Entrepreneurship: Finding the Right Corporate Message Isn’t Always Easy

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Hildy Kuryk, founder of the consulting firm Artemis Strategies, which advises companies on how to reach socially conscious millennials. Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Hildy Kuryk was thinking about working at a hedge fund. “I think you’ll find it boring,” Anna Wintour told her. It was 2013, and Ms. Kuryk — who had just left her post as the national finance director of the Democratic National Committee — was at Condé Nast seeking career advice from the well-connected Vogue editor in chief.

Ms. Wintour was right. After a couple of meetings, Ms. Kuryk knew the finance game was not for her.

Instead, Ms. Kuryk soon found herself back at Condé Nast, no longer looking for a job but serving as Vogue’s director of communications, and the media gatekeeper to Ms. Wintour (who doubles as the artistic director of Condé Nast).

But in June, Ms. Kuryk decided to strike out on her own and start a consulting film, Artemis Strategies, which she is pitching to clients as a vehicle to help them craft their message for socially aware consumers.

“People have been giving away money generously for decades. That’s not in dispute,” Ms. Kuryk, 40, said during a recent interview in the office she now rents from Condé Nast at 1 World Trade Center. “I can help consumer-facing companies deepen their civic engagement and tell their value story better.”

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Those companies also need to navigate potential pitfalls. As the firm’s website states, “In an unpredictable political landscape brands need to be acutely aware and cautious who they align with.”

Ms. Wintour, for one, seems to think starting a consulting firm is a good career move for Ms. Kuryk. “You could say we took a risk hiring Hildy back in 2013 — she came from politics and made no pretense that she knew much about the fashion world,” she said. “But the risk paid off. Hildy is smart, a quick study, and, best of all, her judgment is sound.”

Ms. Kuryk has two simultaneous goals with Artemis. The first is to make sure brands like Pepsi never release another ad like 2017’s disastrous conflation of Kendall Jenner, protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. The second is to reinvent the concept of corporate social responsibility by integrating it into every aspect of a company’s management, and not shunt it off, she said, to “a separate office down the hall.”

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“Companies are being asked and demanded to state their values,” said Ms. Kuryk, whose previous posts include national finance director for the Democratic National Committee and director of communications for Vogue magazine.

Credit Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Partly because of the reach of social media, partly because of a new era of civic engagement (some of it in response to the polarizing first year of the Trump administration), corporations are increasingly embracing message-based marketing. Examples include Nickelodeon’s going off the air for 17 minutes in solidarity with victims of gun violence, McDonald’s turning its golden arches upside down to mark International Women’s Day.

“Companies are being asked and demanded to state their values,” Ms. Kuryk said. “And how they seize this moment could pay massive business and messaging dividends for them.”

But not all such moves have gone smoothly, from that short-lived Pepsi commercial to the widely criticized Ram commercial, aired during the Super Bowl this year, that used a sermon from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sell trucks, to the criticism (by, among others, Chance the Rapper) of Heineken’s series of commercials for its light beer and the tagline, “Sometimes, Lighter Is Better.”

“The Pepsi and Kendall Jenner thing — I was tearing my hair out,” Ms. Kuryk said. “I wanted to be there long before they shot it so I could say: ‘Hey, guys, I know some people. Let’s call them.’”

Born and raised in Manhattan, Ms. Kuryk graduated from Vanderbilt with a degree in political science. She worked in Bill Clinton’s White House and as a fund-raiser for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign before joining the finance wing of the Democratic National Committee.

With her business not yet a year old, Ms. Kuryk has picked up some splashy clients, including Nordstrom (a company about to open the first Manhattan location for its flagship brand, a men’s wear shop, at 235 West 57th), the news briefing service the Skimm, as well as Condé Nast, with a focus on Vogue and its high-profile Met Gala.

Ms. Kuryk’s experience of toggling between the private and public sectors could help her take advantage of the openings in a rapidly developing market.

“There’s huge demand right now for professionals who can teach businesses how to navigate these new consumer expectations and for corporations to take stances on political issues and practice good corporate social responsibility,” said Kara Alaimo, associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University.

“What’s astonishing is that we’re consistently seeing major brands who can’t seem to apply basic principles of how to make decisions when they’re taking stances on political issues,” she added.

And it will only become more important. A recent paper titled “The Dawn of CEO Activism,” published by the public relations giant Weber Shandwick, noted that millennials — consumers ages 18 to 35 — showed the greatest positive response to corporate activism.

Which raises a question: Isn’t this more of a gig for an actual millennial?

“You can’t have a millennial do this job, because you need someone who actually has some real experience — up and down,” Ms. Kuryk said.

Dr. Alaimo backed her up: “My feeling is you do want a seasoned professional. It’s not a case where a millennial can intuit what will work. You want to be making decisions based on research and best practices.”

And having some very well-known names in her corner can’t hurt.

“She treats everyone with respect and appreciation for the value of the role they play,” said Valerie Jarrett, the former senior White House adviser to Mr. Obama, who has worked closely with Ms. Kuryk over the years. “That’s the skill set that will make her very effective with clients.”

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