Like most of its competitors, Ketchum saw the strong growth of the past few years grind to a halt in 2009. The firm added Asia-Pacific work to its global Gazprom business, and also picked up a pan-regional assignment for the Guangzhou Asian Games Organizing Committee. China wins included DSM, Land Rover, Jaguar, Longines, and Basic Editions International Trade Co. In Hong Kong, the firm added a major environmental and sustainability assignment from the Hong Kong Government and work for Pernod Ricard. Those wins join a regional client list that includes FedEx, RCG Holdings, China Construction Bank, McDonald’s, China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), Kodak and Lenscrafters.
While Ketchum does not have the same reach throughout the region as most of its competitors, it does have a formidable Greater China presence, with five offices: strong operations in Beijing and Shanghai, impressive offices in Hong Kong and Guangzhou (working together under the “Pearl River Delta Working Group” banner since 2008), and a well-established Taiwan presence. The firm also formed a new strategic affiliation arrangement with a Chengdu-based PR agency, Sailing PR. The rest of the region, however, is served via an affiliate network. The relationship forged with ICON Communications in Singapore and Australia in 2008 was strengthened in 2009 as the firms shared clients including FedEx, Acer and Lufthansa in addition to United Airlines and Kodak. Most significantly, Ketchum formed a strategic partnership with Hakuhodo in Japan, and in 2010 has formed a similar alliance with Korean giant Prain.
Ketchum’s New York headquarters continues to offer an impressive breadth of capabilities in consumer, corporate and healthcare, and also provides a home for the Stromberg Consulting employee communications unit. The Chicago operation has grown in stature in recent years, with the Pittsburgh office rounding out its Midwest region. In California, there are offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, while the Washington, D.C., operation continues to blend strength in healthcare with a formidable government relations operation. In Europe, Ketchum Pleon is almost certainly the market leader in terms of headcount, and has impressive reach, with 23 offices in nine countries and an additional 17 affiliates. Germany is the biggest operation, but the firm is also a formidable force in the U.K.; in Spain, where Tony Noel and Teresa Garcia Cisneros preside over a market leader; and in Austria, where Pleon Publico is the clear number one. The merger also makes the firm stronger in Brussels, France and Italy.
Ketchum operates across three quite evenly balanced practice areas in Asia. The first and largest—accounting for more than 40 percent of revenues—is corporate, which includes the firm’s Asia-Pacific technology sector work, particular strength in corporate social responsibility and crisis and issues management, and the firm’s corporate reputation work for FedEx. Brand marketing, which is probably Ketchum’s greatest strength in North America and EMEA, includes expertise in sports marketing, travel and leisure, and luxury goods, with a new niche focus on China fashion brands (served in partnership with Beijing-based specialist New Success for Public Relations), Finally, the firm has expertise in wellness, a practice that includes both traditional healthcare and food and nutrition clients such as McDonald’s, Baskin Robbins and Pepsi’s snack food brands. There’s also a financial communications business, based in Hong Kong and with considerable experience in IPOs and other transactions (ongoing clients include RCG Holdings, China Construction Bank, and CNOOC), and the firm’s media monitoring division, which has expanded to provide valuable digital monitoring services. Finally, the firm has expanded its Ketchum Digital offer in Greater China.
One of the things that continues to set Ketchum apart from its multinational peers in the Asia-Pacific region is the strength of its indigenous leadership. The agency’s Asia-Pacific operations are led by partner and chief executive Kenneth Chu and executive vice president for Greater China (and Hong Kong general manager) Chris Lui, a 15-year veteran of the agency. Office leaders include Nick Wheeler in Beijing; Marian Ma in Taipei; and Eddi Yang in Guangzhou, who heads up the Pearl River business group in partnership with Simeon Mellalieu, general manager in Hong Kong. In 2009, the firm promoted Darby Doll to general manager of Ketchum Shanghai, and also named Michael Fong—formerly of TaylorMade-Adidas Golf—as vice president of its brand marketing practice.
Ketchum parent company Omnicom has expanded its advanced management program in Asia, in conjunction with the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, inviting senior agencies executives from across the region, including several Ketchum managers. There has also been an effort to draw affiliates into the firm’s professional development fold. And Greater China CEO Kenneth Chu has spearheaded IABC’s accreditation program in China for the first time in partnership with the Shanghai PR Association.
For the past four years, since before corporate responsibility became a hot topic in China, Ketchum has been sponsoring a CSR award in conjunction with Chinese newspaper Guangming Daily. The firm has also conducted research into CSR in the region, finding that CEOs are not living up to public expectations in China, while international research includes surveys looking at media—Media Myths and Realities—which for the first time included India and China, and the firm’s 2020 Food research which also included China. Finally, the firm launched CEO Accelerator, a launch program that prepares new leaders to communicate the organization’s goals, based on principles such as creating leadership behaviors matched to the organization’s communication culture, avoiding “corporate-speak” and using early actions to signal the CEO’s strategy or leadership style.
Ketchum picked up one of our inaugural Asia-Pacific SABRE Awards for its pan-regional program in support of Lenovo’s Beijing Olympic sponsorship, and added a China International Public Relations Association gong for its internal communications work for the same client. It also earned recognition from IR Magazine for its PR and IR work on behalf of real estate developer Franshion Properties IPO. More recently, having been selected to provide international PR and media communications support for the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010, Ketchum’s work includes strategic communications planning, overseas media relations, media monitoring and issues and crisis management. The firm also supported the Council for Sustainable Development, a division of the Hong Kong Government’s Environment Bureau, in a public engagement process for fostering a quality and sustainable built environment.
Given its relatively small footprint, Ketchum does not have the same name recognition in the region as many of its peers. One big branding initiative last year was the firm’s global work for the Copenhagen Summit in December 2009, which showcased Ketchum’s expertise in sustainability and green marketing. And more recently, the Ketchum Hong Kong team has helped launch the Green Building Council, a new organization to support and promote sustainable building, while Ketchum Hong Kong has become the PR partner and one of the participating companies in the Hong Kong Carbon Reduction Campaign organized by The Climate Group.
Most of the interesting action in the Ketchum network last year took place in Europe, where the firm merged with Omnicom sister agency Pleon, instantly establishing itself as a major player in the region. Now the firm needs to do something similar in Asia if it is to establish itself as a truly global player, capable of competing on a worldwide basis with the industry leaders. Whatever the firm does in Asia is unlikely to be as dramatic as the Pleon merger, but it will need to go beyond the strategic partnership with Hakuhodo and a more recent affiliate agreement with leading Korean agency Prain if Ketchum is going to offer a genuine pan-Asia service.