Remembering Ken Kaess

OBITUARY: DDB chief was one of the ad industry's most vocal champions

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The last time Andrew Robertson saw Ken Kaess, Mr. Kaess gave him a copy of the Carl Hiaasen comic thriller "Stormy Weather." Reflecting on the gift days after Mr. Kaess' death, Mr. Robertson, CEO of BBDO Worldwide, said, "It was so appropriate somehow: wild, unpredictable, howlingly good company, funny and touching."

Mr. Kaess, president-CEO of DDB Worldwide and one of the ad industry's most vocal supporters, succumbed to cancer March 27 at the age of 51, following a six-month battle with the disease. He leaves behind a former wife and two children and a giant legacy within the marketing world.

As well as helping chart a future for DDB following the departure from day-to-day operations of legend Keith Reinhard, Mr. Kaess will be remembered as a driving force behind the agency world's most important organization, American Association of Advertising Agencies. Mr. Kaess was the first chairman to serve two consecutive terms and he was a key figure in the creation of Advertising Week, the industry's annual celebration that began in 2004.

"He personified what the industry should be-energy, ideas, creativity and humanity," said Sharon Spielman, a recruiter at Jerry Fields Associates. "That's the kind of guy he was."

Mr. Kaess was born in 1954 in Waterbury, Conn., and grew up in nearby Waterton. He went on to Vassar College, graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology and thoughts of a career as a rock musician. When no calls from agents came, he moved to New York and, in 1976, joined what was then known as Doyle Dane Bernbach.

modernizing ddb

He would leave for stints at Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor and New World Entertainment, but he returned to DDB in 1990, as president of DDB Entertainment in Los Angeles. From there, he began a sharp ascent within the Omnicom Group-owned agency, rising to North American president in 1998.

Two years later, Mr. Reinhard chose Mr. Kaess as his successor, naming him president of DDB Worldwide and chairman of its worldwide operating committee. In 2001, he added the title of CEO.

Over the next few years, Mr. Kaess worked to modernize one of Madison Avenue's storied firms for the digital age, building out interactive arm Tribal DDB. The agency responded, turning in a consistent new-business performance and placing highly in major award shows across the globe. In 2003, Advertising Age named DDB global agency of the year. "It wasn't easy [succeeding Mr. Reinhard]," said Page Thompson, a close friend and president- CEO of OMD North America, "but Ken took DDB to the next level."

'positive spirit'

"He was the driver behind DDB's success these last years and, of course, I will miss him in that role," said Omnicom president-CEO John Wren in a statement. "But I will also miss his friendship and his positive spirit."

In 2002, Mr. Kaess was named chairman of the 4A's and from that perch he worked to shape Advertising Week, as a massive event celebrating the ad business.

Mr. Kaess was committed to improving diversity within the industry. He founded the Bill Bernbach Minority Scholarship Fund in 1998 and he was honored with New York Urban League's Frederick Douglass Award in 2004. He was also a member of the boards of the AdCouncil and the American Education Foundation.
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