‘One Of The Great, Good Guys Of Advertising’

After his 2001 elevation to CEO of DDB Worldwide, Ken Kaess rose to the top of the industry, overseeing one of its most successful global networks, known as much for its new-business success and satisfied clients as for its creative prowess.

But last week, the 51-year-old, who died of cancer at his Westport, Conn., home on March 27, was remembered not so much for his towering stature as for his common touch. Colleagues and friends—inevitably they became one—recall him as upbeat, energetic, a genuine people person in an increasingly institutionalized business and a throwback to the days when advertising was fun.

“He was not only successful; he was significant,” reflected a shaken Keith Reinhard, DDB Worldwide chairman. “He had this amazing way of enabling, empowering people to do things better than they had before. His style was so collegial. And people who worked for him wanted him to succeed, because if he did, they knew they would.”

“He was so down-to-earth,” he continued. “No one was beneath him. He’d walk the halls, drop in and ask about people’s problems, even personal ones.”

Reinhard recalled a corporate luncheon where a “service staffer” mentioned wanting to attend an out-of-state church function. Kaess immediately offered frequent-flyer miles to make it possible. As a die-hard Red Sox fan, he would seek out other Boston loyalists during the playoffs at Yankee Stadium. An experienced piano player, he often used his musical talents to charm and entertain.

Reinhard remembered a time when he and Kaess stopped off at his New York apartment, where the DDB chairman’s daughters, 19 and 25, were having a party with friends. Kaess immediately sat down at the piano for an impromptu pop performance. Reinhard laughed as he recalled his girls saying: “‘Ken Kaess is so hot—he’s like a rock star.’ He completely charmed women.”

Page Thompson, CEO of DDB corporate sibling OMD, North America, said, “He could make friends instantly, and I just think that’s a rare type of person. That’s the beauty of him. Is he smart? Yeah. Is he innovative? You bet. But he really liked people.”

Colleagues past and present recall that friendliness as Kaess’ defining characteristic during his 20-year career at DDB and its predecessor companies, which began when he was hired as an account executive on the Mobil corporate account in 1977. In 1981, he joined Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, where he developed the agency’s direct mail and public relations units while also heading up corporate and consumer advertising, leading Pat McGrath to recall Kaess as the “one that got away.”

A self-proclaimed beach bum, Kaess’ love of the ocean brought about his only detour from advertising, when he left JMC&T for Los Angeles in the late ’80s to become vp, children’s programming at New World Entertainment. While there, Kaess was responsible for the Emmy-award-winning cartoon series Muppet Babies.

By 1990, he returned to DDB as president of DDB Entertainment in L.A. before becoming president of the agency’s office there two years later. He caught the eye of Reinhard, with whom he shared a sense of mission about his Western beachhead, different from many of the other offices still fractionalized into post-merger DDB and Needham camps. Reinhard wanted that esprit de corps in New York, and so Kaess became president of that office in 1994. It became obvious Kaess was being groomed for bigger things, as he quickly moved up to U.S. president in 1997. In 1998, he was named president, North America and, a year later, president of DDB Worldwide and head of its worldwide operating company.

As CEO, Kaess focused on taking the creative legacy of Bill Bernbach into a new digital and integrated communications era, even while maintaining that reputation in media advertising around the globe. He landed DDB’s top job as the industry struggled in one of the worst recessions in memory. Nonetheless, DDB was lauded as Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year in 2003 for its remarkable new-business performance and creative output.

“He wasn’t a ‘creative’ person, but he took DDB to the next level creatively,” said Thompson. “He took DDB to the next level in the digital world when everyone said don’t do it. He did it. He took DDB to the next level in putting together the full communications package and redesigning how the idea was at the center, not just the creative execution. He put media up front. To me, the guy had a vision for what our business is about. I think that vision came from the fact that he knew how to talk to people.”

As CEO, Kaess quickly made his own mark.

“He was Keith Reinhard personified in a different way.” said Bob Lachky, vp, global industry development at DDB client Anheuser-Busch. “He was a real friend of the process. He took care of his people. He was never one to offer people up as sacrificial lambs; he was always about the team.”

Even as he helped take DDB to new heights, Kaess remained active in outside industry activities. He was the two-time head of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a co-founder of the annual Advertising Week held in New York City and aggressive in his efforts to bring more minorities into advertising.

Clients, rivals and peers recall business time spent with Kaess as a pleasure. Lachky said that whenever A-B execs were in town, they would call him, and he’d be at Maloney & Porcelli, a steakhouse across from the DDB New York office, by 5 p.m. with the first round of Buds waiting. He would liven up a 4A’s meeting with a spontaneous piano show.

“He was a strange, interesting mixture of what was sort of advertising in the ’60s and ’70s, when we would all go to lunch together” despite working at competing agencies, said Bob Kuperman, former chairman and CEO of DDB in New York.

Kaess’ easy charm won over fans from the start of his DDB career. New York-based consultant Joanne Davis, who initially hired him there, said: “During the interview, he talked about having graduated from Vassar. I remember finding that amusing because he was [there when they first] began admitting men. I asked him why he picked Vassar as his college of choice, and he said, ‘I’m no fool.'”

That casual humor informed many of his colleague’s memories. DDB Worldwide chief creativity officer Bob Scarpelli said Kaess would always ask how he looked after giving a big presentation. Not “How’d I do?” but “Did I look OK?” A couple of weeks before Kaess passed on, Scarpelli met him in New York for a drink. Obviously, the disease, and fighting it, had taken its toll. Nevertheless, Ken was still able to put together a wry, “I look good, don’t I?”

At that same meeting, Kaess asked Scarpelli, as he had others in recent weeks, if there was anyone he wanted him to take a hit out on. “What are they gonna do to me?” he joked.

Said Reinhard: “Even as he faced the end of his life, he was charming, charismatic and courageous. He didn’t want any sadness, no pity parties. He asked that people [attending his funeral] come back to the house and have a party. He said he only had two regrets: One was not being able to watch [his children] Christopher and Courtney graduate from college, marry and go through their lives. The other was not being able to see how far he could have taken DDB.”

Longtime IPG executive Stone Roberts, who joined DDB affiliate Roberts & Tarlow in part because of Kaess, thinks his legacy will be more humble. Asked about it last week, Roberts paused for a moment before saying simply, “He’ll be remembered as one of the great, good guys of advertising.”Omnicom CEO John Wren said he felt privileged to have developed a strong, personal relationship with Kaess over the past six months, as he handled his illness with “grace, charm and humor.”

“He came to full grips with his situation and dealt with it in a very elegant way,” he said. “He had a pretty clear view of what he needed to do, to focus on his family and his kids, and he pulled it off.

“I’m grateful to have traveled part of the journey with him, and I learned a lot doing so,” Wren added. “About focus, about what’s important—and what’s not.”