Get to know our founder, Martha Shaughnessy

May 9, 2019

Tell us a little bit about your background before joining The Key team

I came to PR through pageants... which if you’ve met me, may seem odd. I wrote my senior thesis (cultural anthropology FTW!) about child beauty pageants, and most sources were newspaper articles and television reports. Fascinated by how the media covered the Jon Benet Ramsey case, I realized that a reporter’s perspective helped frame understanding for the reader, so articles based on the same set of facts felt very different. Since recruitment for anthropology majors was low that year, I eventually found my way to an agency that mostly worked with San Francisco-based municipal and non-profit organizations. I honed the craft of framing the facts - using this dark art for good. A few years later, I moved into tech and got to work with transformative companies at all sorts of stages. Two years ago, I created The Key.

Describe your work style in five words
Frenetic. Messy. Powerful. Mysterious. Super-connector.

What are you favorite kinds of projects to tackle?
I really like the architecture. The DNA of a company helps structure the story. Hearing and learning about a business and really understanding what the company is trying to do, why it exists, helps build the story they need to tell. And to whom - especially if their initial thinking leaves folks out. I like helping companies go through the messy decision-making process to envision who they’re going to be when they grow up, how to get there, and what role The Key can play.

Going that extra mile to find the human side of a company, the unexpected angle, to really get feel-good pieces, is another thing I love. With Skip Scooters recently, a reporter got a tip that some of their warehouse technicians might have been hired from a homeless shelter. We did the background to navigate permission and comfort with one of the employees for whom that was true, helped prep him and the team, and got a piece I was proud that my parents would read in their morning Chronicle.

Full circle, the San Francisco Chronicle was home to my first front page story: a review of the (then) new Union Square by John King, the architecture critic. He emailed my boss to say that he’d have covered the news regardless, but the front page placement was due in part to my work. I dig feeling like each project, each product, is my own and knowing my team’s success is part of the overall success on a project. That extra is so essential.

What’s your proudest moment at work?
Creating The Key. I love this industry, but when it was time for me to move on (I was serving as Managing Director of a global firm at the time), I couldn’t pinpoint my dream job. I wanted to build the kind of PR agency that would have kept me when I was at the ascent of my own career - and that’s when I set out to design a place where I could do as many of the things I love about public relations in a way that feeds me -- while stripping out what erodes culture or burns folks out. As a mama, I need an environment where the energy I bring home to my family is made better by my work, not depleted by it. I’d ‘succeeded’ to a point where I barely got to work with clients and media and I missed it. I spent more time in spreadsheets than brainstorms. The mechanics of a larger agency didn’t allow for the kind of hands-on client service I really like, especially early in their story.

I also found myself in an old school corporate environment. My peers were predominantly male, mostly older and more formal, and the environment came with a lot of swallowing over myself or excusing behavior. I couldn’t paint the path into leadership that felt like a good move for my young teammates. I felt like I needed to make that place.

The elements we focus on here at The Key are:

  • Lots of opportunity for growth.
  • Celebration of individual contributors without it being a backstabby, competitive environment.
  • Personal incentives in line with company growth.
  • Interesting work that thinks about impact on the world and society in addition to bottom-line impact on the company.

And if we’re going to spend more of our day away from our families than with them, are the people we’re working with worth it? At The Key, the answer is yes.

What makes you the most excited to be at The Key?
Being a business that can support the kind of business people and practices I admire. An example was the branding process with Make. Do good. We talked through my hopes and dreams for this company (at my dining room table while my kids played nearby), why I named it The Key, how I want to show up as a leader. My high bar? That I’d tattoo our logo on myself if/when we reach a certain benchmark. Game on.  

Even with the obvious key-inspired images, one of their first treatments was a lion. I loved it so much because there’s this Mama Lion feeling I have for my team. The next iterations were to make it a clear lioness, and we ended up where we are with notebooks, t-shirts and business cards I’m proud to share. The logo and palette match our vibe so well, and the fact that it was done with a husband-and-wife team of artists who were in the final throes of pregnancy before their first kid - and that they were able to create such clear beauty from my messy mind and messy dining room!? The best.

This is the way business has to work now; the hard line between work and life is gone.  

Lightning Round:

Favorite office snack?  Jack’s Jelly Sticks. Our teammate’s boyfriend (Jack) is born to a candy factory family. We (okay, I) named one of the candies Jack’s Jelly Sticks. I’m the only one who eats the blueberry ones but they’re really good.  

Badass female role model? I have so many right now. Michelle Obama. Every parent who is making it work with a full-time job and kids at home. Sophia Andary.  Glennon and Abby. Jessica Honegger. Rachel Cargle.

Power song? Oh geez. I’m more of a “whole soundtrack of a Broadway musical” power hitter, so Rent and/or Hamilton depending on what I’m trying to channel.

Favorite rockstar journalist? I’m having a serious love of all things Nellie Bowles right now. She’s like the narrator of this moment in tech/Valley at the New York Times. I really like what they’re doing at The Information. Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

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A lot of complexity comes from an unwillingness to commit to the things that insight and understanding surface.