Pheno's Alice Lee and Amy Deneson on Their Work for Oaksterdam University and Kikoko

Plus, their strategy of purpose and viewing cannabis products as just products

Alice Lee and Amy Deneson are co-founders of Pheno, an advertising agency established in 2019 that specializes in omnichannel media solutions for cannabinoid brands, businesses and revolutions. As a women-owned, WBENC-certified agency with co-founders proudly representing Asian and LGBTQ+ communities, Pheno is committed to creating a truly inclusive, equitable, sustainable industry by valuing the triple bottom line of enriching profits, people and the planet.

Prior to forming Pheno, Alice and Amy were colleagues at an early stage advertising technology startup that sold to Akamai Technologies in 2009. They started Pheno after Alice listened to Amy (who was then at Curaleaf) complain about the lack of agencies taking a holistic approach to advertising and said, "Why don't we create the agency you wish existed?"

Alice has 16-plus years of experience in digital media and ad technology, working with publishers, media agencies and ad tech companies. Prior to the launch of Pheno, she was the founder of DivviUp, a digital media and ad tech consulting firm.  Amy previously worked at Curaleaf, where she directed their marketing and sales. Before venturing into cannabis, she worked at acerno (acquired by Akamai Technologies) and ShareIQ (acquired by Cision PR). In 2020, Amy co-founded the Cannabis Media Council.

We spoke with Alice and Amy for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.

