Nice Girls Do Finish First
Irvington’s Pam Kaufman, the marketing mind behind Nickelodeon megahits like SpongeBob SquarePants, prizes her commanding role and the importance of being nice.
Nickelodeon executive Pam Kaufman relaxing in her Irvington home with one of her two Havanese.
photograph by stefan Radtke
Do you know the starfish story?” asks Pam Kaufman. The Irvington resident and chief marketing officer and president of consumer products for Nickelodeon, shares the tale of a young boy determined to save a beach full of dying starfish. A man walking past says that there’s no way he’ll be able to save them all. The boy picks up a starfish, throws it back into the water and says, “Well, I just saved one.”
It’s meaningful that this story is one of Kaufman’s favorites.
“That is how I try to be,” says Kaufman over lunch at her favorite Irvington restaurant, Red Hat on the River. She willingly lends an ear to the young men and women on her team who want to discuss “life and all that stuff” and to those at the volunteer organizations she supports. “I think people get overwhelmed with how they can make a difference, and it just takes a little bit of time. So that’s what I try to be mindful of.”
Polished, poised, and savvy, Kaufman is also warm, thoughtful, and enthusiastic, peppering her sentences with words like love and awesome. This blend of sincerity and smarts undoubtedly helped her rise at Nickelodeon over the past 20 years, from vice president of promotions marketing to her current role, which was created for her in 2013. She’s successfully launched more than 20 television shows, notably Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and PAW Patrol; she leads a team of more than 400 people and oversees a division responsible for $4 billion in global revenue.
Kaufman recognizes her professional success but hopes foremost that people would say of her: “‘She’s fair; she works hard; she’s a pleasure to deal with — and nice,’” Kaufman says, adding, “Nice is so underrated.”
Her Twitter feed underscores those values, espousing her beliefs in empowering women and in living a healthy and grateful life. She’s wholehearted and genuine in action. A nine-year board member of New York City-based Bottomless Closet, which offers a whole-life plan for women who want to get into the workforce, she was honored last year at their gala and recently joined the board of the Pace Women’s Justice Center, which assists women experiencing domestic violence.
Kaufman worked in advertising and created the first licensed promotions team at Turner Broadcasting before joining Nickelodeon in 1997, starting work there while eight months pregnant with her daughter, Amanda. She added new responsibilities and roles as she climbed the ladder. “It’s been a great evolution of my career, going from marketing to now running consumer products; it’s so much fun,” she enthuses.
“I am responsible primarily for marketing and consumer products, so I sometimes feel like I work for [a company like] Procter & Gamble, because I manage these globally important brands the way [P&G] would manage a Dove or an Ivory Snow,” she says, listing SpongeBob, TMNT, Dora, and PAW Patrol. “My role is to make sure these beloved brands continue to stay popular and that we are reaching kids across all of our platforms.”
It’s a role that encompasses strategy and execution of merchandising, licensing, marketing, retail, and digital/social/mobile, paying especially close attention to research data, to keep ahead of and understand the audience. Kaufman also considers herself a talent officer, acknowledging the significant impact role models and former managers made on her to be a team motivator and gracious leader.
Kaufman, with YouTube star JoJo Siwa and musician Gwen Stefani, creator of Nickelodeon’s animated series Kuu Kuu Harajuku, in New York City in March.
Photo by Scott Gries/Invision for Nickelodeon/AP Images
Among these many role models were Kaufman’s mother and father. “I had fantastic parents, who instilled in me the value of friendship, working hard, being nice, and thinking of others,” says Kaufman, explaining her ethos. While growing up in Nanuet, she watched them run their own businesses — her mother was a teacher who eventually owned a successful bridge club, and after a career on Wall Street, her father became a prominent horse handicapper. Influenced by her mother, who “always felt having your own identity, your own money, and a job was very important,” says Kaufman, “I always say to people, ‘If you’re present, and you’re happy, your kids are going to be happy. If you’re distracted and miserable, so will they be.’” Kaufman counts herself lucky to have had strong assistance from her parents when she was a working mom. “My mom would say, ‘We’ll take care of [the kids]. It’s ok.’ Having that support was incredible — and my husband’s pretty awesome, too,” Kaufman notes.
That would be Scott Drath, a financial consultant whom she met at a party during their senior year of college in Washington, DC — he at George Washington University and she at American University, where she earned a BA in communications. Together since then, they settled in Irvington in 2000. Their son, Alex, a graduate of GW who works for Vail Resorts in Colorado, and Amanda, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis studying economics, both graduated from Irvington High School. (Amanda recently penned an article, “Why Having a Working Mom Is the Best Thing Ever,” that was picked up by Huffington Post.) Kaufman’s sister, Jill Evans, brother-in-law Chris, and three nephews live in nearby Harrison.
Empty nesters now, Kaufman and Drath love the “community feeling” and “whole vibe of the Rivertowns,” with no plans to move. They frequently indulge their love of rock ’n’ roll and live music at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester and enjoy dining there, as well as in Irvington and Tarrytown. She walks her two Havanese, AJ and Mac, every weekend at Halsey Pond (“my favorite place in the whole world”), works out at PUSH Personal Training and patronizes Salon Topaz in Dobbs Ferry.
In her professional life, Kaufman has survived and thrived in the competitive world of Viacom, Nickelodeon’s parent company, by “being available to whatever people needed to get the job done.”
Throughout her career, Kaufman has received numerous prestigious awards, most recently in 2016, when Multichannel News named her one of their “Wonder Women.” She is pleased yet decidedly modest about the recognition, preferring to discuss fellow honoree Stephanie McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and the partnership they forged, including a successful co-branded toy line featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the wrestlers, as a result of networking at the 2016 awards ceremony. Last year was a banner year for another of Kaufman’s passions — travel, which she calls “energizing” and “invigorating.” Excursions last year included a self-described “life-changing bucket-list trip” to South Africa, where she visited Cape Town and went on two safaris. She also took an extended family trip to Iceland, to celebrate her son’s college graduation.
Memorable experiences like those and career satisfaction have elevated Kaufman’s gratitude for her own good fortune. “I love what I do,” she says earnestly. “I love our company; I love the brand; I love what we represent.... I cannot believe I get to work on SpongeBob every day of my life…. I feel really fortunate to work on something like that; it’s really, really brilliant.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer and longtime resident of Briarcliff Manor who watched many Nickelodeon shows with her two sons when they were young.