Kenneth D. Makovsky: President, Makovsky + Company

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Kenneth D. Makovsky is President of Makovsky + Company, one of the top 25 independent public relations firms in the United States.  The company, founded in 1979, is headquartered in New York City, with divisions in health, financial +professional services, technology, energy, consumer and digital services. Makovsky is also a founder and past president of IPREX, the second largest global corporation of independent public relations firms, with a presence in 56 cities and 30 countries – and $300 million in revenues. In October 2014 and 2015, Makovsky was named to the New York Observer’s “PR Power 50 List” (ranked #7 and #22) among the most influential PR firms in New York City. In May 2012, Ken was selected as one of four people in the public relations industry to receive the Sabre Individual Achievement Award, and was named “Communications Executive of the Year” by the American Business Awards. In 2007, Makovsky received the PRSA-NY John W. Hill Award for outstanding achievement. In the same year, Makovsky was selected to the PR News Hall of Fame. For three recent years, the company was named an Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Company.  In 2014-2016, the company won over 80 firm, individual and campaign awards.  Makovsky has been named “Agency of the Year” by four different organizations over the past several years.

How did you get into the industry?

While attending law school at Washington University in St. Louis, I realized that the legal profession wouldn’t fulfill my aspirations. While law and public relations are both about advocacy from different vantage points, I was more interested in society’s changing ethics and values, as well as dealing with societal norms and changing perceptions. In other words, influencing the court of public opinion rather than the court of law. That was what sparked my career decision. I did finish law school and then headed to New York -- where my career in communications took off. I have never looked back. After learning the ropes, I went on to found Makovsky & Company (now Makovsky Integrated Communications) at the age of 38. The agency’s growth has been strong and steady from the beginning.

Any emerging industry trends?

Over the past decade we’ve been living through a continuous revolution in how we communicate and how we influence others thanks to digital, social media and analytics. The barriers between marketing disciplines and communications channels have melted and all kinds of agencies are offering integrated services.  In my view, these changes have given our profession unique advantages over other marketing disciplines because of our strengths in content and conversation, engaging audiences and building relationships. The real game-changer in communications today are new data analysis tools – they enable our ability to craft and customize messages to different audiences, see impact on the fly, as well as adjust campaign strategies and execution virtually in real-time.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

Innovation is both a critical challenge and an opportunity no matter what industry you are involved in today. Delivering innovation is a mandate for business leadership no matter what industry, by which I mean bringing transformative new products, services and platforms to market – big ideas that meet real customer needs and deliver business value and growth. Large companies are often quite challenged at moving their organizations to do this.

Communications firms are no exception to this trend. We’ve responded by launching a new subsidiary, SKYLABS, an innovation lab that helps Fortune 1000 clients arrive at business and innovation strategies, and actually creates new products that enhance the human experience. SKYLABS also counsels clients on how to effectively communicate why these new ideas and products will matter for their customers, strategic partners, investors, regulators and employees. We also advise on how to recruit talent and motivate the people inside who turn ideas into reality.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

When I started the agency over 35 years ago, I based our strategy on what was then a unique idea – sector specialization – at a time when everyone else was touting being a generalist. We illustrated our concept with the tagline “the power of specialized thinking” – the idea that a multi-specialized agency could provide both a platform and a positioning for growth. We developed a leadership team with proven insight and deep subject-matter knowledge in their respective sectors. This turned out to be a great plan, and we kept expanding so that today the agency consists of six practices: healthcare; financial and professional services; energy, manufacturing and sustainability; consumer (launched last year); digital branding, and technology.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

In the near future, I expect to continue growing in our existing sectors, especially in our newer specialties (consumer, energy), and by branching out into new specialties within the sectors that we operate in today, as well as increase our number of offices in different cities, possibly through acquisitions. Digital is a growing factor in campaigns today, including in B2B, which is catching on to the importance of multi-platform, video and graphical communications and advanced analytics. We are well-positioned to expand with our appointment of a Chief Digital Officer, adoption of advanced analytics to shape and measure campaigns, and a culture that embraces innovation.

We will continue to keep our clients on the cutting edge and our employees at the top of our profession. Looking ahead, trends such as virtual reality, metadata, machine-to-machine connectivity, consumer empowerment, and personalized technology promise to transform society and our individual lives -- in ways that increasingly will look nothing like anything we recognize from the past. This vision inspires us and rests largely on the power of communications. For the world of tomorrow is a world of closer and deeper connection among all people and organizations, which is the foundation of our profession and the basis for progress as we move forward.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

One of the decisions I’m proudest of is founding a global partnership, IPREX, in the early years of our business. IPREX brings the expertise of the best independent international and U.S. regional agencies to help our clients wherever in the world they need it. Today, it’s a $350-million network of communications agencies, with 1,800 staff and 115 offices, working across the spectrum of industry sectors and disciplines, as well as sharing best practices in agency management. We have benefitted both in terms of millions of dollars of referral business, as well as the partnership of these firms’ leadership.

Our other cornerstone strategy, thought leadership, is something Makovsky has always been known for since its inception. Over the years we have developed several “franchise” industry reports based on proprietary research in our different sectors. Examples include the annual Makovsky Wall Street Reputation Study on the state of reputation of the financial industry since the 2008 recession and the Makovsky/Kelton Pulse of online search, which tracks consumer preferences for online health information.  This year, our Energy Reputation Study, focusing on consumer opinion about various energy sources, made its debut.  

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

The most significant challenge I have faced as CEO was presented by the dot-com crash of 2001, when the tech “bubble” created around the rise of the Internet, e-commerce and Silicon valley start-ups came to a sudden end, and the NASDAQ  stock market lost 78% of its value (with markets plummeting around the world). Several well-known firms in our industry closed their doors forever. While we were somewhat impacted, the experience reinforced the importance of our balanced risk strategy, our diversification.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

We know the answer to this from our Quality Commitment Program, which seeks client input on a regular basis on how we are doing – both through a written questionnaire, and calls from an independent consultant/auditor. What delights clients is great service and performance, and the ability of our people to provide strategic insights that impact the direction of their business.  

How do you motivate others?

First, we try to hire motivated people. I know that others say this too and that is fundamental. But there are many things organizations need to do inspire people who love coming to work and achieving. Like listening. Having personal interactions. Recognizing accomplishments. Providing interesting work, and honest feedback. Understanding generational differences. We have worked hard at these and have been fortunate to have an HR executive who tries to keep us on the right path.

Career advice to those in your industry?

For people who are new to the field, my advice is to be an information junkie and cultivate your curiosity.  Be aware of different aspects of what’s going on in society in order to increase your sensitivity to target audiences. Know that follow through is often the key to success.

Another tip that has worked for me personally is that if you don’t succeed in an initiative, don’t allow yourself to feel defeated. Give yourself just one hour for depression, and then move on. Get busy!  Persistence has often solved more problems than the world would ever know.