What is Excellence in Action?
The Tidemark community features people who are practitioners of excellence in their domain. Excellence in Action spotlights world-class talent discussing the superpowers, strategies, and tactics that drive category leadership.
Who: Tidemark Advisor Katie Curnutte
What: Partner at Kingston Marketing Group, Former SVP of Communications and Public Affairs at Zillow Group
Where: Seattle, WA
Why: After 11 years at the helm of Zillow’s pioneering communications program and a current dedication to making her clients shine, Katie Curnutte knows what it takes to build brands that cut through the clutter: innovative storytelling, solid relationships, and lots and lots of patience.
In 2008, the real estate world was in crisis. The housing bubble had burst and the country plunged headfirst into a record-breaking recession. Zillow was barely out of its startup infancy after being founded in 2006, and its Zestimate gave people a front row seat to what was happening to their own homes’ values. The company was just starting to build its brand — with no marketing dollars — and needed to figure out how to leverage its unique data. This is the story of how Katie Curnutte, Partner at Kingston Marketing Group (KMG) and former SVP of Communications and Public Affairs at Zillow Group, elevated transparency, forged long-term relationships, and leveraged the company's core asset—real estate data—to emerge from the crash stronger than ever.
Make Data Matter
When Zillow came calling in early 2008, Katie was ready to listen. She had made a name for herself in Boston working for The Warren Group, a family-owned real estate data and publishing company with century-old roots. It was there that she realized the power of data to make a splash in the PR space—Katie was the company’s first employee to use proprietary data to gain earned media.
Already familiar with Zillow’s formidable reputation as a disruptor in the real estate world, after a quick flight to Seattle, a phone interview with Co-founder Spencer Rascoff, and a gut-check conversation with her new husband Simon, they moved across the country and she got to work—just in time for the housing and financial crisis. Zillow saw the recession’s writing on the wall and let go 25% of their employees. Katie survived the cut and dug in to find a way forward.
At the time, Zillow’s marketing budget was minimal, relying on earned media, word of mouth, and SEO to drive traffic and interest. So instead of sinking money into consumer advertising and bombarding journalists with company-centric stories, Katie gave both audiences something they wouldn’t have otherwise: the truth.
“At the time, data PR wasn’t a big part of many businesses’ strategies, but we realized that Zillow had a big opportunity if we were bold enough to be unbiased in how we displayed the data and told the story,” said Katie. “All people wanted were the facts so they could try to figure out what their future held. It’s hard to believe now, because everyone is in the data game, but at the time it was a trailblazing way to build a credible brand with minimal investment.”
Be Patient (And Ask The President)
To gain traction with national journalists, Zillow focused on relationship building. Providing true value and leaning into the long view were central to their approach. To achieve the first, Katie championed the Zillow Home Value Index, an index that captured — in an entirely new and more complete way — what was happening in the housing market down to the neighborhood level. Zillow released the index as part of a quarterly report. Reporters responded, looking forward to the chance to dig into the insight and in some cases requesting exclusive reports to tell a bigger story. As her career evolved, Katie found that Zillow’s success with this method was a great lesson for all—at KMG she advises her data PR clients to create their own pillar reports, documents disseminated at regular intervals that use proprietary data to deepen credibility. This strategy does more than push out information. It provides natural touchpoints to engage and support reporters authentically and personally, a method that eventually propelled Katie and her team to the top of journalists’ speed-dials and paid big dividends.
“The great thing about working at Zillow at that time was that they prioritized patience over pressure. They let us build the muscle that they knew would strengthen the brand in the long term. We were also able to get some quick wins, but it took a year-plus before our data PR program gained traction,” said Katie. “The truth is that journalists get hundreds of pitches a day. If they know you well and rely on the data you provide, short-term gains pale in comparison to long-term opportunities.”
There is perhaps no greater example of patience paying off than when Zillow hosted President Barack Obama in 2013, during which the Commander-in-Chief answered questions from Zillow users submitted via social media. The town hall, a huge success, had deep roots. When Katie’s team pitched the idea to The White House, they had already laid a solid foundation of relationships, working with a government relations firm for six years and walking the long halls of Congress and D.C. agencies to share information about the housing market. Because Zillow had been long established as a reliable real estate data source, the trust they had earned reached all the way to the top. President Obama and Spencer Rascoff’s discussion was the pinnacle of the company’s brand-building strategy, fueling explosive growth and helping establish Zillow as the premier consumer-focused real estate company.
“If you think being a thought leader will benefit your company in the bigger picture, start thinking now about building that foundation today,” said Katie. “Your brand will thank you.”
Chase Goals, Not Tactics
Six years later, Katie left Zillow in 2019 with a string of huge accomplishments under her belt. Her purview had grown from data and consumer PR to all corporate and strategic communications and public affairs. She had ushered the hugely successful startup through its IPO, helped acquired 15 companies including their then-biggest rival Trulia, and created a household brand. Her next role at KMG, a Seattle-based, full-service integrated marketing and communications consulting agency, leveraged those lessons and more.
Alongside a stellar KMG team with experience forged at other West Coast giants like Amazon, Starbucks, and beyond, Katie helps clients with bold visions get big results. Working with a lot of tech startups, she is expertly attuned to the intersection of her client’s needs and the media landscape in which they want to gain traction. To help them reach the next level, she sometimes needs to level-set expectations.
“Everyone loves the Zillow story—that we got on the map with earned media alone. But the landscape has changed dramatically since then. I would never, ever advise anyone to not spend money on marketing today. That ship has sailed. Those days are over,” said Katie. “The first conversation I have with a client shouldn’t be: how can we get this into The Wall Street Journal? It should be: what are you trying to accomplish? Then together we can figure out the tactics to achieve those goals.”
Market With a Mission
Today, the scope of tactics Katie and her business partner Nancy Poznoff employ at KMG is vast enough to support a variety of missions and messages. The trick is figuring out how to navigate them in a way that meaningfully moves the needle.
Whether brands are just starting out or looking to take their next big step forward, cohesive communication is key to a positive consumer, stakeholder, and investor experience. KMG’s definition of brand is: the contract you make with your customer. That ethos means that every touch point in an organization’s customer and stakeholder journey should point toward the same thesis. That concept of integrated marketing is central to KMG’s success, and a frequent topic of conversation between Katie and her clients.
“Most founders and leaders have fantastic ideas. That’s why they’re in the business they’re in. But I always tell our clients that at KMG, our role is to determine the best way to share those ideas with the people who need to hear them,” said Katie. “When we started KMG, we knew that none of the disciplines—earned, owned, content, advertising, data, etc.—should exist in a silo. Using an integrated approach means you can capitalize on every campaign, every goal, and every message. Which ultimately means everything you do will be that much more effective.”
From Dave’s desk: "What Katie did at Zillow is nothing short of amazing. She paired a great product with superlative marketing and PR to build one of the biggest companies in its vertical with almost zero spend. But even beyond the remarkable things she’s done, Katie is remarkable because of who she is. She’s strategic. She’s calm amidst chaos. And she’s grounded by a strong true north, anchored in her principles and committed to making the world (particularly tech) a better, more inclusive place. I’m incredibly grateful to have Katie as a Tidemark Advisor and very thankful to know her as a person."