But, because I am neither mathematical nor musical, she keeps searching for an analogy that can help someone like me understand. Kelly is wicked smart, and has an impressive table presence. She’s a leader, and she talks like one. And yet...there are times when managing her expansive vocabulary is like herding a room full of over-caffeinated gymnasts.
Because she thinks faster than she can talk, the gymnasts all start twirling and tumbling at the same time. The sentences begin with a burst of speed and acrobatics, then stall out halfway across the mat while Kelly searches for the next move.
“Umm, it’s like—you know string theory? OK, not an option. But. Nope. How about...you really don’t...it’s such shame I can’t...”
Suddenly, Kelly gets a new idea. A fresh sentence starts running, picks up speed, leaps into the air, and sticks the landing:
“It’s not so much that music is formulaic. I mean, it is, but that’s not the point. It’s that mathematics can be just as expressive and soaring and fucking amazing as a great choral piece.”
And then, like a coach congratulating her team on a feat of verbal dexterity, she says: “Yeah!”
Kelly took a somewhat indirect path to her current role as our Content Strategy and Analytics Director.
When she matriculated to Saint Louis University in the mid-90s, she planned for a career in education.
“Shitty teachers ruined math for a lot of my friends. So I got a degree in education, because I thought I’d go back and become a math teacher. A good math teacher,” she explains.
“Plus, I really liked learning. But what no one tells you is that teaching is not learning. Most of it is just talking to parents. I was certified to teach math, but I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t the career for me.”
So she worked for six years as a software developer, then found a gig as a project manager for Infuz, a St. Louis-based digital marketing agency. One thing led to another and in a few short years she became their Digital Engagement Specialist, focused on developing content calendars for social media. After that, she earned her SEO and digital strategy chops at SSMHealth, where she worked for three years.
And then, she arrived at Paradowski.
“I’m perfect for this place, but I’m not perfect for anywhere else.”
To say that Kelly has made a difference at Paradowski would be a ludicrous understatement. In a span of three years, she has redefined our approach to content strategy using a deft balance of metrics and narrative.
“Yeah, I’m a data person,” she explains. “But I really think of myself as someone who gathers and tells stories. Data can help me figure out what people are thinking, and therefore which stories we should tell. That’s the real value of it.”
At the same time, Kelly understands that data can be a false paradise. “I never trust the numbers; especially if I like them,” she laughs. “They always have to be scrutinized. They’re a proxy for human behavior. They lead me to the story, but they aren’t the story, if you know what I mean.”
However, In an arm-wrestling competition between the left and right sides of her brain, the left side wins.
“The most satisfying part of my job is being right, because that means we’ve won,” she admits. “Ideas can’t be untethered from facts.”
You’re going to figure this out eventually, so we’ll just say it: Kelly Stephenson is a great big nerd.
• Studied math, on purpose:
• Was a theatre major
• Is a huge Star Wars fan
• Loves Gwendolyn Christie, AKA Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones
• Has an elaborate complaint about the under-utilization of Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, played by, you guessed it, Gwendolyn Christie (She refuses to discuss Phasma's fate in The Last Jedi)
• Sings in a chorus
• Conducted an agency-wide survey to determine if there are correlations between our disciplines and our Hogwarts house
• Met her husband while they both worked at a computer lab
So she’s a legit nerd. But to be fair, “nerd” is really just code for people who are smart in a way that shunts them from mainstream, middlebrow culture. When we started the second part of our interview, I asked Kelly how old she was when she first realized she might be one of the “smart kids.”
“I don’t know that I ever didn’t know that,” she says. “I think I figured out in grade school that nerdiness was not a thing that everyone shared. Slowly noticing that I loved to read, loved stories, and math and some of the other things that go along with being a ‘smart kid’ is when I started to feel like, ‘OK, maybe I’m a little different.'”
Every Tuesday and Thursday, from 8:30 am to 2 pm, is High-Efficiency Time. We don’t have internal meetings, and we try hard not to schedule client meetings that involve members of the creative team. People tend to be most creative in the morning, when their executive brain functions are still sleepy and non-intrusive. Having five and a half hours to luxuriate in this flow state means we can make massive progress before meetings, feedback and push notifications break our attention into tiny, inconsequential fragments.
Her love of reading and good stories blossomed into a fascination with genre fiction, which continues to this day.
“As a woman, I feel like we’re living in a golden age of storytelling. There's been a fantastic shift where female characters are moving beyond their traditional tropes in genre stories - science fiction, fantasy, heroes, etc. We're starting to see characters who aren't just there to serve as a counterpoint to the hero either by being a love interest, a mother figure or the negative reflection of those two archetypes. They have their own story arcs outside of the male lead and those stories aren't ‘sacrificed’ to propel his story forward.”
“My favorite part of all of this is the effect it's having on my kids,” she says.
Kelly is mom to Charlotte, ten, and Elliot, seven. (She is married to Ryan, an agile coach and the second half of the aforementioned computer lab meet-cute). She holds high hopes for a world in which both of her children are free to see the best parts of themselves reflected in the stories they read, watch and hear.
“Historically, we've been sold a line of bull that that boys and men won't consume stories with girls as lead characters because they're ‘for girls.’ But it turns out that has more to do with the way we've been telling stories about girls. My son has yet to bat an eye about seeing girls running the world.”
It’s not strange, once you hear Kelly’s own stories, that she would grow up to identify with superheroines.
Or with people who walk a fine line between compassion and anti-authoritarianism.
When she was little, her mother worked for Southwestern Bell and her father was an air traffic controller, at least until Ronald Reagan fired him—along with 11,000 of his colleagues—as punishment for going on strike.
She remembers standing in the picket line with her dad, holding PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organizations) signs. This would have been the summer of 1981.
Close your eyes and try to imagine a little girl, with a mind like Kelly’s, in the midst of that. Angry men, hot pavement. “Bette Davis’ Eyes” or “Jesse’s Girl” blowing out of someone’s open car window. Everything brought to an end by a guy with a pen more than 1,000 miles away.
Try to imagine what that might feel like, and what it might do for your sense of justice and authority.
“If we reference the fact that I sing in a chorus, or was a theater major, it’s fine. But if not, then the reason I’m wearing a bright white wig and a sparkly silver pantsuit doesn’t really have any context and maybe that’s good and maybe that’s very, very strange.”
Kelly has some concerns about certain photos we’ve discussed publishing along with this article.
And I get it, I do. There are things we all did when we were younger—haircuts we got, people we dated, things we chose to wear, for example—that desperately need explanation. And sometimes that explanation is so tortured and convoluted and ultimately insufficient that it might be better to just not, say, publish a photo of yourself wearing a pantsuit or drinking out of a six-foot beer bong.
But listen, Dear Reader, you need to see that photo of the bright white wig and sparkly silver pantsuit. So I am now going to very pointedly reference the fact that Kelly had a dual major in Education and Theater.
The best minds are always full of contradictions,
and Kelly’s is no different. Music and math. Moliere and metrics. She seems to thrive at intellectual intersections.
Swing by the office and that’s exactly where she’ll be: searching through a world of data—that sweet music of human behavior—as stories line up on the horizon, like planes waiting to be landed.