In recognition of Women’s History Month, two of our female leaders share their thoughts on the power of telling our clients’ stories, as well as our own.
This year, the official theme of Women’s History Month, as set forth by the National Women’s History Alliance, is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” As a creative, woman-owned agency, telling our clients’ stories – and our own – is what we do. It’s our professional calling.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we sat down with two women who are instrumental to BNO: our esteemed co-founder, Joanne Obenauf, and our president and CEO, Trista Walker. Hear what Joanne and Trista have to say about women and work, our history, the art of storytelling, and where we are headed.
Joanne, let’s begin with your story. Who and what inspired you to launch BNO?
I was raised in Pittsburgh in a family of small business owners, and learned firsthand what it takes to operate a business. Because of such early exposure, I was never afraid of seeing myself as an entrepreneur. Early in my career, and after my husband completed his PhD, he encouraged me to pursue whatever I wanted. What a gift! At the time, typography was in high demand. I learned how to typeset and had the good fortune of meeting BNO’s co-founder, Mark Baldwin. Together, we launched BNO in 1981, offering typesetting and art services. The more involved we became with our clients’ businesses, the more they asked of us. They needed copywriting, art direction and other marketing services. Over the course of the last four decades, we’ve made it our business to meet our clients’ needs by adding new talent and capabilities. Today, we’re a full-service marketing firm comprised of nearly 70 professionals, with five Fortune 100 clients currently in our portfolio. It’s been an incredible journey.
“We believe in a never-ending cycle of paying it forward and helping other women realize their unique visions for making change in the world.” – Joanne Obenauf
Trista, as a woman in marketing, what drew you to BNO and the opportunity to tell our clients’ stories?
From the moment I met Joanne, it was clear that she is a woman with immense vision. Where others might see obstacles, Joanne sees potential. She saw a way to meet the ever-evolving needs of our clients by evolving BNO. She was able to listen to their concerns and recognize them as marketplace opportunities that BNO could fill. Joanne’s vision is the reason why we represent such a broad client portfolio and have been able to bring so many talented professionals into our organization. Seeing an unmet need in a marketplace and going after it is in our DNA. The opportunity to lead BNO with Joanne – to help our clients tell their stories and reach the audiences they want to reach – has been a gift, both personally and professionally.
Earlier, Joanne shared her history as a typographer, and how she parlayed that skill into co-launching a full-service marketing agency. Trista, in keeping with this year’s theme, how did you begin your career as a professional storyteller?
While I never connected this to a future career in storytelling, I spent my formative years as a competitive figure skater. As anyone familiar with figure skating knows, it’s an incredibly expressive, creative sport. Each time you take the floor, you’re telling a story with your performance – through the music, choreography, and technical elements. Looking back now, I guess you could say I’d been training in the art of storytelling from age four! Still, I didn’t know anyone in the creative business and never considered it a career option.
I started my career in finance with a Wall Street firm and assumed I’d spend my career there. Then, a unique opportunity presented itself while the “commercial” internet was still quite new. At the time, several agencies were springing up to meet the demand around digital marketing, yet not many had mastered it. I was recruited to work at one such agency and found my sweet spot. The creativity, the environment, the chance to learn fast and absorb multiple industries – I absolutely fell in love with all of it. It’s a storyteller’s dream job – working with clients across different industries, with different opportunities, different challenges. Figuring out what’s unique about them, about their customers, weaving that into a strategy and a story, and then watching our team bring those stories to life – it’s all exceptionally satisfying.
Joanne, who are the women you most admire, and why?
When I began my career, times were different for women. It was extremely difficult to hold a full-time job, to nurture your own career, while caring for children and a family. Back then, there was very little societal support for it. That’s why the women I most admire are those who champion other women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of my heroes. Her entire advocacy of women throughout her career is remarkable. I also admire Carly Fiorina, and have followed her career as a leader, politician, entrepreneur, and writer closely and with deep respect. I continue to hold women like them – women who are actively trying to make change – in the highest regard.
Trista, who are your female heroes?
For me, it’s women in my personal life. To begin, my mom – who passed away in 2007 at the age of 59. She was brilliant, funny, a hard worker, and had more grit than anyone I’ve ever known. When my dad, a union carpenter, was between jobs, my mom talked her way into a bartending job (with no experience) to supplant the family income. When our church was slow to allow girls to be altar servers, my mom made it her mission to change the rules. (My sister’s classmates were among the first female altar servers in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.) When a furniture store refused my mom a refund for a defective purchase, she sat down and ate her lunch at one of their fine dining tables (in the middle of the showroom) until the manager complied. She taught me I could do anything.
After my mom, the woman I admire most is undoubtedly Joanne. After knowing her for a decade, I continue to be amazed by her foresight, by what she’s built at BNO. For her to have founded a marketing and advertising agency in the early 1980s, while raising two small children, is incredibly rare. As BNO grew, it would have been so easy for her to exit, sell the company to a big network, and enjoy a relaxed life. But that’s not Joanne. She cares immensely about our team and our clients, often joking that BNO is her third child. She took the road less traveled and created this beautiful opportunity for all of us to continue her legacy.
Joanne, tell us about the importance of helping women become agents of change.
I’ve always believed that if someone comes to us with an idea, my job is to support it. Having faith in the abilities of other women is a win for us. Recently, we helped an 80-year-old woman who had a vision of turning her farm into a sensory park for people facing Alzheimer’s disease, and also people with autism. We worked with her to provide all the marketing needed to make her vision a reality – from a logo and a website to an explainer video, which we shot on a completely remote basis. We believe in a never-ending cycle of paying it forward and helping other women realize their unique visions for making change in the world.
Trista, on a closing note, what’s next for BNO as a woman-owned agency?
The sky is the limit. There’s so much opportunity for growth, and we’re investing in several key areas. We’re focusing a lot of attention on brand experiences. As new technology emerges, we plan to be there with it, and that includes VR, AR, and AI. Right now, we’re thinking through how we can add value in an AI-enabled world. As an agency, we’re constantly reinventing ourselves and learning.
Finally, in keeping with the history of BNO and the groundwork that Joanne laid, we never stand still. We’re always seeking new ways to add to our expertise, to grow and evolve. We’re driven by our clients’ needs and what’s important to them. We firmly believe that we only succeed when our clients succeed. For them, and for each other, we’re committed to finding new, innovative ways to celebrate the power of storytelling.