Rob Flaherty is Senior Partner, Chief Executive Officer & President of Ketchum, one of the world's top communications firms and PRWeek's 2012 Agency of the Year. Flaherty leads Ketchum's eight-member Worldwide Executive Committee to guide the strategy, client service and performance of the agency.
Since joining Ketchum in 1989, Flaherty has been involved in all aspects of the firm’s business, including having successfully led its largest office, one of its global practices and several of its largest client engagements. Flaherty became President of the agency in 2008 and today is one of the industry’s most sought-after client counselors.
How did you get into the PR industry?
Thirty years ago most people arrived in PR almost unexpectedly and from other fields, such as journalism. I was in the rare group that entered the field on purpose. When I was a junior in high school in Maine, I asked a teacher what he thought I should pursue in college. I told him I liked history, public speaking, writing, promoting events and volunteering for political campaigns. He told me I should go into public relations. One problem: I had no idea what PR was, so he lined me up with a guy who had cashed out of the New York advertising world and was running an agency in Portland. I spent an hour with him and decided it was the field for me. In fact, in my high school yearbook my ambition was “To be the PR director for a Fortune top 10 company.” Nerd alert.
Tell us about Ketchum. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?
Ketchum was started in 1923 by George Ketchum, and it was an enlightened place from the beginning. In addition to big campaigns for brands, Ketchum did pro bono work for nonprofit organizations starting from day one. That commitment to society continues and is even stronger today. Our vision, under the brand promise “Break Through,” is to be the most valued agency in the world to all four of our stakeholders: clients, employees, investors and our communities. The creativity of our talented people has made us the most awarded PR agency in history. On the community front, we donate thousands of hours a year to Room to Read, the global literacy and gender equality charity, as well as many other charities and causes. To celebrate our 90th anniversary two years ago, our employees raised $90,000 to send 90 girls to four years of secondary education in India and Africa. And, just this month our employees raised $17,000 in one week for Nepal earthquake relief.
What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Ketchum's success?
We created the first-ever external platform to crowd source creative ideas. Called “MindFire,” it now involves 45 universities all over the world to develop brilliant campaign ideas for our clients by tapping the most fertile creative minds – those of graduate and undergraduate students. This gives the students early exposure to real-world work, and gives us and our clients an incredibly diverse source of creative thinking. We conduct the same kind of brainstorms on our internal global crowd-sourcing platform called “Ide8.” We also have a very successful partnership with an innovative online learning company called Nomadic Learning that provides interactive and collaborative continuing education to our 2,500 people on any smart phone, tablet or laptop anywhere in the world.
What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?
The huge upsides and downsides to the social web represent extraordinary opportunities for our agency. Put another way, social media and social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are God’s gift to the PR industry. On the upside, as client organizations increasingly realize that the cost to distribute content is practically down to zero due to content sharing platforms like YouTube (versus expensive network TV ads), they are turning to firms like ours to produce their premium content. We’re hiring a lot of television producers, game designers, app developers, music producers and animators. We’re putting content marketing hubs, which we call StoryWorks, in all of our offices. On the downside, every company is just a tweet away from disaster, so many turn to us to prepare for the very unfair firestorm that can besiege a company when something negative goes viral – which my wife suggested we call “The Piranha Effect.”
Don’t ever be the understudy in your own life. Don’t wait in the wings watching others live the life you want to live. Take the stage.
Break Through. We’re committed to helping our clients to break through the clutter with our creative ideas and break through by delivering real, measureable business results.
Your greatest success as CEO of Ketchum? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?
The agency business has its ups and downs. Last year wasn’t a great year in terms of growth. This year we’ve returned to better growth. Those days were no fun, but I’m proud of the fact that we didn’t turn on each other and point fingers. We worked together and won a record amount of new business. I learned once again that if you ask hundreds of incredibly talented people to make something happen, you’ll be amazed at the results.
Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
It’s not about you. Your success will be determined by how much you can rally others to the cause. Jack Welch said, "Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you became a leader, success is about growing others." An entrepreneur often depends on themselves for too long – to solve every problem and sell their idea. Success today is about conducting an orchestra, not playing first violin.
Describe the ideal experience using Ketchum.
Ideal Client Experience: We develop a brilliant campaign that increases sales by double-digit percentages, recalibrates the competitive landscape in their category, is celebrated as the best marketing idea of the year, and consequently the client is promoted to their dream job. Along the way, we work in partnership, we put them center stage and care about them as a person, not just a client. Ideal Employee Experience: They are challenged by their work, we invest in their professional development, and their future career opportunities are clear and exciting. Along the way, we treat them with respect, they are inspired by their brilliant colleagues and we care about them as a person, not just an employee. And that just about sums up our aspirational goal every day.
How do you motivate your employees?
I hope they are motivated by their opportunity here. We work with many of the best brands and companies in the world. We are inventing new ways to reach people every day. If you work here, you are always on top of the latest trends in everything. We invest in your continuing education so that you’re the best trained, most progressive talent in the business. We conduct Camp Ketchum and bring a hundred of our best and brightest together for a week of strategy and creativity workshops as well as a real client competitive challenge. And we have a drink cart every Friday at 4:30.
One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?
Pepperoni pizza and Kistler Pinot Noir.
What literature is on your bed stand?
The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure and the Search for Mastery by Sarah Lewis. Sarah is a brilliant curator, professor, art historian and author. The book is about the hundreds of “near wins” a creative person has that lead to their greatest work and how to appreciate those near wins as part of achieving mastery.
Role model - business and personal?
It’s a mosaic of several people and several traits that I admire. I admire and seek to emulate people who keep things in perspective, laugh easily, lower the temperature in crisis situations, recover fast, are never the victim, are generous, fuel your energy rather than deplete your energy and who really listen – people who know that listening is not the act of waiting to talk.
I’m loving the intersection of the creative arts with our business. For decades “content” in PR was the press release, the speech, some low-end video and printed collateral. Now it’s graphic novels, full-scale motion pictures, mobile content, video games, geo-locating apps and experiential live events. It’s a great time and place to be an artist and creator.
Favorite travel destination?
Our lake house in the forever-wild Adirondack Park in Upstate New York – it gives me the opportunity to spend quality time with my family, which is very important to me. My wife and I are also excited that we’re going on a Room to Read trek to Siem Reap, Cambodia later this year.
What's next for Ketchum?
We’re redefining what it means to be a PR firm and expanding the contours of the definition of our business. Anywhere smart marketers and corporations need to be to build meaningful engagement and sustainable relationships, we’ll be there with all the creativity and smart strategies it takes to get the job done.
During his tenure, Flaherty has counseled some of the world’s largest companies and brands, including IBM, FedEx, Philips and Pfizer. As a client counselor, Rob specializes in corporate positioning and issues management. He has helped companies prepare for and respond to challenging situations ranging from product liability and airline accidents to data security and antitrust litigation. He also has played a lead role in growing the firm’s client base.
Rob serves on the executive committee of the board of the Institute for Public Relations and on the Agency Management Committee of the Council of Public Relations Firms. In addition, he has been the chair of the Council’s Critical Issues Forum for the past six years. He is a senior judge of the Public Relations Society of America’s Silver Anvils and served as the co-chair of its 2012 international conference. He is the senior leader of the agency’s relationship with the World Economic Forum and a frequent facilitator for its annual summit in Davos, Switzerland. He also serves on the advisory board of directors for Room to Read, Ketchum’s global pro bono partner.
Prior to Ketchum, Rob worked at Burson-Marsteller in New York. Prior to that, he was Director of Public Relations for the F.X. Matt Brewing Company in Utica, N.Y. He is a graduate of Utica College of Syracuse University.