Buffy McCoy Kelly of Tattoo Projects: “There is enough success for everyone”

There is enough success for everyone. When I started, I was conditioned to be in fierce competition with my teammates. I am competitive by nature, so this was very unhealthy for me. It wasn’t until years into my career (and when I became a yogi) that I truly felt and embraced the power of lifting […]

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There is enough success for everyone. When I started, I was conditioned to be in fierce competition with my teammates. I am competitive by nature, so this was very unhealthy for me. It wasn’t until years into my career (and when I became a yogi) that I truly felt and embraced the power of lifting others up rather than only competing with them.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Buffy McCoy Kelly.

As both Chief Executive Officer and Chief Creative Officer, Buffy is the driving force behind Tattoo Projects. With a staff of highly skilled experts spanning both the arts and sciences, and a culture that celebrates independence, talent and hard work, the agency is a dynamic marketing partner to some of the world’s leading brands.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Believe it or not, it was actually a love of junk mail. I come from a very rural background, and it was a monumental thing when the mail would come. I would compete with my brothers and sisters for who got to go down the hill and get the mail from the mailbox. For me, it was so exciting to get all of the catalogues and direct mail pieces, they felt almost magical.

The idea that this was someone’s job — creating make-believe with pictures and colors seemed so cool to me. I loved all advertising. TV ads, too. I especially remember the Tidy Bowl man and the Purina Chuck Wagon commercial with puppets.

Even as a kid I knew in some way that what advertising did was influential in people’s lives and I wanted to be a part of it. I would make my own commercials and draw my own ads all the time. I even wrote to the mail order company Hang Ten once and sent them a sketch of what I thought was a better layout for their catalogue. They wrote back and thanked me and told me that I should reach out to them for a job when I was older.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Well, I am not sure if this is the most interesting, but it really struck me as it reminded me how important it is to be empathetic to others and that what feels insignificant to one person, can feel overwhelming to another. And, oftentimes, it does not take much to fix.

We had a client who was going to be in a series of videos. On the day of the shoot, we brought in wardrobe based on the size she had told us she was. But it quickly became apparent that in fact she was not that size, as the outfits, one after another, did not fit. When the clothes didn’t fit, everything changed. It created a huge shift in her mood and the overall mood of the shoot and she decided she no longer wanted to participate at all.

I knew that would not be best and I also knew that feeling. In fact, I don’t think there are many women that have not had their mood completely deflated by trying on something they thought would look great on them, only to find out it does not fit.

So, I told her that it was the cut of the brand and please give us a few hours and we would get this straightened out. We brought in a new batch of clothes and actually swapped out the labels, so the clothes appeared to be the size that she had told us.

She came back, tried on the clothes, looked and felt terrific, and the shoot continued. This seemingly small thing hit home as it was a reminder of the need for empathy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It certainly didn’t feel funny at the time, but I completely screwed up one of my first big client presentations. I come from a background of public speaking, theater, and dance where everything is choreographed, staged, and rehearsed in advance. So, it seemed to make sense to memorize my first big presentation. Which I did. Word for word. The client flew me out to their offices, and there I was, presenting in a big room full of people. It started out great. I felt like I was killing it. I’m smiling, thinking I’m a badass. And then, maybe ten minutes in, someone shows up late and the client interrupts me and asks if I could just quickly fill this person in on what they missed. And I froze. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t summarize what I had just said, so I essentially rewound and started from the beginning exactly the same way. Only this time it was clear I was not a bad ass.

It was humiliating, but because I’d memorized words, I really couldn’t just tell them the information in a casual and palatable way. I realized then that I’m a good actress but that’s not what is needed in this industry. You need to be organic and flexible and most importantly, you have to know the material from all angles and be able to authentically talk about it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are so many people who have helped me along the way, but the person that I’m most grateful for is my current business partner B. Scott Smith. He has a wealth of experience leading large companies, and when we became partners, he was able to look at our agency with a completely different lens and help guide me in positioning the agency for now and for the future.

