Catherine Merritt | The Innovator 25 North America 2022

Catherine Merritt

Founder & CEO

Chicago, IL

“When we put people first, when we cultivate a culture rooted in values and eliminate the toxicity that runs rampant throughout so many agencies, it’s not just good for people and for innovation, but it’s good for business. Doing what’s right also yields ROI."

PR and marketing agency Spool entered 2022 on a high, having been named the fastest-growing agency globally by PRovoke Media. This august, it was listed as the 940th overall fastest growing private company in the USA. To demonstrate the rapidity of this growth, in the last three years Spool’s revenue has grown by 684% and its client roster netted 15 new businesses in the last year. 

The growth and innovation continues inside the agency, and it hit headlines in the WSJ last year when it launched a sabbatical programme for employees. 

At the helm of all this is Chicago PR veteran Catherine Merritt, who created Spool in 2018 after a career at top agencies including Ketchum, ICF Next and MSLGroup. Merritt’s leadership style is rooted in a people-first philosophy, innovative approach and entrepreneurial spirit, and the agency is committed to being a drama-free, no ego, supportive and empathetic place to work. All in all it’s proving a recipe for success for staff and clients alike. 

Hyper-productive and curious, Merritt says she’s literally incapable of not doing something that both challenges her and helps others. She sits on several boards including the invite-only Fast Company Executive Board, and the board of directors for Illinois Action for Children. 
How do you define innovation?
At its core, I believe innovation is rooted in curiosity and harnessing that to reimagine new ways forward. We’ve seen this done many times over and what’s exciting to me is that there’s always room and a need for innovation.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
Is this where I’m supposed to say web3? That’s a joke. To be honest, what we’re building at Spool with our venture arm and our startup practice is not something I’ve seen other agencies harness or build out, and I hope more will. Spool launched our venture arm, Spool Ventures, through which we invest in VCs and brands rooted in impact and founded by diverse leaders. We launched this with three primary focuses: Investing in companies and underrepresented founders that are committed to changing the world through industry and innovation. Empowering Spool’s employees to harness an entrepreneurial mindset and create opportunity for every member of Spool to earn equity within Spool Ventures’ investment portcos and funds. And lastly, connecting dots and creating access for Spool’s marketing clients and the investment portcos.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
I'm excited and inspired by folks who are harnessing their agency expertise and parlaying it into new ways. A great example of this is Paul Earle who was the founder and executive director at Leo Burnett’s (now since closed) in-house brand incubator, FarmHouse. Since striking out on his own, Paul has leveraged his experience to now create, launch and scale brands in market. Some of his brands include Goodles and Dottie May’s, which are both exploding with growth. This is what excites me and is what I am eager to explore in years to come. We as brand-builders and communicators have an unfair advantage when it comes to launching ideas and Pauls’ one of the few who’s acting on it.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
Taking the leap to walk away from the big agency Goliaths and start my own venture. It was scary, it’s been the hardest chapter of my career and I wouldn’t change it for anything. In less than four years we’ve built a radically new type of agency with innovation, curiosity, agility and authenticity at our core. When I left my last big agency role I couldn’t have imagined what and where Spool would be and it’s been worth every step to get us here. By harnessing the mindset of risk taking and embodying an entrepreneurial mindset continues to set Spool apart and it’s what our clients have come to expect and demand from us, which we’re here for, 100%!

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Pete Marino is my former boss and I’m very lucky to call him a friend and mentor. What he built with his agency, Dig (now ICF Next) has been a beacon for me with Spool. Since he’s moved to the client side as the President of Emerging Growth at MolsonCoors, I am so impressed with how he harnesses his entrepreneurial spirit within such a larger organization. MolsonCoors has seen tremendous growth and increase in market share through innovation and partnerships with category disruptors. That’s Pete 100%.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
I’m a big believer that growth and innovation comes through discomfort. When we’re in the midst of something hard, it’s easy to sit in it, but I really push myself to keep truckin through it (what do they say? When you’re in hell, keep going) and then see where I’m at on the other side. I also think pains, challenges and difficult moments are where we can come up with ideas and solutions to whatever’s causing those hard instances. If I’m in a rut, I’ll find ways to push myself, challenge myself and in those moments I harness whatever is hard to break through new ideas. I came up with the idea for Spool while doing a 545 mile bicycle ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of the AIDSLifeCycle ride; nothing like 70-ish miles a day over a week and climbing collective 32k feet in elevation to get the creative juices flowing!

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
Innovation starts with people and my advice is simple: put your people first. Spool is the referendum to every other agency I’ve worked at, it’s the reimagined way I always wished past agencies would treat me, our clients and our planet. Look, I get it. We live in a capitalistic society, agencies are beholden to their boards, shareholders, clients- but here’s the thing... when we put people first, when we cultivate a culture rooted in values and eliminate the toxicity that runs rampant throughout so many agencies- it’s not just good for people, for innovation, but it’s good for business. Doing what’s right also yields ROI.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
Oh gosh, I have no idea, but probably cooking up a new idea or company in some way. I’m a hyper productive, curious person (sometimes to a fault) and I’m literally not capable of not doing something that challenges me and helps others. I do joke that when I retire, since I can’t imagine not working, I would like to be the person at Costco with their highlighter who checks off shoppers’ receipts. I love interacting with people and while I can’t imagine not working, I think retirement for me will be a job that doesn’t have an email address and lets me clock in and out!

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
In college I studied 19th and 20th Century Irish Literature and there’s a line from Adam’s Curse where W.B. Yeats wrote: “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught”. I love poetry and what Yeats’ writes about resonates because it’s not far off from what we do as brand builders and storytellers. Everything is intentional. Every word, decision, direction, but it must seem effortless for it to land and be impactful.

Most recently, the last two books I read and can’t stop thinking about are The Candy House by Jennifer Egan and Tomorrow and, Tomorrow and, Tomorrow: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin. Both offer exquisite reflections on modern life and the role of technology as part of our cultural fabric. At Spool we have a book swap where we bring in and share meaningful books with one another. I’ve also given Spool’s leadership team a copy of Phil Jackson’s 1996 Sacred Hoops, which is one of the best leadership books I’ve read.

How would you like to see work culture, and the role of the office, evolve?
If the adage is true that “culture eats strategy for lunch” then a company’s values are the ingredients for whatever that lunch is. Without having clear, loud, meaningful values, a company’s going to struggle to achieve bigger sights and goals. Two years ago Spool spent six months going through our laying out of vision, mission and values and I 100% believe it’s the reason we’ve been successful and seen so much growth. We put our people first and we do that through our values. That means we fire toxic clients. That means if people don’t log off and live full lives outside of work, they’re in conflict with our values (whereas other agencies would call it a badge of honor). That means we are crystal clear with what is ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ in how we live our values each day. Culture exists in a company.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
I’m very proud that our newly launched startup arm, Spindle, is constructed to put DE&I at the forefront when we work with new clients. Only 2% of institutional VC investment goes to female-founded companies (and that percentage shrinks to less than 1% if founded by BIPOC women) which means these companies and innovations often don’t get a fair shot to succeed because of the bias and inequity in how VC has been deployed. Spool’s response to that is to work with startups at a reduced bill rate and even possibly invest in them. So that’s one way our industry can approach it: not just within the four walls of the organization and who’s being hired (though of course that’s a big part of it!) but also through the lens of which clients and opportunities we’re taking on and what the impact that can lend may be.