Rob Flaherty: Sketching The Future
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Rob Flaherty: Sketching The Future

Ketchum's global CEO believes that his agency must change fast or risk irrelevance.

Arun Sudhaman

Rob Flaherty: Sketching The Future

It is a clear, wintry morning in East London and Rob Flaherty is attempting to energize the assembled troops at Ketchum's London office. Flaherty, who took on the agency's global CEO role almost two years ago, is an effective public speaker. In this, he is aided by a 6 foot 5 inch, square-jawed, broad-shouldered frame, attributes that come to the fore again that evening  when he commands a room to deliver a speech about transparency at the UK House of Commons.

Not that Flaherty's message this morning requires much political grandstanding. Ketchum, he reminds his staffers, “cannot afford to be the great agency we have been”. Despite healthy growth and an enviable creative reputation, Flaherty believes that his agency must change fast or risk irrelevance. 

It is the kind of message beloved of agency heads, particularly at the larger end of the spectrum, where larger marketing budgets are viewed as the passport to success. Exactly how well this message resonates with the rank and file is more difficult to discern. 

At least one senior executive, who refused to be named, believes that Flaherty finds a much more receptive audience among younger employees. Ketchum is not typically viewed as the most progressive agency in the world, and there are plenty of grey-haired stalwarts around who might resist the notion that they are heading for obsolescence.

“One of our strengths is we don’t lose senior managers,” says the executive. "But it’s a weakness too. It makes us very resistant to change. Rob finds a much more receptive audience when he’s talking to employee groups, but I’m not sure some of the senior execs want to hear some of that."

“The culture at Ketchum is very strong and you have to be prudent,” adds another senior industry figure who knows Flaherty well. “And the business pressures are high. It might just take longer because they are slow moving.” 

Later on, Flaherty tells me that the scale of change cannot even be incremental. "It has to be done on a parallel track,” he explains. "Ironically, now that we're a large firm, you've got to be careful not to look too big." 

Flaherty’s goals are suitably ambitious, befitting a man whose path to the top appeared almost pre-ordained. But will the 54-year-old succeed in his efforts to transform Ketchum into the biggest, most successful agency in the world?

Corporate artist

Flaherty preternatural grasp of public relations — "he is 10 steps ahead of everyone else in the room", says one colleague — is not an act. By the time of his senior year at high school in Portland, Maine, he had already decided that PR was the career for him. 

If that kind of planning suggests an unusual degree of career management, then  Flaherty is unafraid to show it. He draws a chart to try and document the approach he took to ensure he became a well-rounded executive. 

"I got some good advice when I was in my 20s," he begins. "Some people focused on being sought after counsellors. But they had rough edges and couldn't raise a team. Then you had other people who we're never seen as the best strategic counsellor, but were really good at leading large teams, at culture and motivation."

"The advice was, try to develop yourself in both ways. That's what I've tried to do over time."

It is a relatively simple explanation, and the well-rendered line graph is probably superfluous. But Flaherty likes to draw things to make his points, a throwback to his days as the editorial cartoonist on Utica College's student newspaper. Last year, he undertook a gruelling 13 hour shoot to draw 200 sketches for a video commemorating Ketchum's 90th anniversary.

I note my surprise at learning that the Ketchum CEO had done all of the drawings on the nine-minute film, and Flaherty admits that many people have responded in similar fashion. Granted, it is probably a stretch to imagine a body double at work, but that reaction possibly indicates that high-quality cartoonery is not the first thing you equate with Flaherty's sober-suited demeanour.

“His style is still the business suit,” notes the senior Ketchum executive. “There’s tension between being a counsellor to executives and a creative catalyst."

Not that the sketches do not come in handy in client situations. “ "He'll sit through intense client meetings, doodling as he takes it all in,” says M Booth CEO Dale Bornstein, who worked with Flaherty for two decades at Ketchum. “And then at just the right time, he will synthesize everything, offering the most insightful commentary. There’s nobody who instils more confidence in client situations; he’s somewhat mesmerising in those roles.”

That ability to provide senior-level counsel, adds another industry executive, is in Flaherty’s DNA. But a flair for issues management does not always translate into a colourful leadership style. “He has always been very careful about his public brand,” notes the executive. Or, as Bornstein puts it, Flaherty favours the notion that ‘life is not a dress rehearsal.’

Regardless, you would be hard-pressed to describe Flaherty as an introvert. “If there’s a cocktail party and people are talking, you want to be in Rob’s circle,” observes Bornstein. “There’s a definite social aspect to him.”

A better description might be to call Flaherty guarded. For example, Ketchum's role as Russia's global PR agency has attracted plenty of recent scrutiny, but he bats the questions away with a fairly sober stock response. Does the Ketchum CEO worry about modernizing his own image in line with his push to make the agency more progressive?

"I haven't tried to characterise myself that way. I want a company that is comfortable in all those settings because I believe that in order to be a global leader in our field, you have to be balanced between corporate public affairs and brand marketing."

