A Kaess study: Tracking exec's DDB ascension

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Vassar's career development brochure highlights a half-dozen of the college's most notable alumni. Lisa Kudrow's acting resume is listed on page two. Rick Lazio's political tenure is detailed on page six. Between their glossy photos is a headshot of Ken Kaess, class of '76.

Mr. Kaess' accompanying write-up describes his steps up the corporate ladder at DDB Worldwide -- from a one-time account exec to worldwide president. This January, he'll hit the top rung: Mr. Kaess, 46, heir apparent to Keith Reinhard, 65, officially takes the CEO post. He also keeps his president title while Mr. Reinhard remains chairman.

While Mr. Reinhard will still work closely with Mr. Kaess, he made it clear he is handing over the reins to the world's third largest consolidated agency with billings of $15 billion. When asked what is the biggest change this shift will bring, Mr. Reinhard was quick to answer, "He'll be on the hook for the profit plan."

But the challenges that lie ahead go much deeper than number-crunching for parent Omnicom Group. Succeeding Mr. Reinhard -- widely regarded as DDB's spiritual leader and brand architect -- won't be an easy task. Mr. Reinhard is an industry icon known for his grace and leadership skills.

But as Mr. Kaess steps up to the plate, colleges, clients and former managers said he's well-suited for the job. "He's a leader," said Anthy Price, senior VP-marketing at Universal Pictures, in Los Angeles. "He has a total open-door policy. You know you can call him anytime. If we ever need somebody, he's there. "

Employees said Mr. Kaess has an easygoing nature and approachable demeanor. They aren't reticent about approaching Mr. Kaess -- whether in his Red Sox-decorated office, on the elevator or by e-mail. One staffer described Mr. Kaess' management style as "no problems, just solutions."


But there are challenges. Mr. Kaess admitted the flagship New York office is "still in a period of transition." Following the departure of Co-Chief Creative Officers David Nathanson and Steve Landsberg, the agency still lacks creative leadership. "It's a tough town" to compete in, Mr. Kaess said.

Mr. Kaess has been on the fast track to the top for the last three years. In 1997, he was promoted to president of DDB's U.S. operations. In 1998 his duties were expanded to include North American operations. Early last year, he stepped up again, becoming chairman of DDB's worldwide operating committee. At the end of 1999, Mr. Kaess was named DDB Worldwide president. Outside t office he has also taken active roles in industry associations such as the Ad Council and American Association of Advertising Agencies.

While Mr. Kaess can rely on two decades of industry experience to back him in his new post, he also has the support of a revamped executive team. As of Jan. 1, 10 managers will report to him (see chart).

Previously, Mr. Reinhard had only three direct reports -- Mr. Kaess, Bernard Brochand, former president of DDB International, and John Bradstock, former president of North America and Pacific. Messrs. Brochand and Bradstock will each become vice chairmen as of Jan. 1.

Most of the executive team already has worked closely with Mr. Kaess during his DDB tenure. In fact, it's said Mr. Kaess fostered much of that collaboration himself. He was instrumental in the creation of agencywide integrated offerings, such as interactive arm Tribal DDB, below-the-line unit Beyond DDB and the recently formed DDB Ventures. Those divisions now work collaboratively among the network's 206 worldwide offices.

"Ken got all the offices to work together, to break down the silos," said Mr. Reinhard. "Ken started to promote interoffice exchanges."

Mr. Kaess also formed careerlong friendships with many on the executive team during his early years at DDB. But then, he's always had an interest in harmony. When Mr. Kaess joined the agency in 1977 it was after playing keyboards in several bands post-graduation from Vassar.


He said his transition to the corporate world came after the realization that he needed money for necessities -- like heat. "I wanted to be a rock star," recalled Mr. Kaess. "Then winter set in and I thought `Uh-oh,' I better get a real job."

His first DDB post was on Mobil; he later worked on brands such as G. Heileman Brewing Co.'s Stroh's and Hershey Foods Corp.

Mr. Kaess remained a DDB loyalist for most of his 23-year career, but did leave the agency twice. The first time was in 1981, for a management supervisor job at the shop then named Jordan, Case & McGrath. "He was down-to-earth, likable and smart," said Jordan McGrath Case & Partners Chairman-CEO Pat McGrath. "He engineers trust and confidence; that's very important."

Mr. Kaess returned to DDB in 1986 only to leave two years later. He joined New World Entertainment as VP-children's programming, working on the development of kids' shows such as "Muppet Babies."

Mr. Kaess rejoined DDB in 1990, and launched an entertainment division in the Los Angeles office. It was then that Mr. Reinhard got a true glimpse of Mr. Kaess' entrepreneurial nature.

"I said we could use some of this in New York -- we could use a lot of this in New York," Mr. Reinhard recollected.

So it came to be that in 1993, Mr. Kaess, then president of DDB, Los Angeles, received a request from Mr. Reinhard to meet in New York. The day after that assemblage, he returned to his Los Angeles office to find a four-page memo from Mr. Reinhard. It began with "I want you to move to New York."

Mr. Kaess took him up on his offer. In 1994, he joined the New York office as managing partner, and a scant three months later became president. "Almost immediately you could feel the buzz" that he created in New York, Mr. Reinhard said.


Soon after Mr. Kaess' Manhattan landing, Mr. Reinhard learned a lesson in trusting Mr. Kaess' instinct and style. The duo took a train to pitch the $140 million Digital Equipment Corp. account. En route, Mr. Reinhard asked Mr. Kaess to show him the pitch game plan. Mr. Kaess laid out the blueprint, which called for nine different DDB staffers to present.

"I said to Ken, `This is not going to work," Mr. Reinhard said."You can't have nine people [present] in an hour and half."

Mr. Kaess pressed to stay with his original plan and Mr. Reinhard acquiesced. "That was the longest train ride of my life," Mr. Kaess said. "I was watching my career fly out the window" if the plan didn't work.

Several weeks after the pitch, Mr. Reinhard received a call from a top Digital executive. DDB had won the account. The reason for the choice: The DDB team's chemistry and well-orchestrated presentation.

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