As Adman and Innovator, Kaess Realized His Dream of Being a Star

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I was in Hong Kong late last fall when word came that Ken Kaess had gone out on medical leave. The reason was undisclosed, but those in the know soon whispered the ugly word cancer. The same day, or the next, Geoffrey Frost died suddenly at home, and too young.

Omnicom chief John Wren was in and around China the same time, and we ran into each other at a party thrown by our Asia editor at her home in a small beachside village called Shek O. "Is Ken alright?" I asked. Said John: "He will be."

Around the holidays, I rang John up again. There were rumors about Ken's health floating around, and I was in a somewhat uncomfortable position. I've always liked Ken, spent a lot of good time in his company and cared personally how he was doing. But Ad Age covers DDB as a business, and we were figuring out the line between respecting his privacy and reporting on the running of this multinational company.

John was optimistic. Ken had been through a lot but there were good signs. I circled around whether he thought Ken would be back running DDB soon. My take was that John believed he would, but felt it was far more important for Ken to believe it, not to think the world had written him off. That was touching. John did so much for Ken in the last few months, treated him not as a valued employee or even a friend, but as family. He did everything he could to keep Ken fighting.

As we know, Ken lost the fight last week. At 51.

Looking for a way to honor him, I read through the stories Ad Age wrote about the adman Ken Kaess in the last 10 years or so, to see how he viewed this business. Best to hear it in his own words.

On how the Vassar grad and keyboard player got into advertising: "I wanted to be a rock star [after graduation]. Then winter set in, and I thought 'Uh-oh, I'd better get a real job.' "

On the debate over the role of holding companies: "Holding company? Parent company? It won't matter what we call them if we forget we're in the business of ideas. One man's opinion."

On his plan to revive DDB's New York operation: "It is an opportunity to make the New York office what Doyle Dane Bernbach was in the 1970s. ... As New York goes, so goes the rest of the network. Everyone wants to see New York strong."

On restoring clients' faith in advertising: "The product we provide is the lifeblood of marketers' brands. We have to prove that it is far riskier not to invest in a great advertising idea than to invest in one."

On his goals in helping to create Advertising Week in New York: "We need to improve the value of advertising and the perception of what we do. ... We wanted to make sure all the people in our industry felt this was a great industry to be in. And then to the new talent coming in, we wanted to see how we can make advertising a cool business to get into."

On the public's perception of his trade: "Like anything else, there is good advertising and good communication and there is some that's more annoying and intrusive. With the whole expanding media landscape, it's becoming easier for us to become more intrusive in people's lives. On the other side, there's the Super Bowl. People watch it just to watch the commercials. So there's the romantic and entertaining side as well."

In 2001, Don Maurer, a longtime friend of Ken's who ran McKinney & Silver, died tragically in a car crash at age 47. I called Ken and asked what it was about Don that made him so likable. Here's what he said: "He was down to earth, straightforward. He was the kind of guy who just made you feel totally comfortable. I don't know what I'm going to do the next time I ordinarily would have seen him. This one really hurts."

Amen.
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