Karen Kaplan

Hill Holliday

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Photo: Michael Khachadoorian
In an industry where shop hopping is the norm, Karen Kaplan has ascended from receptionist to agency president in the past 26 years all under the same roof. To boot, she lives in the same ZIP code where she grew up, in North Boston, with her husband of 25 years, a son and a daughter.

"In a way I didn't go very far, but in a way I did," says Ms. Kaplan, 48, president of Boston-based Hill Holliday.

Her college education didn't exactly prepare Ms. Kaplan to scale the agency ladder. She joined Hill Holliday in 1982 with a B.A. in French literature from the University of Massachusetts. "The year that I spent on the reception desk proved to be very useful, because it was the perfect place to study people and figure out what I wanted to do next," she says.

Ms. Kaplan advanced her career in account management, earning her chops largely in the consumer, health-care, technology, retail and financial-services markets. She was named president last summer.

"She truly did it the old-fashioned way: She earned it," says Jack Connors, chairman emeritus of Hill Holliday and Ms. Kaplan's former boss.

The transition in leadership from longtime agency chief Mr. Connors to Ms. Kaplan and Hill Holliday CEO Mike Sheehan came after a few thin years for new business at the agency, but the Interpublic Group of Cos.-owned shop experienced its best year in 2007, with 28% growth.

Hill Holliday's roster today includes Bank of America, Chili's, Dunkin' Donuts, Liberty Mutual and Toys "R" Us.

"No matter what level she was at or what the assignment was, she always put herself in a position where she was doing her job better than everyone else," says Mr. Sheehan, who's known and worked with Ms. Kaplan for 15 years. Mr. Connors adds: "She's got a wonderful spirit. Everything is possible with Karen."

"One of the hallmarks of Hill Holliday is that we give people tasks that are much bigger than they are or think they are, and I've been the beneficiary of that," says Ms. Kaplan, who considers it part of her job responsibilities to give back to her community.

Among her various volunteer roles, she's chairman-elect of the board of directors of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
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