Jun. 27, 2021

Devon Zdatny ’13 blends analytics and strategy to remarkable ends

Devon Zdatny’s open, upbeat personality seems tailor-made to reassure clients in challenging times—say, a global pandemic. As a specialist in both market analytics and strategy, her company has been helping businesses navigate COVID-induced economic turmoil.

Zdatny, Direct and Interactive Marketing ’13, is the founder and CEO of First & First Consulting, a direct and interactive marketing firm focused on the Gen Z demographic. At a time when people were stressed, bored, and feeling trapped indefinitely in their homes, Zdatny predicted emerging trends her clients could jump on to satisfy consumers’ yearning for distraction, entertainment, and some degree of normalcy. First & First foresaw an uptick in the demand for inflatable pools, weed edibles, and even laser eye surgery for people annoyed that face masks caused glasses to fog.

Zdatny has a long relationship with FIT. She started as a Fashion Design student in the Precollege Program and then earned an AAS in Advertising and Marketing Communications and a B.S. in Direct and Interactive Marketing. “I applied to 13 schools because my parents made me, but if I didn’t get into FIT, I don’t know if I would have even gone to college,” she says. Now she teaches at her alma mater and serves on the consortium advising the Baker School of Business and Technology.

Tools of the Trade

The company draws on a mix of 25 methods, including social media listening tools and consumer insight platforms, to advise its 75 clients, including Facebook and Combs Enterprises (as in Sean “Diddy” Combs). “The big brands come to us with a particular target consumer to find out what sort of marketing they should do, what sort of consumer insights they should look for,” Zdatny says.

She finds that a blend of analytics (studying data to uncover trends that can inform business decisions) and strategy (developing a plan to meet business goals) provides the best answers to clients’ questions. It seems obvious that satisfying your customers while hitting your own objectives is key to success, but oddly, this two-pronged approach is rare in the industry. In fact, Zdatny says, there’s a chasm between them. “Researchers and analysts are like toddlers with a plate of peas and carrots, and the peas can’t touch the carrots. But we take the peas and slam them in the middle of the carrots and mix them with the mashed potatoes.”

The name First & First harks back to a beloved Seinfeld episode in which Kramer phones Jerry from the intersection of First Avenue and First Street in the East Village—and realizes he’s at the “nexus of the universe.” (It also harks back to Zdatny’s past; she once lived in the area.) Now her company works at the nexus of the marketing universe, where analytics and strategy meet.

Branching Out

What she loves about direct and interactive marketing is that it “holds you very accountable to selling”—you directly measure consumers’ response to your marketing and advertising efforts, so you know what worked and what didn’t. Zdatny’s insights apply not only to companies, but also to any institution that promotes its reputation and services to attract an audience, such as a college. To that end, Zdatny now teaches social media marketing at FIT and serves on the Baker School of Business and Technology’s Strategic Planning Consortium, which advises on curriculum and student recruitment for the next decade. She says Gen Z is anxious and questioning of authority, a challenge the school will need to address when seeking prospective students.

Meanwhile, Zdatny’s expertise has helped her own company survive the pandemic. Although she closed the physical office in 2020 in the face of a 65% drop in revenue over the summer, she’s proud to have kept all nine of her full-time employees, five of whom are FIT alums. First & First used the downtime to strengthen its marketing, branding, and operations in an effort to “future-proof” the business. Despite the challenges, Zdatny’s optimistic outlook and belief in her business model prevail.

“Right now,” she says, “I feel like I want to be doing this forever.”

Photos: Jahné Brown ’20