an official mandate from the agency, it felt more like an experiment to do great work. What happened over time was that it grew and I got to do things that no one my age at any global agency should ever be allowed to do. But our team was so small it acted like a start up.

I learned so much about a new discipline that was just starting to emerge which was why I was so drawn to the team in the first place. At that time the agency was still so traditional and I didn’t feel connected to the more traditional ways of working. Doug was talking about new ways of engaging people that felt much more natural to me. I don’t know if that’s because I was younger and I was already experiencing much of my life on the internet but it was clear to me that I would be happier “figuring it out” in a new group than learning the ropes.

Along the way I met my current business partner, Ari, who I hired to do a project in 2009. He was running a production company called m ss ng p eces. Soon after meeting him I realized we were thinking about all the same things except that I spent most of my days writing PowerPoint decks and Ari got to make all the stuff I was writing PowerPoint decks about. He was on set with directors actually doing it. I realized pretty quickly that that’s what I would have preferred to be doing too.

I never considered it as a career because I honestly didn’t realize it was a job you could do. I took a couple of film classes at school – one of which was practical – but no one ever said: oh and you can do this for a living. It was like: You can be a starving artist or you can be an account person. It was never presented to me as an option and I think that’s true of a lot of careers. The amazing diversity of careers you encounter in the working world are never presented as options when you’re growing up.

About a year after I met Ari, we started talking about what I might do if I joined m ss ng p eces. At the time the company was a duo of Ari and our friend Scott Thrift. They would go and make films together and build freelance teams around them but there wasn’t quite a collective yet. So we started talking about what we might do with it and I felt like there were some challenges that I’d encountered at OgilvyEntertainment that I felt I could solve by creating a new production company.

m ss ng p eces had come from a place of making content specifically for the internet. They weren’t making TV commercials yet but I got excited because the guys were making original content on the internet. I believed that if we could take that knowledge and I could connect it with how to work with brands and agencies, then we were going to have something really special. It was really obvious that that’s where things are going. It was not obvious at the time though how quickly they were going to go there.

On my 26th birthday in 2010, I left Ogilvy and became a partner at m ss ng p eces. 

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
One that we're still working on. The business of being a production company has changed so dramatically over the last decade that starting a new production company on those shifting sands has been really hard to do. It's like trying to hit a piñata blindfolded. Sometimes candy falls out but a lot of the time you're just spinning in circles. 

What motivates you?
It changes so much over time.  What motivates me right now is being responsible for a business and knowing that a bunch of people depend on me. I also find what I’m working on and the people I work with to be really inspiring. I’m at peak levels of motivation in my career which is so lucky and so good because I’ve felt the flip side.

What advice would you give to your daughter/son at the start of their career?
Be patient but not too patient. When I started I had a hard time envisioning how long a career was, that a career was something that you start maybe when you're 21 but you have it until your in your 60s, 70s and 80s and there's different things to take advantage of along the way. Being opportunistic is really important but it's also important to remember that just because something doesn't go your way this time, doesn't mean that it's the end of the world or that there's not going to be another chance. It's a compounding thing that happens over a long time.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I feel really good about where the company is right now and that I’ve been able to create some sort of life for myself here that I didn’t know was a possibility. 

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Having a support network. Once your company is in a good place, once your team is in a good place, that’s your support network. What that means changes over time, but I believe that no one does it by themselves.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
There are things I’m still trying to learn like making sure I’m not afraid to take credit for my work. It’s still hard. It’s harder for women because we’re taught to be good collaborators and when you are that way you don’t always feel comfortable saying: That was me, I did that. To have a successful career you have to be able to take credit for your work. Otherwise you can’t lay claim to anything, and other people will. 

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
The ability to listen: The ability to be perceptive about what is happening in your company/industry and be responsive to those things. For small companies things need to change so quickly, that if you’re not listening to your customers / clients / freelancers / team members / industry press, it’s really hard to move forward and make good decisions.

Also the ability to create a team and make them feel like they’re on a mission with you. We always joke that we’re all obsessed with cults because cult leaders are able to invent impossible circumstances for their followers to believe in, and in some ways running a business is not much different. If the people that work with you don’t believe they’re on a mission with you, for themselves and for the company, it’s very hard to succeed.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
Definitely my husband Ben. He's always been my best friend and my biggest cheerleader. My business partners are also incredibly supportive and we're very close.  

What's next?
We just moved into our new office in New York and we're also opening an office in LA. Those are the two big things. I'm really committed to becoming one of the best production companies in the world in the next decade. You have to win it on every project, but it is a 10-year project. I’m also having a baby in April and starting a whole new chapter!


As told to Caroline Hugall at Ovenly in Greenpoint on Thursday 2nd October 2014