Interview with Business Development Director Stephanie Kiens

Stephanie Kiens is the Business Development Director at brand design agency Lewis Moberly. She shares her story – from being a pop group backing dancer and shop assistant to unemployment, working in the oil industry and finding home within the creative industries.

What’s your career background?

I’ve never been someone who had a grand plan. My father was a civil and chemical engineer and I’ve always been interested in maths and science. My mother had many careers, most notably as a beautician and company owner.

That said, the performing arts defined my earliest years considerably. As a child, I was a semi-professional dancer, doing classical ballet for 12 years and then pop, street and jazz dance.

I was even a backing dancer for a Danish pop group! Although I loved dancing, I knew that I didn’t have the conviction to stick with it as a career.

I didn’t go to university straight after sixth form. I wanted some travel and life experience, so I lived in London for a few years where I was a shop assistant at the Louis Vuitton concession in Harrods.

There were opportunities for me to eventually manage a store, but I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career. I just knew that I had more to offer beyond being on the shop floor. 

So I went back to university in Denmark and studied for a BA in International Business – a notoriously selective course also dubbed ‘the Relationship Breaker’ because of its sheer intensity.

Unlike the UK, where students don’t tend to work 30+ hour jobs at the same time as studying for an undergraduate degree, in my native Denmark this is the cultural norm. Therefore my entry into ‘real’ work started while I was studying for my Bachelors, where I took up a job in Risk Management for Maersk, the Danish shipping company, within their oil trading department.

I wasn’t passionate about the role despite staying there for five years, but it gave me the opportunity to apply what I learnt on my course within a real work setting.

Beyond that, I quickly learnt to adapt working in a very male dominated environment, and quickly learnt to manage different stake holders and different types of relationships. During these five years, I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in International Marketing Management.

In 2010 the recession hit and I found myself without a job. Being unemployed for a year was psychologically and emotionally challenging.

Having always worked, I found my sense of purpose erode. But an opportunity arose in TerraCycle – the waste management company – as a Nordic Market Manager, based in London.

So I left my home country and started a new life in the UK. I took a huge pay cut and ultimately had to start from the bottom again in a marketing facing role that I had never really done before.

Ironically, I used to think marketing as a discipline was boring, (at least how it was taught at university) but combined with business development, I discovered a new passion and talent I never knew I had. 

Sustainability underpinned everything that the organisation did, and I found myself creating partnerships with environmental NGOs and some of the biggest conglomerates in the world – from Unilever to L’Oréal. We even worked with tobacco companies to ameliorate the waste that cigarette butt-ends cause. 

I transitioned into business development and the creative industries in 2012 when I started working at brand design agency Bluemarlin.

Now at Lewis Moberly, a heritage business set up by industry legends who have created some of the most iconic creative work for the most aspirational and well-known brands – from Moet & Chandon to Waitrose.

I love my job, because it combines an ability to read and connect with people on a creative and strategic level and enables me to develop and grow a business based on hard analysis. I can still indulge the proud geek in me that has a passion for industry and numbers.

How are creative agencies faring in such a competitive and challenging market? 

I have worked with agencies and brands in different stages of growth – from startups to established companies. I think the way in which agencies do business these days has changed dramatically.

Nepotism is thankfully dying – and the way in which we create trust is changing. What, instead, is becoming more important is the ability to show attunement with audiences and different consumer tribes. Creative services is one of the UK’s greatest exports.

Businesses, brands and talent come to the UK to source and to hone creative excellence. We even have clients who send their interns to us to learn our way of thinking and designing!

I actually think it’s arrogant for agencies to assume that they are better than the competition. It’s not about superiority. In this space and in this territory, everyone is good. Creativity is a commodity of the brilliant minds behind the idea. And while agencies sell ideas, what is really bought in the end are people.

Working in business development for a creative agency, I feel very strongly about avoiding soulless, transactional relationships. Why? Because a project can have a long delivery time line – sometimes even as long as three years. If the working relationship between team and client doesn’t work, the output will be unproductive and the interaction, acrimonious. 