I also really admire him on a personal level. He’s been extremely successful in his career and he’s very driven. At the same time, he has an enormous amount of integrity and always puts his family first. This is what I want for everyone at Tattoo Projects. To know that they can be driven and passionate and do great work without ever compromising their values or giving up on having a life outside the office. Some of the agencies I worked at early in my career made us feel like we had to choose between work and family, and I never want anyone here to feel that way. Scott has helped me set up a business where not only can we consistently do great work for our clients, all of our employees can thrive.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m really glad you asked me this. I am passionate about yoga and in fact I am a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher (E-RYT 200, YACEP). For me, practicing yoga is how I relax and also how I best focus. When I have something big going on, I specifically do back bending practices. In yoga this opens up the Anahata chakra. If you think about it, whenever we feel scared or vulnerable, the body’s natural reaction is to curl inwards into a fetal position. It’s protective. Bending backwards generates the completely opposite energy. It helps you open yourself so you can give and receive more freely.

Once, right before a big new business presentation, I went into a client’s ladies’ room and did a full on, hands-to-the-probably-dirty-tile-floor back bend. If anyone had walked in, they would probably have thought I was bananas, but it really worked for me and the presentation went amazingly well.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

As creative problem solvers, diversity in thinking is what fuels any company’s success in advertising. We have to look at things from all angles and you can’t do that if everyone is the same. It’s really important to have different kinds of people at the table who come from different backgrounds and cultures. They naturally bring different ways of thinking. I think the advertising industry was slow to realize this and spent too many years not engaging in a deep enough conversation around diversity. It’s our job to shake trees and rattle people and we need a diversity of thinking to do that.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

It comes down to the simple rule of treating everyone the way you want to be treated. In yoga, a big part of the practice is recognizing that we are all one being, part of one mass humanity. I know it sounds hokey, but when you sit with it and bring it into the practice, and you apply the breath, you really start to feel that connectivity. We need to teach this type of unity in order to have a more inclusive and equitable society. We need to teach that we are all deserving of the same rights, the same justice, the same respect and that if we deny it to one person, one group of people, we’re denying it to everyone because we are all connected. It’s really about empathy, which has always been part of our job — stepping into someone else’s shoes to see what it’s like to be them.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

A good CEO sets the path and direction for their company and then helps ensure that everyone both understands and moves in that direction. Since the buck stops with me, my role is different from other leaders at the agency, as mine is the final word. I’ve found that in the end, I have to trust my intuition. No amount of groupthink and no spreadsheets can ensure the right thing or the right direction for the company. Especially in a creative industry like mine. I have to make room for other leadership styles and other opinions, take it all in, and then get quiet and trust my own ability to move us forward.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I think one of the myths is that when you become the CEO, you don’t have to do the dirty work. I suppose there are bigger companies where that may be true, but I’m still rolling up my sleeves and digging into what has to be done every day. If that means writing a radio spot or social post with my teams one day, I do it; if it means changing the toilet paper in the bathroom, I do that too. I feel like the title lends itself to an image of someone who is not in the trenches, and that is not my experience at all.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

We all know that it takes a lot more work for women to be assertive and confident and still be seen as acceptable and make sure that people like you. That’s not something men worry about. I’m from the South which means it was deeply ingrained in me that women need to appear to be agreeable and be support players to men. And incidentally, that’s different than actually being support players. I grew up surrounded by really strong, really smart women and saw that they were absolutely running the show. But they were also putting so much energy into making it look and feel like the men around them were really the ones in charge. The message was that you’re going to run the show when you grow up, but you’re also going have to make sure that he (whoever he is) still feels big and strong and that you are not overpowering him.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I knew when I started the agency that as CEO, I would be the ultimate decisionmaker. And while that is true, I actually spend much more of my time as the ultimate listener and orchestrator, which means really connecting with my employees all the time. I think it’s important for me to listen as much as possible. We’re all in this together, and showing that is a much more powerful way for us to get where we need to go than me just calling all the shots and making it happen. I mean, I can do that, easily, but listening and getting everyone’s input is a much bigger part of my job than I expected.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I think the people who are best at this job are the ones who just innately love challenge and competition. You have to be a little fearless because you’re going to jump in sometimes and there’s not going to be a net. If you’re too busy overthinking whether to jump in the first place, it’s never going to work out. You have to be able to take the heat and carry a heavy load. At the same time, you have to be a really good listener and not do that thing where you have a glass fishbowl over your head and you look like you’re listening, but you’re really just formulating your own answers. That’s why I think this is the perfect job for a mother (like me) who spends years listening and caring but, ultimately, making decisions without overthinking.

