After an Agency Walkabout, Why Kate Higgins Returned to Erich & Kallman as Chief Growth Officer

She helped launch the indie shop in 2016

kate higgins
Kate Higgins is Erich & Kallman's first-ever chief growth officer. Erich & Kallman

Key insights:

There always seems to be something interesting brewing San Francisco. Like most markets, there is an anchor agency or two, and a gaggle of shops that crank out some compelling work. In the Bay Area, Goodby Silverstein & Partners is the biggie, but dotted around the city are places like Camp + King, Duncan Channon, Venables Bell & Partners, BarrettSF, Cutwater, Pereira O’Dell and, over the Golden Gate Bridge, BSSP.

Many of these shops remain independent and have a quirky sensibility—and way of working—that is a hallmark of the market. Most, evidenced by the names on the doors, also have their founders in place. Erich & Kallman is another San Francisco agency where the founders, Eric Kallman and Steven Erich, are front and center.

The work of the agency, in the San Francisco way, stands out with its humor or serious points for brands. On Wednesday, for example, the shop launched a compelling PSA for U.N. Women that is both highly watchable while making a statement about inequity.

Kate Higgins, one of the people who helped launch the agency in 2016, has seen its vast potential and returned as Erich & Kallman’s first-ever chief growth officer. Adweek caught up with Higgins, who counts stints at MullenLowe, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Fallon and The Martin Agency as part of her path, to find out more about the reunion and her thoughts on the state of play in the industry.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Here’s the obvious question. What drew you back to the agency?
Higgins: I have worked at some great places and have an insatiable love of creativity. I like working with people who are top-notch and use [creativity] to solve business problems. I love that they’re doing a different model.

There’s a whole conversation to be had, but the larger, more established traditional agencies have an uphill model as our world is changing. When I first started with them, and Steve explained to me what their vision was, I loved it. There’s big thinking that doesn’t equate to size. At some of the traditional large agencies, I didn’t feel like we were necessarily getting the best work done. You have so many layers, and it’s just because of how they were built.

I think the fact that Erich & Kallman does the same level of work and certainly aspires to be a Wieden + Kennedy or similar, that really appeals to me. That’s why I’m back.

You mentioned the agency’s model. How would you define it?
I think what’s different from before to today was [approaching] talent. That’s always been there and hasn’t changed. And at the beginning, the way that they executed on that was with contractors and freelancers. That was the way of tapping into the best minds out there, if you will, without needing to have a bankroll.

As they’ve become more established and grown—with a really healthy pipeline of clients and new business coming in—it let them switch that model a bit [and focus on internal talent more].

But it feels like the agency still runs really efficiently.
Yes. One of the things that I loved at the very beginning, and the first thing that we did, was with Chik-fil-A. It was me and Eric, a fantastic producer that Eric had worked with—we had [current agency COO] Jill Garrison and Steve, and that was it.

When that work hit the air, you would have never known that it didn’t come from a “bigger, established agency.” The wasting time bit has always driven me nuts at agencies: You brief, and then you brief a million more people, which always leads to a lack of accountability. And then, you know, your creative director’s traveling and doesn’t look at the work. And then weeks have gone by, and that time doesn’t equal better thinking.

It’s early, but what are your plans and goals for the agency at this point?
I like finding clients who have the same appetite in wanting to use creativity to change and drive their business. Where we are best suited, I think, is in partnerships where we can bring big ideas to the table that they help make better.

What advice would you give account people or growth officers who might not be as understanding about creativity?
Don’t be scared. What I personally love about the creative processes is that you walk into work, and the thing that you thought was going to happen is absolutely not what happens. That excites me. Fear does not make creative any better.

I have always counseled folks that have worked with me to take a breath. Maybe the creative told you the craziest, most unrealistic idea in history. But if you’re positive in your feedback, you might help them get to the place where it’s going to be great work.

What’s your take on San Francisco? It feels like interesting things are happening there in the agency market.
There is something about San Francisco that is not uptight and rigid and holding to what used to be. What I get excited about is that the market feels more optimistic. It’s a place of ideas and growth and a more creative environment that wants to challenge the status quo. We take the business seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.