Confessions of a former Trump designer

As the founder of social impact agency Smakk, Katie Klencheski’s mission feels a million miles away from the Trump Hotels brand that she helped establish in the early noughties. She discusses how the experience taught her the importance of practicing what you preach

We live in a world where consumers increasingly demand more from the brands they engage with. Companies are now expected to have a stance on everything from sustainability to diversity and social impact, while the role of creatives has evolved from simply serving clients to helping them make a positive impact on both people and the planet.

Founded in 2011, when many of these big societal conversations were still in their infancy, New York-based Smakk is one of the agencies that has been showing brands the way forward. One of the 0.1% of creative agencies founded, owned and run by women, it specialises in strategic branding, content, digital and marketing for socially conscious clients including Harry’s Razors and the NYC Mayor’s Office for Sustainability.

While Smakk founder Katie Klencheski’s mission for the agency is set in stone today, the creative industries she entered into in the early noughties was a vastly different place. Originally a Studio Art graduate, she moved to New York in 2004 and began looking for an artist’s assistant job to support her own creative ambitions. “I indiscriminately applied to every job that had the words ‘studio assistant’ or ‘studio manager’ as the job title on Craigslist, and ended up getting a job where I was the studio assistant at a very large, very corporate architecture firm – not where I’d expected to be,” she says.

Top and above: Chicago River Walk was one of the properties that Klenchinski worked on for Trump Hotels

Klencheski began to gravitate more towards design, taking night classes at NYU on how to build websites, before deciding to enter the agency world. In 2007, she joined a mid-sized, luxury-focused New York agency, where she ended up working as an art director on accounts including Cartier, American Express and the hotel collection of a certain celebrity businessman-turned-future president, Donald Trump. Little did she know, her work on Trump Hotels would help shape the entire future of her own practice.