Ok. But surely the public doodling is a way of signalling his creative credentials to the type of young talent that is required to transform the agency?

"I do know I need to be a leader who highly progressive people respect, he eventually admits. "That's part of why I've shown my own creativity — I’m an artist even though I’m in the CEO role. I finally found a way other than doodling within meetings, to finally put my artistic talent to work."

‘Shouting is a sign of desperation’

Flaherty joined Ketchum 25 years ago, after working first for a brewing company and then entering the agency world at Burson-Marsteller. The move to Ketchum, then a much smaller challenger brand to Burson’s dominant market leader, was largely inspired by Bob Feldman, a mentor from Flaherty’s college days at Utica.

“I thought from the beginning he was a total rockstar,” recalls Feldman, who hired him as an associate director at Ketchum’s New York office after first bringing him to Burson. “We already had an associate director for that spot, which had the potential to be challenging. That works if the person coming in a commands a lot of respect and handles the situation with appropriate diplomacy and finesse. Needless to say, Rob did that and created a lot of value for Ketchum from the very beginning.”

Feldman, who now runs Pulsepoint, believes Flaherty’s leadership attributes were evident from early on. "The best part of Rob’s leadership style has always been his intimate knowledge of the subject matter and his ability to craft a story that leverages the knowledge into a vision.”

That much is suggested by Flaherty’s evident aptitude for public speaking. Bornstein points out that Flaherty’s storytelling credentials have enabled him to “paint a picture and vision that people want to follow.”

“That’s where the momentum of his leadership comes from,” says Bornstein. “He has a really good understanding of where the business is heading and can articulate that.”

Flaherty’s caution in public may be a relic of his lengthy period of grooming for the top job, which began in earnest once he became Ketchum president in 2008. It is clear that he puts a lot of thought into his leadership role. The challenge, if it is one, is whether this measured approach — ‘life is not a dress rehearsal’ — stymies the firm’s ability to take necessary risks.

"He’s generally smarter than most people in the room,” says the senior Ketchum executive. "I think sometimes he worries about coming off as too smart. When he’s at his best it’s over a beer, you’re not talking about Ketchum, but just about the business and the world.”

Yet that level of reserve rarely slips, even if Flaherty admits to occasional disruptions in his equilibrium. "People see me upset,” he says. "They've seen me go into command and control mode and demand things happen fast. Not many people have seen me shout. I think shouting is a sign of desperation.”

Upsetting the applecart

Flaherty's predecessors, current chairman Ray Kotcher and Dave Drobis, are both considered to have steered Ketchum's growth over the past two decades in a sure-handed fashion. Many agency veterans, however, note that the pace of change since Flaherty took charge is palpable. 

Some of that, notes one long-term Ketchum manager, is clearly down to the rapidly shifting market. But Flaherty, he adds, must take a lot of the credit. “He's given the agency a licence to change.”

None of which makes the Ketchum CEO particularly unique among his peers, certainly when you consider agencies at the top end of the global rankings. But Ketchum's strengths — creativity, consumer marketing savvy and an increasingly solid global network — play well in today's evolving marketplace. 

Throw in its sudden emergence as an agency working some of the world's toughest issues, and it becomes easier to see why Flaherty believes that his firm, for all of its conservatism, has a genuine opportunity over the next five years. 

"How many CMOs actually go to PR firms for the big ideas?" he asks. "We weren't going to Cannes, we weren't investing in insight and planning. I've pushed for change."

A tangible sign of that, he points out, is the rise of a creative class at Ketchum, at an agency that previously focused its resources on the traditional office, practice and client structure. Which brings us back to the level of resistance some of these changes might face internally. After 25 years with the firm, Flaherty is a creature of Ketchum and a key guardian of its culture, warts and all. 

"We really don’t make big mistakes,” says a Ketchum executive. "But we don’t grab fast victories. He would like to move faster than we do."

“I think that change at Ketchum is cultural issue,” adds another industry figure. “Is Rob really ready to make the kinds of decisions that would upset the applecart?”

As you can imagine, Flaherty has his responses ready. "First off we acknowledge and talk openly about it," he counters. "We have a change management challenge in our company. For the first time in the history of our profession, people under 35 know more about how people share, communicate and make purchase decisions than people over 35. It begs the question, who's training whom?"

Not every EVP or partner is likely to agree with that notion. But, above all, Flaherty does not seem tremendously concerned about ruffling a few feathers along the way. "We're at the stage where we need to shake up the status quo," he notes, warming to his theme. "If it doesn't offend half the room it probably isn't all that break through”

And while Flaherty may have a keen appreciation for history — including a particular interest in French Revolutionary War general Lafayette — it is clear that this interest only extends to his leisure time. Ketchum might be 90 years old, but its CEO believes dwelling on the agency’s past is relatively pointless. And that goes for everyone who works for him too.

"They have to change or they won't be there for the hundredth year."

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