What are your views on mentoring and / or being a mentee?

Aside from the day job, I mentor and support women in business through my networks, as well as through The Wing London – a co-working and community space – of which I am a member.

I really like the supportive community and the opportunity to share experiences and learn from different people from all industries and walks of life. 

Mentorship I think is one of the most mutually important relationships in a career, especially for women in business. This is because I think that women can be their own worst obstacle to meaningful progression – both personally and in business.  

I know that I have doubted myself more than any of my male counterparts. You have to work harder to move past the misogynistic views of some people. 

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

I’ve had comments from men who have underplayed my business acumen, dismissing and attributing my achievements to my physical appearance. I have therefore overcome obstacles of resistance by educating myself to becoming a specialist in my field.

No one can dispute excellence. I wholeheartedly welcome people to underestimate me… they will be grossly surprised.

And your proudest moment so far?

Work culture is so important, and lockdown has emphasised this in such a way that it can finally be universally appreciated, if not understood.

Practically, it has presented operational challenges – not least in the creative industries where the need for studio equipment and quality, collaborative and creative interactions often occurs in the shared physical space. But, on an individual level, working in silo can be a long and lonely road, in a new normality where there is no definite end-date set or in sight. 

In this context, prior to lockdown, I would have probably referred to my ‘proudest’ career achievement as a solely business-oriented feat. Now, however, it is my mentoring experiences that have proven to be really useful in supporting colleagues who were struggling mentally and emotionally during lockdown.

What has made me feel proud and purposeful is hearing from colleagues that simply being there and listening to them was just what they needed. I think being empathic, authentic and just human is the most valuable thing you can do in business, particularly during challenging times. 

Why is work so important to you?

I am fortunate to love what I do. Beyond the satisfaction I get when I’ve had a successful meeting or when I’ve cracked a strategic problem, my work provides me with great independence -financially, emotional and intellectually.

Personally, I know someone who exemplifies all that I don’t want to be with regards to work. He hates his job, but endures it, and has consequently become embittered. 

I want to leave the world better than when I entered it, which is why I also love the fact that I am in the position to push for a difference.

Sustainability and striving for more positive solutions via branding, communications and design, will always be a passion of mine and I am fortunate to work in an industry where we can help shape that agenda. It is, after all, about education and changing behavioural patterns to achieve a positive effect. 

Who inspires you?

Working in the creative industry, I’d say people are my main source of inspiration – particularly in my role as business development director.

My friends inspire me, and I’m lucky to have some truly talented people in my network. They’re a diverse bunch, working in everything from commodity trading and IT to marketing and consulting.

Talking with people outside of the industry is the best way to gain a bigger perspective on the world, and on business. I learned to value the differences between people very early on, and to celebrate these. I never want to stop learning or challenging myself, which is why I often welcome a healthy discussion.

My parents have also inspired me in their tenacity and ability to remain flexible. Travelling and living around the world can be exciting but also stressful for a family. Somehow they always managed to just get on with it and create great memories along the way.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

In business, what I’ve learnt is that you need to understand that nothing is personal… or at least it shouldn’t be. Learn to welcome constructive criticism. Ask for it. Create an environment where it becomes normal practice to review and discuss successes as well as failures.

I think businesses can do this by creating open environments where people feel safe when asking for help. I know that some will have a hard time asking for help to the detriment of themselves and the wider team. They fear appearing unknowledgeable. However, some of the biggest discoveries – in science or otherwise – comes from a simple acceptance of not-knowing and a desire to address the ignorance.

Innovation comes from asking questions, collaboration, and trial and error. I think this is true of life, true of how successful business are run, and true of how some of the best creative ideas are born.

Beyond this, understanding and accepting the fact that no job is too small or beneath you. Through COVID, I am grateful that we have all had our eyes opened to the really important people in our lives!

Street sweepers, health care workers, the corner shop attendant… we need everyone in society in order to make it run smoothly. Never feel too proud to do a job, whatever it may be.