Startup Spotlight: Inside Lupine Creative’s big pandemic pivot

The experiential agency, launched just before COVID-19 hit, had to promptly pivot to digital events.

Lupine Creative was years in the making when it finally launched in mid-February. 

A month later, COVID-19 flipped the switch on everyday life.

Founder Kate Wolff spent the previous decade diligently working her way up the ladder at global creative giants including DDB and TBWA\Chiat\Day, as well as in startup world at influencer-marketing agency RQ. 

When she finally ventured out on her own, she decided Los Angeles-based Lupine Creative would make its mark with a focus on experiential marketing.

“I discovered as agencies grow bigger, success builds bloat, bloat builds sandboxes, sandboxes build handcuffs and handcuffs make me want to leave,” she said.

Just a few weeks in, Lupine hired 10 employees, signed a big contract with LG and had a few smaller projects in the pipeline. Then, California Governor Gavin Newsome kicked off state business closures that soon rolled across the country.

“March 15, which was my birthday, I was in panic mode,” Wolff said. “By the end of March, I had to let go of everyone and lost 100% of my business.”

Wolff was forced to reinvent her month-old agency after it became clear in-person events wouldn’t resume in the near future. She quickly pivoted to work with clients, including HBO, on large digital programs that connect with more people than any in-person event ever could. 

In May, Wolff, who is queer, co-founded Do the WeRQ, an organization devoted to creating ad industry opportunities for LGBTQ people. 

She talks with Campaign US about Lupine’s dramatic start. 

Campaign US: Why did you decide to start your own agency? 

KATE WOLFF: I always wanted to do my own thing. I diversified my experiences within those big agency walls, looking for opportunities to be in the strategy department, to be a producer in the digital space and to be in account services, the tip of the sphere.

But then it was my time. We need more queer women to run businesses. 

Why did you choose the name Lupine, besides it meaning ‘wolf’ in Latin? 

At a dinner party one night, my wife asked a friend to guess the name of my company. She said, “Kate is too creative to name the company after her, but too vain not to...and she is a language nerd at heart.” The person said, “What is Latin for wolf?” and nailed it. 

Most important behind the meaning is the pack mentality. Team orientation, that is what a pack is. The No. 1 thing that I look for in a person is curiosity, because curiosity is what causes you to lead. I want people who are moving the brush out of the way to see beyond.

How did you pull off one of the all-time pandemic pivots?

Instead of getting down, I took it as a challenge. I called an ex-client of mine, who I’d been in conversations with, and he told me about this big, digital project that many agencies were pitching, which was the HBO Digital Pride project.

I wrote the deck alone over five days. It’s hard to concept alone, but the experience of going from strategy to production gave me an understanding of how to build. 

How did your team build the HBO Digital Pride campaign during lockdown?

When you are a LGBTQIA+ minority, you understand the fabric that makes up the community is extremely complex. The programming had to be in tune with the entire community.

We built a microsite to house all of HBO’s Digital Pride content in one space. We produced 16-plus hours of programming, all shot remote or extremely run-and-gun. We had a [virtual] concert with Janelle Monáe, another with Kim Petras. We had Todrick Hall. We partnered with Drag Queen Story Hour. We put all the different elements of the LGBTQ community in one place. 

It made it so much more powerful and it brought the community together.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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