Kate Messenger has a favorite relic from the dot-com boom decorating her San Francisco office: a fake coconut that, when opened, plays a tropical tune, and was used as an invitation to an island party for a dot-com client. "I miss these things,she says as she lets the tune play for a moment.
There are also things she doesn't miss. She wasn't alone in feeling the pain of a tech decline so steep it defied the usual rationalizations of a changing market. "Last year was so awful,
she says. "I have a number of friends in the PR industry here, and we get together and just talk about how awful it was."
Ogilvy, in the Bay Area in 2001, had already consolidated its Silicon Valley and San Francisco offices, but for logistical rather than financial reasons. The tough times came at the end of February 2001, when the firm had its first round of 70 job cuts - and then months later had another round of layoffs. One of the two floors Ogilvy occupied in San Francisco is now closed. About 50 people now work in San Francisco, and 14 in LA.
Messenger's able handling of the situation didn't go unnoticed. Michael Schrage, journalist and research associate at the MIT Media Lab, knows her as both a reporter and on the client side, through the management of various events. "Not surprisingly, it has been a brutal 16 to 18 months,
he says. "No one can be enthused or happy to preside over having to rationalize the resources and the size of your office."
Schrage says Messenger was professional, even at the most difficult moments. "I have not witnessed any behavior I would consider to be an unhappy manifestation of that stress."
"We probably could've made a deeper cut in the first round of layoffs,
Messenger reflects. "We were so horrified having to do the first round, we really believed that would be it."
But she doesn't indulge in regret. Messenger's demeanor is calm and disciplined, and her career trajectory has the enviable clarity and precision that she embodies. She helped Ogilvy secure and sustain the valuable Sun Microsystems account, and has shifted her team's focus to nurturing and growing relationships with existing clients.
Messenger was born in the UK, raised in France and New Zealand, and spent a year teaching English as a foreign language in France before landing in PR. "I was looking for something that was about convincing people,
says the former captain of her school's debate team. "I was interested in journalism, but felt I couldn't be impartial. I wanted to come down on one side or the other."
Messenger was eventually offered an entry-level position at Talking Points, a tech PR boutique in London. She says she's fortunate to have started out at this small firm, with three or four other people, where she could take on projects of increasing responsibility.
The job gave her experience in the tech sector. She admits she has a reputation for being a "nerd,
given to long stretches of study to get up to speed on a new idea. "I liked that it was complicated,
she says. "I like learning things by taking home a pile of reading."
After three years and several promotions, Messenger was recruited by Herald Communications to head up its tech practice, then a two-person team in London. The offer took her by surprise: "I said, 'I can't do this job. I think you've got the wrong idea about who I am.'"
At Herald she was the tech expert, with no one more senior to turn to for advice. She also learned how to manage staff and international relationships, and by the time she left the firm, its tech practice had grown to 12 people.
A trip to the US on behalf of Herald brought her to the attention of Alexander Communications, which merged with Ogilvy in 1998 and hired Messenger to open the LA office. She first spent time in San Francisco learning the agency's ways. "She ramped up very quickly,
remembers Holland Carney, former president of Alexander Ogilvy's Western region. "When she moved to LA, it was a different market than Silicon Valley. It required someone who was really graceful and adaptive."
Last year, Messenger led the pitch for part of Sun Microsystems' business after it split from Burson-Marsteller. Sun divided the work among four firms, then later down to two. Since then, the Sun work for Ogilvy has grown.
"I like the fact that we've grown the business,
Messenger says. "The other thing is that Sun has multiple pieces of business. The company is really trying to make everyone work together as a single team. Progress is being made."
Kasey Holman, a senior PR exec with Sun Microsystems, says Messenger brings a key element of strong team management to the account. "I definitely consider that a core competency, especially in this day and age. It's important to motivate people and keep them enthusiastic about what they're doing. She's a very good motivator, and injects that same team spirit throughout."
Had Messenger not found PR, she might have pursued forensic psychology, or taken an academic post related to the study of the human mind. She likes to figure things out.
Since the start of 2002, she's been applying some of these theories to work life. She wants to bring a strategic perspective to all her client work. But she's found that it takes just as much effort to create a fulfilling work environment as it does to match old expectations.
"I learned how to be very hard-working. That discipline is what allowed me to progress,
she explains. "But you have to discipline yourself to create an environment in which your natural strengths come through."