Be decisional. There are many people who understand the media business better than I do — even within the vertical of our company services. I used to wonder why they weren’t rising past a certain level. Over time I’ve come to realize that leadership is a different skill than the service a company provides. My job is not to be the best media planner. My job is to get the best advice and counsel I can from our team and then to make decisions about the future of our business.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Krupp, CEO, Americas, Billups.
David is CEO, Americas at Billups. At the intersection of art and science, Billups inspires brands to build and measure intelligent OOH campaigns, connecting advertisers to their audiences in the real world. David leads Billups’ operations, finance and client development efforts — working closely with major brands, agencies and suppliers. Prior to Billups, David was CEO with Kinetic North America. An industry leader David has been interviewed and published articles on the out-of-home and media industry in the Wall Street Journal, Adage, Advertising Week, AW360, Adweek, Mediapost, Huffington Post and more. David is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and lives in the Chicago area. Find him on Twitter @dkruppp and LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Istarted working as a media planner shortly after graduating from college, joining Western International Media (now Initiative) in Chicago. I had friends who had gone into the advertising business and I thought: “Hey, I can do that, too.” I had no idea what media planning was and quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be creating advertising copy, but instead would be working in excel spreadsheets calculating rating points, reach and frequency. I should mention that I hate math. Eventually, I discovered there is a lot of art that goes into the science of media planning and that it can be exceptionally creative when marrying content, context and environment. I also learned, that when you put dollar signs in front of numbers, they became, for me, much more interesting.
I didn’t have a direction in mind in those early years and took jobs at other agencies for promotions or to work on accounts that I thought would be interesting. Years later, an old boss of mine asked me to interview for one of the open roles at Mindshare. I wasn’t interested. I knew I wanted operational experience instead of more account management. He said WPP was looking to launch a specialist division supporting out-of-home (Kinetic). It was the chance to build the office with the backing of WPP. I took the job and realized I liked it and was good at it. Our Chicago office grew from nothing to $100 million in billings in four years and eventually I was promoted to run the U.S business. I am now at Billups, the largest privately held out-of-home ad tech specialist. I met the founder, Ben Billups, while at Kinetic because I was interested in buying his company. The deal didn’t materialize, but Ben and I stayed in touch and he asked me to join his team to help scale their business in April 2018.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
At Billups, we develop our own ad-tech, designed to make media planning and buying more efficient. I am an avid user of technology, but I have no idea how technology is built. I started to ask questions about what we were building and why. I asked simple questions and expected simple, non-technical answers. Our head of engineering is able to break down the complex into the mundane which allows us to identify and set a realistic roadmap to achieve our priorities. He and I worked to ensure that there were other voices included in the discussions because we have to consider our end-users and solve the challenges they face. What I’ve realized is that my job is not to code but to set expectations and provide the resources and support needed so that our very smart and capable engineers can do their work and deliver on time.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I am an introvert and early in my career I was concerned this would hold me back. Instead, I believe, it’s part of the reason I progressed because it allowed me to observe and learn. Since I was never the loudest, employers listened to what I had to say when I did speak up. In the leadership roles later in my career, I surrounded myself with colleagues I trust and relied on their keen insights to inform my decisions. You cannot lead a large company on your own and it is important to stay close to your lieutenants. I am also not too precious about many of the decisions I make. If I am shown a better, smarter or more efficient way I don’t have any problem changing directions.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Winning business is not as difficult as you think. My friend shared his view one night over a beer. He said selling is simple. If you’re smart and nice, people will want to work with you. But, he said it was essential that you have both traits. If you’re just smart they will appreciate your intellect but think you’re an ass. If you’re just nice they will have a beer with you and enjoy it, but will never work with you. If you can be both you’ll do great.
2. Pause before you try to fix a would-be problem. An employee pops into your office and is upset or angry or scared because an issue has arisen. Take a beat. Wait. I often find that problems resolve themselves before they need to be addressed. Give the issue a little time to sort itself out as it so often does.
3. Learn to navigate ambiguity. We all want to have full clarity, but I find that work is often without a net and you’ve got to be comfortable making decisions without the full picture. It’s okay to trust both your instinct and your experience to bridge the divide.
4. Be decisional. There are many people who understand the media business better than I do — even within the vertical of our company services. I used to wonder why they weren’t rising past a certain level. Over time I’ve come to realize that leadership is a different skill than the service a company provides. My job is not to be the best media planner. My job is to get the best advice and counsel I can from our team and then to make decisions about the future of our business.
5. Bet on yourself. I am still trying to learn this one. Ben Billups, founder of Billups says it to me from time to time. I worked at holding company agencies until coming to Billups and Ben is fond of reminding me that it’s just us, the partners who own the company who we have to answer to and if we’re not going to invest in ourselves then we shouldn’t be in the business. It’s why we have invested in data science and technology. These weren’t originally revenue-driving areas, but we believed strongly they would lead to growth through better thinking and insights for our clients.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Your career is a marathon. Pace yourself. Take a vacation. Shut off your phone for a while. Have other hobbies outside work. Garden. Explore what brings you joy. Your mind needs outlets other than work to be creative. It needs time to recharge to perform optimally.
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?
There are so many. Scott Neslund was my old boss who introduced me as a candidate for the Kinetic role in 2006. Scott showed me how helping others, even if it doesn’t directly benefit you, is good business in the long-term. I have tried, and continue to try, and help others because it makes me feel good and if it’s one day reciprocated it’s a bonus.
Judy Franks was my director at Starcom and she showed me the value of preparedness. Working with her on the Allstate business helped me realize how valuable prep time is to save time in the long run.
Steve Ridley was my first CEO at Kinetic. He is a storyteller and showed me how anyone can tell a story but if you do it with pizzazz you can captivate an audience.
My Dad. He gave me a strong moral compass. He told me in business, and life, you only have your name to fall back on (I am sure I was doing something stupid as a teenager when he first said this). His point was you need to protect your reputation and never abuse or devalue it, for anyone or anything. It’s served me well through the years.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally I would like to accelerate our business and create the scale of a holding company with the insights and data-advancements of a communications planning agency. Within our industry, this would be a unique and differentiating position that our team is capable of delivering.
Personally, I’d like to hike Machu Pichu. I’ve told my wife when we retire, I want to go back to college and get a degree in history, and then maybe another one in Economics.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That my wife and I raised a good son into a good man. I love my job and the journey it’s taken me on but my lasting legacy, I hope, is that I am remembered as a good husband and father.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
There are so many better skilled and smarter people doing work to make the world a better place. I’ve been fortunate to work with the Voices and Faces Project which is helping bring awareness and legislation to end the demand for human trafficking. It’s been an honor to help the cause and I’ve seen how advertising coupled with strong lobbying support can change minds and laws to support people who are overlooked or marginalized.
How can our readers follow you on social media?