As for who shouldn’t do this, I think if you don’t have the capacity or real insight to have created your own happiness, you should probably avoid this role. People who don’t have their feet under them and aren’t solid in their own well-being may crumble in a role where they are responsible for the well-being of so many others.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

My number one piece of advice to any leader is to treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. After that, I would say take risks and be prepared to mess up. Go ahead and plan for messing up and also plan for how you’re going to give yourself some grace when it happens. And rest. We all need to rest and recharge. Women are trained to just go, go, go, and put everyone else’s needs above their own, but you can’t be an effective leader if you burn out. Cultivating your own happiness actually translates into how you lead the people around you.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

As an agency we do a lot of pro bono work for important organizations like Girls on the Run and Ronald McDonald House. But I feel like that’s just the price of entry. Our power as an agency is our creative talent and it’s our job to use it to help organizations and people who are doing the more direct work of making the world a better place.

Outside of the agency, I am in the process of setting up a nonprofit for young women in Appalachia. The goal is to use yoga to teach self-esteem. I grew up in that part of the country and I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, but that area cultivates this thing in young girls of not feeling good about their bodies. It’s more than just body image though, it’s a deep discomfort in their own skin. I’m working to create a breathwork and yoga program that helps young girls practice self-love and confidence. I actually finished the pilot curriculum right when the pandemic hit, so we haven’t been able to launch yet, but we will once it’s safe, which is something that I am really looking forward to.

I think it’s also important to recognize that you don’t have to do big things like create pro-bono ad campaigns or start non-profits to make the world a better place. You just have to make a difference in someone’s life every day. I feel that with my employees when I create a place they want to work and give them the opportunity to have a life outside of work. And I feel it when I lead my yoga classes and see people who keep showing up and can do a little bit more each time. I watch them do something they didn’t think they could do and then take that positive energy and feeling of power and accomplishment with them when they leave class. I just get so lit up from that and feel good that I can bring that to people.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I wish someone would’ve told me:

• There is enough success for everyone. When I started, I was conditioned to be in fierce competition with my teammates. I am competitive by nature, so this was very unhealthy for me. It wasn’t until years into my career (and when I became a yogi) that I truly felt and embraced the power of lifting others up rather than only competing with them.

• Draw a hard line on putting your family first. For real. This really hit me hard one time when I found myself far away from my family for a tv shoot. I didn’t want to be away for this job, and I knew it could have been done without me there. However, I felt pressure to be there, and I gave in to this pressure against my better judgment. Ironically, we were shooting a tv spot about fatherhood, and the shoot took place over Father’s Day weekend. It was very difficult to do a project that was all about “being there” as a parent when I was literally doing the opposite. I wish someone would’ve told me to stick to my guns when it comes to being there for my family.

• You don’t have to work so late!! I spent at least the first decade of my career working into the double-digits of the evening and pulling more all-nighters than I can count. I know enough about myself to know that my best work is done in the early morning. Anything after dinnertime was a slope of diminishing returns for my work, and it was havoc on my personal life. I wish someone would’ve told me that all those late nights would NOT make the work better. Later in my career, I heard a rumor in my office that everyone was expected to stay until 7pm every day. This was very disturbing to me because it was not only untrue, but it was also a very disempowering sentiment that went against the culture I was striving to build. I talked to team members and learned that this idea had taken root in some portions of the agency, but nobody knew exactly why or how. I took the opportunity to address the team and share my position on this. I also had all team members share the time of day they feel most creative and most energized. Now, all team members know who’s a morning person and who’s a night owl, and we respect one another’s most productive times.

