It was 1990, and the woman who eventually would become managing director at Boston's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos went into labor. Her first child was a month early, and her husband had to drag her out of the office and race her to the hospital.
"I was faxing things and delivering things and cleaning out my desk," said Ms. Kaplan, who then was VP-account supervisor on H.J. Heinz Co. at the agency. "It wasn't supposed to be that abrupt. I wasn't ready."
But Ms. Kaplan has always zoomed down the road less traveled. In college, she spent a semester in France's Loire Valley and-not knowing any Spanish-went to Madrid for another semester.
She and her husband got engaged three months after their first meeting in a bar, and she rides roller coasters and goes tubing with her son and 7-year-old daughter. That derring-do pervades her life at the agency, where at a 1993 retreat, the then-midlevel executive gave a sassy speech on "10 ways to claw your way to the middle at Hill, Holliday"-a talk that poked gentle fun at higher-ups at the only real job she'd ever had.
"It was ballsy, but it was the defining moment in my career," said the 41-year-old exec VP. "You have to get noticed."
FROM THE BOTTOM UP
"For someone of her level and stature, it's deceiving. Karen has a really clear head and good sense of humor," said Leslee Lenoff, senior VP-account director at Hill, Holliday. "Clients like that about her. She helps them build their business, but she makes it fun."
Ms. Kaplan has been at the agency since 1982, starting as a receptionist. A French literature major who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she migrated to the traffic department and account side, eventually leading John Hancock Financial Services and FleetBoston Financial Corp.
She inherited John Hancock, one of the agency's top three clients, and its "Real Life. Real Answers" campaign seven years ago. Senior VP-Corporate Communications Steve Burgay said Ms. Kaplan is skilled at getting clients to take smart risks, such as the John Hancock ads that involve a lesbian couple adopting a baby, a man checking his aged father into a nursing home and a divorced couple.
"These are not the topics that most people who play it safe would want to touch. Karen is willing to really champion risk when it make sense for the brand and marketing plan," he said.
In his February memo announcing her promotion, agency Chairman-CEO Jack Connors said the qualities that made Ms. Kaplan a good receptionist would serve her well at the top. "She was bright, she was quick on her feet, and she treated clients like they were family. Those were the characteristics that made her a wonderful receptionist," he wrote. "Those are the qualities that we look for in the people I want to lead Hill, Holliday."
As managing director of the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency, Ms. Kaplan will oversee media and account service. She's looking at consolidating some top-level positions and focusing on growth initiatives such as landing automotive, spirits or beer, and pharmaceutical accounts.
Said John Hancock's Mr. Burgay: "She's on warp speed every day."