PROFILE: Kotcher guides Ketchum by embodying its culture

Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher has led the agency through a tough period by staying committed to its values. Now, under his watch, the firm hasn't only bounced back, but it has also matured.

Ketchum CEO Ray Kotcher has led the agency through a tough period by staying committed to its values. Now, under his watch, the firm hasn't only bounced back, but it has also matured.

Ray Kotcher is a very Ketchum guy. The firm's ideals, he says, include loyalty, reciprocity, integrity, and trust - and are ideals that Kotcher, as Ketchum's CEO, aims to embody in his personal and professional life. "He grew up in the Ketchum culture and actually embodied the Ketchum culture," agrees Tom Harrison, chairman of Omnicom's Diversified Agency Services. "When you looked for the kind of leader you wanted to succeed [former CEO and now chairman Dave] Drobis, who, like [Fleishman-Hillard CEO] John Graham, is an icon in the industry," Harrison continues, "you wanted someone who could take the brand as it existed and build it in a way that would recognize the needs of clients down the road." Kotcher has guided Ketchum through a transition period, and it would be a mistake to mischaracterize that commitment to values as a squishy lack of business sense. Though it still embraces the ideals Kotcher believes in so strongly, the firm has, to a certain extent, grown up. It's a function of surviving through an unforgiving market and the natural maturation of a business that is once again seemingly on the upswing. Kotcher is no Pollyanna, but sometimes he sounds like one. Running a PR firm is, he says, what he always wanted to do. He graduated from the State University of New York at Geneseo with a degree in English and theater. He was a high-school English teacher for four years before going back to Boston University and earning a master's in public relations. Characteristically, he found a guiding principle at that time in the works of author Tony Schwartz, who wrote a book in 1974 called The Responsive Chord. Kotcher, a voracious reader, seems to always have a new title under his belt, and is constantly seeking out information from contacts, colleagues, and clients. The former teacher has never stopped being a student. His first agency job was at Burson-Marsteller, where he joined the staff as an AE with youthful aspirations just destined to be disappointed. "Coming out of BU, I really thought I would be helping our senior clients make policy decisions around communications," he says with a laugh. "Instead, I found myself making media lists and mailing out press releases. So I got an education very quickly." After a year, he moved on to J. Walter Thompson's (JWT) corporate communications division and had an opportunity to work in both advertising and PR. He appreciates the insights into the media business the advertising experience afforded him, but ultimately chose PR because he didn't find advertising as "challenging or stimulating." From JWT, he joined Ketchum to work on the firm's Aetna account. Lorraine Thelian, senior partner and head of the firm's North American operations, started working with him in 1985. "He hasn't changed a lot since then," she says, adding that the reason she and other senior execs have stayed so long at the agency is due, in part, to Kotcher's efforts to innovate and to his management style. "He pretty much lets you do your thing," she says. "He is definitely not a micro-manager." Kotcher spent a year at GS Schwartz before returning to Ketchum for good, moving up from director of the New York office to his current position - just in time for the market to nosedive. Layoffs were a painful necessity, Kotcher says. But he is proud that Ketchum has retained its culture and added a layer of accountability across functions, making it operate better as a business. "We became a performance-based organization," Kotcher explains. "Ray has become much more seasoned and astute as a businessman and company leader," agrees Harrison. "He has seen the things that need to be done to create the kinds of operational efficiencies needed. The Ketchum that exists today under him is very strong because of it." A tough moment for the firm was losing the longstanding Visa USA business to Golin Harris (which subsequently lost it to Fleishman) in 2002. "It was really unfortunate," he recalls. "The work was still some of the best work we've ever done at the agency, and that was a particularly difficult situation. It was unfair. I knew the potential impact it would have on the agency's morale and financials. But we got through it." Kotcher admits he has a blind spot when it comes to clients working with Ketchum in that he can't understand why every great company doesn't hire the firm. But with a roster that includes companies like FedEx, Kodak, and The Home Depot, the firm has not only its share of great brands, but it also has a cabal of vocal advocates for its work and its leadership. "From a strategic-thinking standpoint, Ray is really one of the best," says Erin Foster, Kodak's director of worldwide PR, digital and film imaging. "He has been very influential in how we are moving the Kodak brand." Foster attended a "Camp Ketchum" training event in Jamaica this year and was impressed by Kotcher's enthusiasm for the work and the people doing it. David Sandor, director of PR for The Home Depot, says Kotcher is willing to "dive in and help when needed," citing a recent example when he helped Sandor in positioning an executive with an important publication. "When the moment came, he was right there in the trenches with me. That meant a lot." Moreover, says Sandor, the married father of two is "just a nice person, one you can relate to and have fun with. I appreciate his candor." Ray Kotcher 2000 to present CEO, Ketchum 1986-2000 Ketchum. Various roles, including director of New York office, director of the Eastern region, president, COO 1985-1986 EVP, GS Schwartz 1982-1985 VP, group manager, Ketchum 1979-1982 VP, J Walter Thompson 1978-1979 AE, Burson-Marsteller

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