• You’ll get some really bad advice from really good people. Even when the advice is coming from someone you trust or look up to, if it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t take it. I once had a businesswoman I looked up to tell me with certainty that I needed to change my name if I wanted to be taken seriously in business. She also told me that I shouldn’t wear high heels and should invest in a pair of Bass loafers instead. It was very confusing and worrisome for me because my heart and gut told me this was not right for me, but she was someone I admired and she seemed to know what she was talking about. Ultimately, I decided to listen to my gut, and to take my chances with my name and stick with my heels. I wish someone would have told me that your gut is never wrong — and just because someone seems to know the answers doesn’t mean they really do.

• Don’t say Yes when you need to say No. I said yes to a project that I knew was going to be a real stretch for my team to handle. At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do for the client, even though it was going to be very difficult. As you can probably guess, it didn’t go so well. At the end of the project, we had a super stressed out team and a less-than-impressed client. Now, I am very careful about what I say yes to on behalf of my team. Choosing to fire our longest-standing client in 2020 was my biggest and most important NO for my team. By relieving my team of a relationship that no longer served us to our best and highest purpose, space was created for us to take on new work that is better aligned with our culture and values. I wish someone would’ve told me to not wait so long to embrace the power of NO for my team.

• Keep things in perspective: your job is important, but not THAT important. I remember one time when I was telling my mom and sisters about all the important, arduous work I had been doing — making a campaign for milkshakes. When I finished elaborating on the dramatic details of this life-changing project, I asked my sister what she’d been working on lately. My sister, a doctor, humbly shared her joy in the success of a skin graft and wound treatment that she had conducted, which saved her patient from an impending limb amputation. For my sister, this was just another day at the office. It hit me hard that making ads for milkshakes was seemingly so much more complicated than saving a person’s limb. I wish someone had told me to remind myself every day that there are bigger, much more important things in the world, and to not lose sight of the forest for the trees.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

It’s been getting more attention in recent years, but I think mindfulness, stillness, and meditation should be a mandatory part of the elementary school curriculum. So many adults just don’t know how it feels to truly get quiet and breathe. It’s a hard practice, especially for people who are really driven, including me. Every time I get on that yoga mat, I’m a beginner. We need to support this practice by making it part of our culture and I think we should start by teaching kids how to breathe. There’s a reason why, when you get upset, everyone tells you to take a deep breath. In the time it takes to take a breath and let it go, you can change your body’s physiological responses to stress and you can change your mind. If we all learned to take this pause before reacting, I believe we would be more open and understanding of each other and there would be less conflict across the board.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are actually two that come to mind:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”
Hunter S. Thompson

This is my all-time favorite life lesson quote. I have this written on a small piece of paper and I keep it in my wallet. I don’t like to be “safe.” It’s always way too easy to take the safe route, go with the safe design, be more conservative, tone it down, and all that kind of stuff. I’m a maker, a writer, a creator, a story-teller — and the best material comes from taking the adventurous route. In my work, I feel it’s important to lead my clients, my team, my yoga students, and my kids to take the chance that they think they can’t take!

“Floor it, Bitty!”

Love, Mom

When I gave my daughter the keys to her first car, I had this engraved on a very dainty, elegant silver key chain for her. I believe in living BIG, taking chances, and going all out. As a mom, I want my daughter to feel that the world is nothing but wide-open opportunities for her. It’s important to me to cheer others on, to inspire them to take the chance, to push their boundaries, to do the thing that’s scary.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Oh, that’s easy. RuPaul. The guts that it has taken all these years for RuPaul to be authentic, and then widely encourage so many other people to do their own thing, and the unapologetic and loving nature with which he approaches the world just blows me away. Plus, he is really light-hearted and fun. I love that whole combination and respect him immensely. I would love to have one of RuPaul’s famous Tic-Tac lunches. I don’t even care that there’d be no real food.

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