Alice and Amy, tell us ...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.
  • Alice: Born and raised in the Los Angeles area and have been living in New York since 2004.
  • Amy: I grew up in the heartland. Born in Iowa, raised in Wisconsin. I went to the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. I moved to New York almost 20 years ago.
Your current role in the cannabis industry, and where you're based.
  • Amy: We're co-founders of Pheno, specializing in omnichannel media for cannabinoid brands, businesses, and revolutions (because we still need to legalize the plant and her products). Pheno is headquartered in New York City but our clients are global.  
A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.
  • Alice: I was wooed into this industry by Amy because of the business opportunity, and it is now a space where I make a living. I've been able to pivot and apply all of my professional experience and know-how developed in my "mainstream" advertising career to this new space. Prior to working in the cannabis industry, I transitioned from working in corporate to running my own consulting practice because what I enjoy most is working with businesses on a more intimate level where I can make a material impact. Most businesses we work with are at early stages of growth so we are critical contributors to their success.
  • Amy: I love consuming cannabis for relaxation, levity and to spark creativity or conversations, but I also suffer from a painful chronic condition. Cannabis helps me heal, sleep and stay high-octane in my daily life. What's not positive is that I'm able to consume and work in the industry when people who are primarily Black and brown have been disproportionately devastated by the prohibition and are still incarcerated or locked out of the benefits of cannabis. We must legalize and support the Last Prisoner Project, The Equity Organization, 40 Tons, Minority Cannabis Business Association and all those championing prisoner release, record expungements and systemic reparations.
A favorite flower, edible, product, or brand.
  • Alice: I've been an insomniac for most of my life. I've been taking the Reimagine Slumber tincture (a Pheno client) since April and I've been sleeping through the night!
  • Amy: Only one?! Impossible. OK, I adore Sonder. Their Space Crystals are so lighthearted and delicious but also really pack a pop. The brand is non-stop delight.
The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.
  • Alice: Major media channels and platforms that are table stakes for any other advertiser are off the table for this category. It's a difficult landscape for cannabis businesses to navigate on their own, never having advertising or marketing experience, and not having existing relationships in the advertising industry to open doors for them.
  • Amy: Low or non-existent marketing budgets. Marketing is very underfunded in cannabis businesses. The majority of investment is being directed to everything it takes to get products to market but rarely is there anything allocated to actually marketing the brand or products. It is no longer enough to just get the products on the shelves. Branding and marketing are necessary to drive demand, develop affinities and foster loyalty.
One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.
  • Alice: I'm always delighted and excited to see cannabis businesses featured in major publications and billboards. I can't wait for the day when cannabis products are just products.
  • Amy: On that note, during a recent trip to Los Angeles, I read about Rose Delights in Vanity Fair on the plane. Intrigued, I went to a Serra dispensary to learn more, where to my delight, there was an edible infused with single-flower rosin by two of my favorites: Chef Enrique Olvera and Sonoma Hills Farm. This consumer discovery journey is at once so traditional but also revolutionary in that it represents cannabis brands becoming sought-after products and experiences. I had to experience Chef Enrique's edibles in the same way that I had to get a table at his restaurant Damian while in town.
A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.
  • Alice: Pheno is founded, owned, and led by women by design. Furthering opportunities for women and a diverse workforce are important priorities. We are the first WBENC-certified (Women's Business Enterprise National Council) ad agency specializing in cannabinoids and I'm a proud member of the organization that is accepting of the cannabis sector.
  • Amy: I'm a founding member of the Cannabis Media Council, an industry trade group dedicated to creating PSA-style campaigns to advocate for mainstream awareness with compelling category campaigns that uplift positive experiences with cannabis and normalize consumption. Co-founder Joyce Cenali and I are bringing together an extraordinary leadership team and launching our first campaign early next year.
A recent project you're proud of.
  • Alice: I am so proud of Pheno client Oaksterdam University and their work to expand from being the first cannabis college in the U.S. located in Oakland, California, to being the world's online education leaders. During the pandemic, they pivoted their classes online and have since educated people across the globe about cannabis horticulture, manufacturing, business and advocacy. Through 360-degree media campaigns, we amplify their expert educators and courses to help accelerate Oaksterdam University into new markets and invite cannacurious professionals to learn how they can find their place in the fastest growing industry on earth.
  • Amy: I'm super proud of our work with our client Kikoko. From their delicious products to their gorgeous packaging, Kikoko is doing an extraordinary job helping women feel comfortable trying cannabis and incorporating it into their everyday lives. Their herbal tea was the first cannabis product Alice tried—ever! The women-owned and led cannabis brand makes the most incredible infused Manuka / Kanuka honeyshots, botanical mints and herbal teas. Pssst: There's a new tea coming soon, so keep an eye out in California.
Someone else's project you admired recently.
  • Alice: The Luxury Meets Cannabis Conference is stunning. I admire their commitment to elevating the cannabis and crossover retail experience. We're excited to sponsor a conversation about high-end media and how to attract and engage discerning consumers, which more and more includes those spending with brands that prioritize clean, green, premium products that enrich profits, people, and our planet. We're seeing this with major mainstream CPG brands and this is a very promising look and direction for cannabis.
  • Amy: Cannaclusive with their InclusiveBase and Accountability List are doing the most work to ensure cannabis becomes the diverse and inclusive industry we want to see. When you are looking for cannabinoid brands and products to sell in your stores or industry vendors to hire, take a look at InclusiveBase, a dynamic, ever-growing list of businesses owned by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ professionals. And their Accountability List is naming names and giving grades to the companies who are actually (or not) living up to their diversity and inclusion mission statements.
Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.
  • Alice: Can I say Amy? If not my co-founder, then another founder I admire in the cannabis space is Kristin Jordan. She welcomed me to join her organization, the Asian Cannabis Roundtable. At the time I was new to the sector and really appreciated the opportunity to learn from other leaders in the space and network.  
  • Amy: I always say you can't spell accomplice without ALICE. I'm so honored and grateful to work and create with her. I'd also love to spotlight Lulu Tsui and Jacobi Holland and their On the Revel collective. Their Dope People Series totally lives up to its name. They also do incredible advocacy work and host Revelry events to sync up legacy leaders, legislators and newbies to build the inclusive industry we want to see in New York and globally.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.
  • Alice: Helping growth stage and startup businesses.
  • Amy: Trying to find my way into the cannabis industry. 

Higher Calling is a weekly series, publishing on Thursdays, where we chat with folks in the cannabis industry about their personal history and taste in cannabis and the future of cannabis marketing. For more about Higher Calling, and our Clio Cannabis program, please get in touch.

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