ANALYSIS: Profile - What's the big idea? Just ask Judith Rich. PR professionals pay plenty of lip service to creativity, but Judith Rich is the real deal. Steve Lillienthal sits down with the 'Lone Ranger of Creativity'

As chief creative officer for Ketchum, Judith Rich is the first to admit it's difficult to describe exactly what she does. Her job title - even her job function - is rarely found in the PR industry.

As chief creative officer for Ketchum, Judith Rich is the first to admit it's difficult to describe exactly what she does. Her job title - even her job function - is rarely found in the PR industry.

As chief creative officer for Ketchum, Judith Rich is the first to admit it's difficult to describe exactly what she does. Her job title - even her job function - is rarely found in the PR industry.

But Rich recalls the 'epiphany' she had last January when she was in Switzerland as a panelist at the International Zermatt Symposium on Creative Leadership, a select gathering of some of the world's most creative thinkers.

Sitting alongside fellow panelists such as Evelina Christillin, chair of modern history at the University of Turin, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles H. Townes, Rich wondered if she could hold her own.

But when it was all over with, Rich says she not only learned from them but thinks the audience and fellow participants learned from her as well.

'I came home feeling that what I did was real,' she says.

There are many people in the PR industry who agree that what Rich does is very real, mostly because they have benefited from her insight and her passion.

Ideas on the run

So what does Rich do? One might consider her a 'cheerleader for ideas.' She's constantly encouraging her associates to be more creative, and she has an infectious manner that colleagues say makes her easy to work with.

Rich's job involves being a sort of 'Lone Ranger of Creativity.' She dashes into Ketchum offices around the world to help inject 'fresh thinking' into business pitches or stymied accounts. Then she leaves.

Rich insists that creative thinking must reflect strategic goals. Too often, she says, PR decisions are made simply to reflect the client's wishes rather than what really needs to be accomplished.

'I have found overall that our industry does very, very good work,' she says. 'But we could do much better work if we thought more strategically, if we created more creatively.'

And that's what she's been striving to achieve in her career. 'I worked my way up in this business,' says Rich, who was working as a reporter on a local newspaper in the Chicago area about 30 years ago when a PR exec approached her about changing her career path.

'It then struck me how much more interesting it would be to create the news instead of just reporting on it.'

Rich went to work for Edelman, where she worked on the Nine Lives cat food account around the time Morris the Cat was sent on a media tour.

Betsy Quinn, now an SVP for Ketchum in San Francisco, recalls that even then Rich had a reputation for being the 'consummate consumer marketing PR professional.'

After leaving Edelman, Rich spent five years running Ketchum's Chicago office before becoming the agency's first national creative officer.

'We both took a risk,' says Rich. 'They had not had a position like that and did not know if it was going to be viable. We didn't know how we were going to do it or what it was going to be or how it was going to work.'

Right now, Ketchum's San Francisco office is helping the California Prune Board change the name of its product to 'dried plums.' Earlier this year one of Rich's brainstorming sessions yielded the idea to play off the Federal Witnesss Relocation Program. The press kit would show a picture of a dried plum marked 'confidential,' suggesting the fruit had been undercover all these years as a prune.

'But she urged us to take it a step further,' says Gina Lipparelli, senior account executive in the SF office.

Rich suggested that next year, when the client is handing out packets of dried plums for its annual sampling program, the containers should be marked 'Fruit Bureau of Identification.'

Creativity as a team sport

Rich says she considers herself the 'facilitator' of ideas, arguing that creativity should not be the province of one mastermind, but a team sport.

She also believes good brainstorming sessions do not just happen. She devotes hours to considering who should participate and researching objectives.

A classic Rich brainstorming story occurred a few years ago when Johnson & Johnson was seeking ideas to extend its reputation of trust for baby products to other product lines.

One particular meeting was packed with bigwigs from both Ketchum and J&J, and there was a lot of pressure riding on Rich. Things only turned more tense when she turned the lights out.

'It was almost unsettling,' says Barri Rafferty, the associate director of Ketchum's New York office. 'It is like being blindfolded.' The executives found themselves reaching for and then sniffing a small cup. When the lights came on the tension disappeared and warm reminiscences of childhood filled the room.

'No one in any of the previous sessions of any of the previous agencies had ever thought to ask (J&J) to smell their own product,' says Rich.

Rich says conventionality leads people into ruts. She's been known to arrange dinner to be served during breakfast just to get people into a mind-set for doing things a little out of the ordinary. And her arsenal for creativity training sessions includes Nerf balls: when someone tries to shoot down an idea, others in the group will pelt that person with a ball. And Rich dispenses crayons as a reward for creative thinking.

It's easy to imagine middle-aged business professionals scoffing at Rich's 'get in touch with your inner child' mentality, but underestimate her at your peril. As David MacKay, senior counselor with Hill & Knowlton in DC and an ex-Ketchum employee, says: 'She's gracious and funny, but also can be tough and down-to-business.'

Hill & Knowlton/USA CEO and president Tom Hoog has worked with Rich on behalf of PRSA's Counselors Academy and credits her with being the 'premiere player in the PR industry in the creative role.' Hoog admits that Ketchum's deserved reputation for creative thinking makes the company 'strong competition.'

Manning, Selvage & Lee CEO and chairman Lou Capozzi, a Rich disciple, credits Rich for making the role of creative director a real job in the eyes of the industry.'

So, what comes next for Rich? She entertains thoughts of teaching and perhaps writing a book or producing videos on creativity. But whatever she does next, count on it to be creative.


Ketchum chief creative officer

1965: Joins Edelman as assistant account executive and leaves as EVP and national creative director

1985: Joins Ketchum as EVP and director of Chicago office

1990: Ketchum EVP and executive creative director/US

1999: Ketchum EVP and chief creative officer/worldwide.

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