Leigh Pankonien and Kristen Sussman

 Leigh Pankonien and Kristen Sussman

Leigh Pankonien and Kristen Sussman

Kristen and Leigh met during their time in the advertising graduate program and just graduated in May. They recently launched Social Distillery, a social media agency located in downtown Austin. Their press release just went out, they are ready to take on the advertising world, and they are excited to share some tips and tricks with current AdGrads.

What made you decide to get your master’s degree in Adv. at UT?

Leigh: After working in marketing for a few years and earning a degree in World Religion, I realized I needed advanced education if I wanted to break into the world of advertising. Being from Austin, I knew UT was one of the best schools in this field as well as the best value for the cost of education. Of course, I’ve always dreamed of being a part of Texas, so in the end the choice was an easy one.

Kristen: Following my undergraduate degree and double major in Journalism and Broadcast TV/Radio I landed my first position at an advertising agency in Houston. There, I worked on live endorsement radio campaigns and learned the basic concepts of advertising. Wanting to better understand the field, I began looking at full-service agency positions and realized additional education would be beneficial. The University of Texas, I quickly learned, offered the best program in advertising in the state. Additionally, UT offers the renowned creative sequence. After acceptance to the program, I learned account management was better suited for my natural talents. Although, I can now effectively create graphics using the Adobe Creative Suite software, I found my passion in digital communications and online public relations. Like Leigh, I was attracted to the Longhorn network.

What did you take away from the UT Advertising program? What were your favorite classes?

Leigh: One of the most important take-a-ways from the program is the network I developed. I met excellent fellow students, I connected with teachers who are heavily involved within the industry, and I have pitched campaigns to real clients. The UT Advertising network is extremely valuable during school, but most importantly post-graduation. Secondly, I now have the confidence that I previously lacked to be successful in this fast-paced, highly competitive field thanks to the course work. I learned an incredible amount in the Interactive courses such as Digital Media and Digital Metrics; these skills are priceless in the real-world.

Kristen: My involvement with Dr. Gary Wilcox’s independent study was the most valuable experience. The opportunity and freedom, combined with my positions at local digital agencies, led to a high-level learning and familiarity with technology and interactive media. I also thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of Dr. Eastin’s coursework as well as Dr. Isabella Cunningham’s. Each professor I worked with seemed brilliant in his or her own manner. Dr. Neal Burns, an accomplished and connected advertising person, offered many takeaways through his lectures and guest speakers. Through my involvement with Dr. Burns’ …and the Brands Played On Conference I was able to enjoy a private dinner with advertising greats including Bob Garfield and Keith Reinhard while learning first-hand about the brilliance of Bill Bernbach and his mark on our industry. During my attendance at the 4A’s Transformation 2011 Conference I also met Kinky Friedman and received a free copy of his autographed book, Heroes of a Texas Childhood. These experiences and memories are what I will take.

You both were social media strategists for the Advertising department. How did you get that gig? What did you gain from the experience?

Leigh: Managing the Texas AdGrad social media initiative helped me round out my Interactive course work. The graduate advisor, Gary Wilcox, was quick to help me get enrolled in this class. Being able to contribute to a large brand’s online presence was an extremely powerful learning experience, and I took countless best practices, implementation strategy, and knowledge of a new social CRM software with me.

Kristen: Having a familiarity with local company, Spredfast, and their software, I knew that I wanted to work with both Spredfast and the University of Texas brand. I was familiar with the Texas AdGrad social media initiative through the initial launch and wanted to bring in the management software and apply it to the social media being done through the university. Dr. Wilcox sensed my ambition, saw my excitement and lucidly understood the value of this opportunity. With his support, he led our group in our achievements. In addition to the vast networking opportunities experienced, our team became efficient in applying social media strategy in a high-level strategic manner. Now, Leigh and I are launching our own company where we will apply this knowledge.

What made you decide to start your own business?

Leigh: There is a major need for the service of Social Media Management, as many companies don’t understand how to build their online brand presence. Kristen and I had the opportunity to get great hands-on experience and our body of knowledge is such that it is in great demand. The market is ripe to enter, and no better time than the present!

Kristen: Taking advantage of an exciting opportunity and putting my knowledge and experiences into action, launching Social Distillery just seems right. Plus, I’m fortunate to have met Miss Leigh Pankonien who has the knowledge, confidence and ability to bring the company and our clients to success.

Tell us more about your up and coming agency, Social Distillery.

Leigh: Social Distillery is our new venture, and we are here to help anyone or any company build and manage their social media strategy. We can do everything from completely develop and manage accounts to audit current social media initiatives that are already in place. Check out www.socialdistillery.com and follow us on Twitter, @SocialDistiller, for more info.

Kristen: With a vision for growth, success and fun, our Social Distillery team will work with businesses and brands to implement effective digital communications and online public relations. Using social media to communicate brand messaging, we will help clients measure their online reach and determine return on investment metrics. We are in a very exciting field of digital communications and Leigh and I have a full understanding of how to help our clients take advantage of this. Furthermore, social media has become an important part of the marketing mix and it offers a channel to uniquely communicate your brand. Some people don’t know how to best do this and that’s where we come in.

What advice do you have for current students in the program?

Leigh: My advice would be to get involved in anyway possible, through the Advertising Graduate Council, through social activities, and really make some good connections within the program. These are the people that you’ll be working late hours with, supporting and being supported by throughout the program and beyond. Also, if you have a specific interest, find classes that fit your needs in order to develop the skills you require to hit the workforce running. If these classes aren’t laid out on a platter for you, keep searching, they are there, or approach a teacher about an independent study; they are always willing to help.

Kristen: Take advantage of all the amazing opportunities that the Longhorn network and University of Texas offer. Meet amazing people and network. Start graduate school with a predetermined plan, even if it changes. Be strategic in your choices and always have the end goal in mind. Graduate school is an empowering opportunity that we are lucky to have. Embrace it, work hard and have fun.

What are some tips for effectively using social media?

Leigh: The top three best practices in my mind are (1) push relevant, original, engaging content, (2) Understand why you are in the space, and set realistic objectives and goals and (3) Every account must be active and responsive.

Kristen: Be smart and strategic, aligning social communications with your current business and marketing objectives. Make sure you are tracking all of your efforts in order to really see what’s happening. Also, always think of new ways to connect the dots. The Internet is a web and by publishing new content and creating new placers to be seen, your brand and communications will create traction.

What are some of your favorite things?


  • Movies: Wayne’s World
  • Websites: www.ted.com (ideas worth sharing), and www.wefeelfine.org (an exploration of human emotion, in 6 movements)
  • Things to do in Austin: Live Music, Barton Springs, UT sporting events
  • Advertising campaigns: Alamo Draft House because they use social media really effectively.


  • Movies: Donnie Darko
  • Websites: Mashable.com, Twitter.com and Facebook.com
  • Things to do in Austin: Donn’s Depot for music and beer, Texas Hill Country swimming holes like Krausse Springs and wineries, Austin City Limits and SXSW Festivals.
  • Advertising campaigns: I really like the designs of the Shiner Bock advertising created by McGarrah Jessee. I also recently saw a Dasani PlantBottle print ad in Wired magazine that did a great job of engaging me as a reader. Ultimately, the best ad campaigns are fun and make people think.

How can we reach you to learn more?

Leigh Pankonien LinkedIn, Twitter

Kristen Sussman LinkedIn, Twitter