Kimberly Blackwell has superpowers: “I can see around corners and provide solutions,” says the CEO of PMM Agency, the Columbus-based marketing, advertising and new media agency.
And, like many superheroes, Blackwell has a secret identity. Sort of. While she’s not exactly a stranger to the C-suites of Columbus, “I do seem to be better known nationally than in Columbus,” muses the head of PMM, which has provided services for several well-known brands including Toyota, Walmart, Jackson-Hewitt and ViacomCBS.
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Like other superheroes, Blackwell’s origin story also is clouded in a bit of mystery. For example: her age. “Forty-something,” is all she’ll say. PMM? “I don’t say what it stands for, we just use the initials.” So many possibilities for three letters. And then there’s her father, Ken Blackwell. “He had a brief stint with the Dallas Cowboys,” is all Blackwell initially said about her father, when describing her childhood in Cincinnati.
She didn’t divulge he’s “the” Ken Blackwell, the former mayor of the Queen City, former Ohio State Treasurer and Ohio Secretary of State, and the first African American major party (Republican) candidate for governor. Kind of a big deal.
“I can’t even tell you one time she played off her father in any way, shape or form,” says Larry James, a longtime family friend and the managing partner of the Columbus law firm Crabbe Brown & James. “She made sure to earn everything on her own merits, and it’s a double whammy for a Black female—it’s twice as hard to do what she’s done. Her thing is, let me do this on my own.”
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Blackwell has done it on her own, and she has remained true to who she is: A Black woman CEO determined to break barriers for herself and her company and to open doors for others.
Blackwell served in the Obama and Trump administrations as a member of the National Women’s Business Council; was named one of the “Most Powerful Women in Business” by Black Enterprise; has been awarded the PR News’ Top Women in PR, and has been listed in the Ebony Power 100.
While Blackwell didn’t initially go into detail about her famous father, she bragged hard on her mom, who broke through several barriers. Rosa Blackwell was a teacher who worked her way up to superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools in 2005. “They were truly best friends, and I grew up in a house of love,” Blackwell says of her parents. “My dad still writes my mom love letters.”
The Blackwell house was filled with love—and a lot of students.
“My mom is one of those village moms, one of those teachers who brought her students home with her to make sure they got their work done and weren’t getting into any trouble,” Blackwell says.
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Another role model was Ross Love, her father’s best friend, whom Kimberly Blackwell calls Uncle Ross. Love was the first African American to be named vice president of advertising at Procter and Gamble, and, for an encore, he created a successful network of radio stations, Blue Chip Broadcasting. Ken Blackwell was an investor.
Learning the business
After graduating from Syracuse University, Blackwell discovered her love of business and went to work for the Columbus Quest in marketing and communications. The team won the American Basketball League’s championship in 1997 and 1998, led by Katie Smith and Tonya Edwards. Blackwell them moved on to Zero Casualties Inc., an urban apparel business, splitting time between Columbus and New York. These first two jobs “allowed me to build a strong contact list and create campaigns and product placement and endorsement deals,” she says.
Despite these successes, Blackwell wanted more. A lot more. And had a plan.
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She went all in with PMM in the early 2000s. Toyota was one of her first clients, followed by Nationwide, Macy’s and Fifth Third Bank.
Blackwell wrote speeches for executives, worked to expand and diversify the company’s supply chain, and organized events to help the automaker reach a more diverse population. For Nationwide, Blackwell “helped them partner in underrepresented segments, with African-Americans and Latinx,” she says, adding PMM helped recruit spokespersons from the sports and entertainment worlds, and created national Nationwide tours that promoted financial education, economic empowerment and entrepreneurship to underserved populations.
“Kim brings what we’re looking for when we hire an outside partner,” says Gale King, Nationwide executive vice president and chief administrative officer. “Which is, do they understand who we’re working with? And she understands the African American space and what we need to be doing in that space.”
‘The Black tax’
Reaching out to African Americans and other underserved minority populations is often how Blackwell and PMM first get their foot in the door and into meetings. But once she’s got a toehold, Blackwell really goes to work and utilizes her superpowers.
“My thing is to never just meet expectations, but to always exceed them,” Blackwell says. “Always overdeliver.”
This strategy was the key to survival in the early days of PMM.
“I’m Black, and I’m a woman, and I’m playing in a space dominated by white male [chief marketing officers],” she says. “So, it’s understanding how to seize an opportunity, and the highest form of compliment I can get is when a client says to me, ‘You really delivered, but we had no idea it would be like this.’ ”
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Blackwell and PMM, which has 30 employees, are frequently hired initially to consult on how a company can reach a more diverse audience. “Welcome to my world,” she says. “We’re often seen as the first responders to the Black box or the brown box.”
She’s OK with this because Blackwell is confident she will overdeliver, impress the heck out of the CMO who hired her, get to meet with other C-suiters and have the opportunity to say to CEOs: “What are the things that are keeping you up at night that I can help you with? Maybe I can help.”
Larry James calls what Blackwell is up against “the Black tax. And so, you have to go in and keep your ego in check and then outperform your competition,” he says. “She has done this multiple times.”
The secrets to standing out
“Opportunity does not come in one way, shape or form or person,” Blackwell says. And so, she reaches out to anyone and everyone and serves on several local and national boards to contribute and make connections.
Meetings are the key to success, right?
Blackwell has a different interpretation: “I’ve come to learn that often the meeting before the meeting [that you weren’t invited to] is where a lot of the decisions are made.”
Like it or not, Blackwell says, everyone is their own brand these days, so you might as well embrace this fact. Her brand is to be (1) bold, brilliant and decisive; (2) overdeliver and impress; and then (3) take on new tasks for a client; and then repeat steps 1 and 2 over and over again.
Blackwell has 40,000 Instagram followers. Her posts feature her accomplishments, photos with famous friends, and more than a little glamour. This woman knows how to dress, and she can even make a mask look stylish.
Blackwell says there are still times when she’s in a meeting, serving as a member of a board or committee, or making a presentation on behalf of PMM, and feels “like a unicorn.”
“It can’t just be the diverse leading the diverse,” she says of the lack of people of color and women in positions of power. “We have to unlearn all this and reimagine the way we do business. How do we get more women and minorities to the table?”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.
CEO, PMM Agency
In position since: 1999
Previous: Director of basketball operations for Columbus Quest; vice president of marketing and advertising, Zero Casualties.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Syracuse University; master’s degree, Xavier University.
Personal: Resides in Columbus