Rob Flaherty - Forging a truly global path

Ketchum's CEO is intent on making the agency a global proposition, but is particular about how it builds its empire. Mark Banham reports.

Strategy for growth: Rob Flaherty
Strategy for growth: Rob Flaherty

Rob Flaherty is on a flying visit to London - literally.

The chief executive of global comms agency Ketchum has an hour to spare for PRWeek in a one-day stopover before a flight to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The 53-year-old cuts a distinctly Madison Avenue figure not unlike fictional ad man Don Draper, though one would suspect the thoughtful and clean-cut American does not share the nicotine and Scotch habit.

His suit is pressed to an exacting degree and his shirt is so starched it almost looks like he will not be able to stand up during the interview. He disproves this when he moves amiably - but firmly - to ask employees in an impromptu meeting next door to change venues so he can hear himself think. One gets the feeling people do not say no to this particular leader a lot.

Flaherty is keen to expound on Ketchum's rise to the PR agency superleagues, a task he has stewarded since his appointment to the chief executive job last June. He replaced industry veteran Ray Kotcher, who stepped up to the role of chairman, becoming the PR gatekeeper for global superbrands including Procter & Gamble, Philips and technology consultancy IBM.

Even before his appointment, Flaherty was already a major force at the agency and spearheaded Ketchum's involvement in pro bono activity for the World Economic Forum's Global Health Initiative and Room to Read, the forum's literacy project.

Ray Jordan, senior vice-president of corporate affairs at Amgen, who has worked with Flaherty on the Global Health Initiative, says: 'Rob displays an ability to evoke structured thinking about an organisation and its strategy from several levels of leadership. He prods, questions, restates and enlightens in remarkably effective ways that help an organisation understand what is at its core.'

Next year Flaherty will celebrate a quarter of a century with Ketchum, a network that has come to maturity through expansion combined with acquisitions, with its most recent scalp in its US home territory, North Carolina's Capstrat, last month.

Flaherty suggests the work of building the agency into a global proposition is 'almost done', but he is still looking for the last pieces to complete his executive puzzle.

'Our strategy has been to find the best agency within the geography and get to know them over a long period of time,' he says, setting out his mission statement.

'We want to see that they have a very good reputation of their own, that they have a very good client list, both local brands and in-country brands, as well as some that are global,' he insists.

'We are looking for a strong cultural fit that I guess we would define as able to work well with others and appreciate that not all the best ideas are theirs.'

Ketchum will only work with those that have proved themselves in social media. Flaherty believes there is a current duality with modern comms in the social space.

'Many things happen on a global basis fuelled by social media and the internet. They don't stay in the same geography, but because of social media people expect a more intimate experience and all marketers are trying to build that one-to-one relationship,' he says.

Marketers may well want to build that relationship through their PR agency, but are they willing to pay for it out of already squeezed budgets, especially following the latest Bellwether Report's revelations that PR sits in the marcoms sector encountering the biggest budgetary difficulties?

'How do you monetise the presence of a message in earned or social media? The answer is ... you don't,' Flaherty says with the obligatory dramatic pause. 'The other shops in the business are trying to replace what they previously monetised - they call it advertising, but they buy air or buy time - and they will be frustrated.'

He insists the question is somewhat redundant, as Ketchum does not 'get paid for the essence of the message, but to think through what will make this something that people really want to receive.

'Clients - and I'm talking chief marketing officers - appreciate the need for the viral and the earned aspect of the message,' - and they remunerate accordingly.

The Ketchum chief executive says that we are entering a 'period of recovery' in the global economy, and his chief worry is not client fee levels, but 'client volatility'.

'There has been so much pressure on the companies we deal with that a lot of people have been moved around or have left. Switching chairs means you may not be in touch with your usual client on a one-to-one basis every day.'

Flaherty uses this opportunity to address the subject of retained versus new business, and whether organic client growth is preferable over a new business gunfight. 'Existing clients come first at Ketchum ... absolutely,' he says with some authority. 'We have many ways of celebrating great client service, so that the win doesn't become the highest order of celebration. We prize new business, but we don't have a new business prize.'

He quickly adds a caveat, 'but it is certainly important for an agency to continually renew itself by winning new business'.

With Ketchum recording double-digit growth last year, it is a necessary qualification if the agency is serious about achieving the same targets in 2013. In the fiercely competitive global marketplace, it is a task that does not get any easier.

CV

2012 Chief executive officer, Ketchum

2008 President, Ketchum

2008-present Board of advisers, Room to Read

2006 Senior partner, global corporate practice, Ketchum

2006-present Board member, Institute for Public Relations

1999 Senior partner, global practices, Ketchum

1993 Director, New York office, Ketchum

1989 Associate director, New York office, Ketchum

1984 Vice-president/group manager, Burson-Marsteller, New York

1981 Director of PR, F.X. Matt Brewing Company, Utica, New York

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

The phone call almost 24 years ago asking me to join Ketchum. It was at the beginning of decades of explosive growth at the agency. I'm very fortunate to have found a place that gives me every opportunity to build my career.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Ray Kotcher, our chairman, has taught me our values through his example, and he taught me the need to focus on a few key strategies amid a sea of options.

What advice would you give to people climbing the career ladder?

When you are striving to become a leader, it's all about developing yourself. When you become a leader, it's all about developing others.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

A sharp mind, the intellectual curiosity to make it sharper, resilience, perspective, maturity and a progressive view of the role of this business.

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