by scott kearnan | November 26, 2013 | People
Karen Kaplan received a personalized bat when Major League Baseball signed with Hill Holliday
Karen Kaplan can do (almost) anything. The newly appointed CEO of Hill Holliday can lead a Boston-based advertising giant with nearly 1,000 employees. She can close deals with the country’s biggest brands, building a client roster that earns Hill Holliday $1 billion in annual billings. She can work alongside heads of state, as a chair of regional boards and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, to build positive infrastructure for businesses and develop future leaders. But despite all her success, there is one thing, she admits, that she’s still lousy at. Typing.
“To this day, I still have to look at the keys when I type,” laughs Kaplan, seated in her sleek, chic office perched high atop 53 State Street, where a wall of windows overlooks the Financial District and the harbor beyond. The confession seems ironic, given her history. With her May promotion from president to president and CEO, Kaplan reached the top of Hill Holliday—but only after a long climb that began 31 years ago when she joined the company as, of all the jobs for a dodgy typist, the receptionist. About a dozen increasingly prominent roles later (she saved every business card) Kaplan is in command of a corporate giant with clients that range from VH1 to Major League Baseball (the personalized baseball bat is one of her most prized possessions). Experience playing every position has turned her into an ad world MVP.
“At the time, I didn’t even know what was achievable,” admits Kaplan, who was raised in Marblehead by a family of modest means: two working parents, no company car or corporate spending account. “I had no idea how high up was high up,” she says. But she found out firsthand. And she did it the old-fashioned way, through a relentless work ethic that made her treat every job like it was the most important one in the company.
“I was the CEO of that reception desk,” says Kaplan, who had no intentions of pursuing an advertising career when she interviewed for that job. She just wanted a 9 to 5 gig while studying for law school and a chance to meet legendary business mogul and Hill Holliday cofounder Jack Connors. Connors personally interviewed Kaplan after passing on 40 other candidates—and then he made an offer that changed her life and her outlook. “He said, ‘Congratulations, you’re the new face and voice of Hill Holliday,’” recalls Kaplan. “The way he framed it made me pause. It was important to him, and it became important to me.”
Karen Kaplan and her team use innovative approaches such as social media in their ad campaigns
“I never had visions of being a CEO,” explains Kaplan, who moved from receptionist to secretary, and from secretary to the company’s traffic department. “One step at a time, I always took every job very seriously and did the best I could do.” That model—perfectionism coupled with intense focus—is the cornerstone of her vision for Hill Holliday’s future, says Kaplan. Her predecessor, Mike Sheehan (now the agency’s chairman), appointed her CEO on May 13, 2013—the 10-year anniversary of his tenure and the 45th birthday of the company itself. She immediately drew up a mission statement: “To be the best creatively driven modern agency in the country.”
“The best, not the biggest,” she emphasizes. She says that Hill Holliday, which already garners plenty of international support through its partners in IPG, the globe’s third largest advertising conglomerate, isn’t interested in empire building; its interest is in letting excellence organically breed success. “It’s the foundation of disaster to let yourself be distracted by what you’re going to do three moves down the road,” says Kaplan, speaking to the agency’s approach and her own. “If you get too far ahead of yourself, you’re going to trip. Do the best job you can, be the best anyone has ever been at what you do, and you can’t help but succeed.”
And Hill Holliday is succeeding nicely. Kaplan says the company continues to find new, innovative approaches for longtime clients like Liberty Mutual, John Hancock, and Dunkin’ Donuts; for the last one, Hill Holliday unveiled in September the first TV ad made entirely from the social network Vine. And the company has managed to land enviable new business. In the past 24 months alone, it significantly expanded its creative role for Bank of America and landed plum new clients like Merrell, VH1, and in June, Cadillac—the first major contract signed with Kaplan as CEO.
But perhaps more important, Kaplan’s ascension marks progress of a different kind. Only about 4 percent of CEOs at major companies are women, and Kaplan says that while Hill Holliday’s culture was always more progressive than most (it was one of the first agencies to have its own daycare center), the Mad Men–style “boys club” mentality of the advertising world still prevailed when she started in 1982. And though she’s risen to CEO, there are still the small but telling reminders of sexism, such as assumptions (before meeting) that she’s a man, or when credit cards (bearing her name) are handed back to male clients when she’s picking up the tab for a power lunch. “You do have to cut your own path,” she reflects on the executive trajectory for women. “But I kept my eye on the ball. And I was like a bumper car. If I couldn’t go this way, I’d back up and go that way. There’s always a clear path, even if you have to invent it.”
Today, 60 percent of Hill Holliday employees (reflecting 40 percent of management) are women, and Kaplan is still trailblazing: She sits on the board of the Massachusetts Conference for Women, is president of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum, and is only the second chairwoman in the 103-year history of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. As CEO, she’s one of the ad world’s most powerful figures, of either sex, even if her typing skills are a little rusty. Besides, that’s what a receptionist is for. And on the day we visited, it was a man.
photography by ken richardson
November 16, 2018