The Power of Yes
Editor's Note: As of Nov. 6, 2017, Ketchum announced that Denise Kaufmann would be returning to the U.S. to take on the new role of director of client development for North America. This story was originally published in September 2017.
Denise Kaufmann, ’86, has always believed in saying, “yes.”
The power of that single word has steered her career through Ketchum, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies.
Today, she is partner and CEO of the agency’s London office. More than 20 years of experience shapes the way she leads her 240 diverse employees. Whether crafting communication plans that will be consumed by multiple cultures or leading employees outside the United States, Kaufmann said succeeding in a global marketplace comes down to trusting colleagues and listening with intention.
“You have to trust your colleagues and your clients to be able to really guide you about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate,” she said.
As an advertising student at Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC), Kaufmann pictured herself working at a big agency in New York City or Chicago, but never internationally. That changed in 1997 when she was offered a job at Ketchum to run the Lions Club International account in 18 countries. She was based in Chicago (her home at the time), but traveled internationally for about six months out of the year.
“I had no international experience at that point,” she said. “But it was just one of those steps in your life where you know, ‘This is the perfect, right thing for me.’”
She took a leap of faith, said, “yes,” and it turned out to be a humbling experience that would shape the rest of her career.
At every turn, she realized the differences from country to country, sometimes coming to terms with the fact that she, “had no idea about how things worked.” For example, when working on Lions World Sight Day, an initiative to eradicate preventable forms of blindness in conjunction with the United Nations, Kaufmann came face-to-face with the nuances of implementing an integrated communications campaign in countries with free media versus state-controlled media.
After four years of traveling the globe, Kaufmann transitioned into a role based in Hong Kong, where she worked on Ketchum’s FedEx account and served as the head of client services for greater China.
“It was really an interesting experience,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was changing, but I was. I was listening and really paying attention to what makes people happy in a region, what people were responding to.”
When she was promoted to Ketchum’s global account director for FedEx a few years later, she returned to a home base in the United States. But as she led an overarching communications strategy for FedEx across 13 countries, continuing to travel frequently, she constantly drew from her experiences living and working abroad. Through Kaufmann’s work with FedEx and Lions Club International, two of Ketchum’s first truly global clients, her work made a lasting impact as the agency continued to build a solid network of global businesses.
“(FedEx) pushed us to be a better agency, creatively and also structurally, in terms of ... delivering a consistent customer experience,” she said. “We took a page out of their book, in that it was really important for us to ensure that our customers had an excellent experi- ence with Ketchum no matter where they were in the world.”
Seven years ago, Kaufmann moved to London to work on Ketchum’s Philips Lighting account, and in 2013, she became CEO of Ketchum London. By then a seasoned traveler, Kaufmann expected the transition to London – a city that shared her native language – would be easier than adapting to life in Hong Kong or hopping from country to country for business. It turned out to be the opposite.
“I think that sometimes when you move to a country that shares a common language, you assume that a lot of the cultural norms you know as an American will take root,” Kaufmann said. “It’s not like that at all. It’s culturally extremely different, in terms of how people interact, in terms of how people deal with confrontation.”
But after developing a support network and continuing to listen with intention, Kaufmann said it’s been “one of the best experiences of my life,” as she’s come to admire London’s history, sense of humor, writ and resilience.
“(My own leadership journey) has been really interesting, from feeling like I couldn’t tread too heavily, and then realizing that I had to do my job,” she said. “... I try to bring all the positive things about being an American – the optimism and the confidence – (to the role). There’s a certain sense of positivity that isn’t necessarily native to the British culture. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
Kaufmann has noticed two things that remain universal in her work in integrated communications across the globe: that change is constant and that good writing will never go out of style.
“When you have that kind of background,” she said, “and when you know how to put thoughts down on paper, it is worth everything.”