Kaess builds on potential

By Published on .

One day the top job at DDB will belong to Ken Kaess, because, in addition to having brains, looks, youth, vision and all the other equipment now standard for the ideal CEO, he seems to have internalized and made himself both servant and master to the character of the organization he will one day run.

To Keith Reinhard and the others who have brought DDB Worldwide to its present level, nothing is more important in a successor. They must be satisfied that their organization and all they have made of it will continue to thrive according to plan in the care of its inheritors.


As the preeminent inheritor, Mr. Kaess is the sort of man whose potential is typically noticed early and tested in assorted ways. Over time a mutual awareness of possibilities develops and the potential begins to emerge. He joined DDB's New York office as an assistant account executive 23 years ago and worked on Stroh's beer, Hershey and Mobil Oil, then shifted to Jordan, Case & McGrath, where he was a management supervisor. He returned to DDB in 1986, joining the Los Angeles office.

Three weeks later he awoke to learn one Monday that he was working for a new company, DDB Needham. It was a whole new ball game and soon a whole new business culture. He may have been 3,000 miles away from New York, but Mr. Reinhard came to recognize a man of great worth. Within five years Mr. Kaess was president of the L.A. office.

"Ambition grows with responsibilities," Mr. Kaess says. "You don't start out to be the CEO, unless maybe your father is CEO. As you get to every new level, you acquire confidence. Then you start to envision yourself at the next level, one step at a time. When I became president [of the L.A. office] I was 39 and ready for the next step."


The next steps were to the presidencies of DDB New York in 1994, DDB U.S. in 1996 and DDB North America in 1997. And last spring he became chairman of a newly appointed worldwide operating committee.

Mr. Kaess is committed to the Reinhard strategy of expanding DDB into any non-traditional marketing service that can play a role in brand-building.

"We are facing the same issues our competitors are facing," he says. And that means playing catch-up with the brand consultancies that have developed in recent years and siphoned off some of the influence that the major agencies had assumed was their entitlement.

Integrated communications, digital communications, database communications, brand-building. They are the party line, articulated by Mr. Reinhard in the interview on P. C-28 and reflected in everything Mr. Kaess says. Everyone is on the same page today.

"I think content development is also important," Mr. Kaess says, "and I think we may find that agencies end up looking a lot more like entertainment companies before too long. Time Warner is a very good model of a company involved in many areas of communications, including stations, programming development, licensing companies and much more. I think we can learn from them."

But Time Warner doesn't own an advertising agency. "No, they don't," he says. "And they're not out shopping for agencies yet. I think we're probably a ways away from that. The technology being what it is, though, and clients being who they are, the opportunity is there for a convergence to take place."

Whatever happens, though, he insists DDB is still in the primary business of creating and building powerful brands. Same old end, lots of new means.

"When we say we stand for creativity," he explains, "we mean that in everything we do, not just what you see on the screen or in the print ads. We require creativity in media, technology, alliances, strategic thinking, everything. Not just the ads.

"We're dependent on Bernbach's creative heritage as developed under Keith's leadership. These are two pretty visionary leaders. Bernbach built the core of the company, and Keith expanded it through our global network. We've built that network on the principles of Bernbach, but it took Keith to envision and execute its broader applications.

"Keith has said he wants a network of 100 Bernbachs. So our philosophy has been to build or acquire the most creative agency in any given market. It's a consistent environment.

"When I travel, I can go to DDB in New York, Chicago, Vancouver or Paris, and even though we're federalist in how we're structured and entrepreneurial by nature, you get a sense of common culture that I believe is truly unique."


One of the buzz words of the '90s has been "diversity," and it has certainly been reflected in the stratification of what is nostalgically called "the mass market" into hundreds or thousands or, theoretically, millions of media and market segments.

President Clinton once said he wanted an administration that "looks like America." Yet, ad agencies still look like ad agencies. They seem to have been bypassed by the pressure for diversity, not because they've resisted minorities but because minorities have ignored them.

"That's fair," Mr. Kaess says. "There are a lot more alternatives now. A young person of whatever minority may work for a dot-com company or other hot industries. An MBA used to be an express ticket in an agency account department. Now you've got consultant firms, venture capital firms and more. We have to increase our profile to show job candidates how appealing our business really is.

"We have Spike DDB, a joint venture with Spike Lee that is more an urban marketing agency as opposed to a minority agency. It's a recognition of the fact that many of the trends that catch fire start within the inner cities of our country. That doesn't necessarily mean Black. It may be Latino. Look at the advent of Hip Hop and Latin music. This all comes from the inner city. These are some of the hottest trends that have come along in years.

"Our feeling is that we have experts in that field -- and Spike certainly is an expert -- and that can help identify these trends for our clients."


Perhaps the most important brand Mr. Kaess wants to focus on in the future is DDB itself. The recent name change that dropped Needham was "an effort to build and focus brand identification around the world," he says. "It is the most-common name we have around the world. We've acquired companies over the years, some with very important names. But the time had come to do a better job of our own branding opportunities.

"We want to build the DDB brand and have a global consistency so we can be recognized everywhere. Palmer Jarvis, now Palmer Jarvis DDB in Canada, is a recent acquisition with a highly recognized brand name. We have to take that into account. But the ultimate goal is to have one brand -- DDB."

Most Popular
In this article: