Who knew that the question, “What do you think of this space?” could lead to a career full of creative impact?
Kellie Soto certainly didn’t know. When she earned a BS in mass communications and broadcast journalism then accepted an executive assistant/office manager role at a nonprofit foreign policy institute, she was simply excited for the opportunities that her first job out of college afforded. “I loved that I got to touch so many different things in such a high-pressure zone,” she recalls. “There wasn’t a lot of room for mistakes.”
But as Soto evolved within her work environment, she found the “office manager” part of her job evolving too. “While I was there I started doing little things to make the space look better, and function better,” she says. “It’s something I took on naturally.”
By the time she was working at the digital marketing agency SocialCode—again, initially, as an executive assistant/office manager—her knack for knowing what works and what doesn’t in an office layout had become more evident and respected in kind. When she was asked the, “What do you think of this space?” question, and many of her thoughts were in fact implemented at SocialCode’s Washington, DC, office, she knew her ability to connect and build great rapport with people was creating unexpected opportunity. Within six months she was making recommendations to the company’s Chicago office; 18 months after that, she had relocated to the New York City office as SocialCode’s new head of office operations and workplace design. Soon after she completed the refurbishment of its NYC office and the build-out of the LA office.
Soto was about four years into her job at SocialCode when she started thinking about the next step, career-wise. But she hadn’t gotten very far into that thought process when she received a LinkedIn query from AKQA, a digital agency with over 20 offices worldwide (including New York). While Soto wasn’t familiar with AKQA, she checked out the company website and was instantly intrigued. “Immediately when you look at the site and see how cool and clean it is,” she says, “it was an aesthetic that I knew could lend itself to awesome workplace design.”
The organization was initially looking to hire Soto as an office manager, but after a few conversations, AKQA was tipped off to her goals with design. An in-person interview with the international managing director—a lover of design and architecture who encouraged Soto’s ability to give AKQA organizational direction—ultimately led to Soto’s hiring as associate director of workplace operations and design in late 2017.
Her first year on the job came with a clear-cut goal: the development of a “tech lab” that would be housed in AKQA’s Fifth Avenue studio. Described by Soto as “an empty space filled with fluorescent lighting and a ping-pong table” initially, she and her team reviewed their ideas, along with those of other creative minds at the agency and weighed them against time and budget constraints before proceeding to the design phase with M. Moser Associates (architecture) and Reidy Construction Group (general contractor). Having previously overseen the office’s 2014 buildout, M. Moser’s involvement assured Soto that the bones of the tech lab were in good hands—which was crucial, given the number of details to which she soon found herself tending. “While there was some pressure for us to get it done,” she says, “There was also the leniency to make sure that we took our time to get it exactly right. That was really cool.”
The project, with planned completion in early 2019, will benefit greatly from local partnerships. One made with Greenery NYC, a botanic design company based out of Brooklyn, for example, selects and maintains living plants customized to the needs of different AKQA workspaces. “They do the work for you while allowing you to be a part of the design process if you wish, making it very easy to incorporate plant life in your space and take care of them,” Soto says, which, in turn, leaves her the time to focus on her work. A similar partnership with Naava, a company specializing in “smart, movable green walls,” gives the AKQA studio additional flexibility with the plants they use and the space in which they use them.
The companies that Soto has collaborated with feel these partnerships are equally advantageous to them, as well. “Kellie is at the forefront of workplace experience, perfectly marrying technology and design,” Envoy’s CEO and founder, Larry Gadea, says of his experience with Soto’s work. “We’re privileged to support her vision in creating a thoughtful, secure, and streamlined visitor experience for AKQA.”
Soto’s goals in caring for AKQA’s space always include maintaining a certain standard that is reflected in every client relationship, and the experiences they have while at the studio. She has been very careful to assemble the ideal team to bring their studio projects and initiatives to completion.
“They’re empowered by the autonomy they’re getting—it all sets up new ground rules for them, but also lets them put their own stamp on what they’re doing,” Soto says of her team. “That’s what makes it feel genuine, and that’s what brings the humanity back into the space.”
AKQA seeks to develop partnerships with a purpose
AKQA has developed a plan with Wavelength Lighting to reduce 60 percent of lighting-related energy consumption and one ton of landfill waste over a five-year period.
For the Love of Leftovers
With the help of Rescuing Leftover Cuisine (RLC), AKQA donates the unused food from events they host, which are then distributed to underserved communities of hungry families in New York City.
Gallery of Diversity
Through a joint effort with Artlifting, which connects businesses with paintings by homeless and/or disabled artists, AKQA now has six of these new works of art featured in its Fifth Avenue Studio—and counting! The paintings are swapped out every six months to add a new spice to the atmosphere and feature an array of talent. Soto’s strategic placement of the art allows staff to view it both when they arrive and head out—as a way to help keep everyone grounded.