Ralph Katz: co-founder & principal of CooperKatz & Company

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Ralph Katz is co-founder and principal of CooperKatz & Company, a 35-person, independent public relations agency in New York City. CooperKatz & Company was featured on the Crain’s New York’s “100 Best Places to Work in NYC” list for the last two consecutive years and was recently recognized on the New York Observer’s “50 Most Powerful PR Firms in New York City” list.

Ralph’s marketing career spans more than 40 years starting in the early 1970s with a position at Ted Bates, one of the iconic New York advertising agencies of the time. In 1977, Ralph moved to Burson-Marsteller Public Relations where his professional experience expanded with the explosive growth of the agency.  For much of his tenure he led Burson’s highly-regarded Creative Services division.  In 1996 he left with long-time colleague Andy Cooper to launch CooperKatz & Company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this May.

How did you get into the PR industry?

My route was somewhat indirect because public relations was not talked about and taught as a discipline back in the early ‘70s the way it is now. My future partner, Andy Cooper and I met in a Television / Radio / Film Master’s degree program at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University. I had always been interested in marketing, so following graduation (and a nine-month search), I took a job at Ted Bates Advertising in New York. Andy moved to Chicago and after a few years landed in the creative group at Burson-Marsteller, Chicago. In 1977 he was given the opportunity to move to the New York office to build a creative group there and asked me to come over. The chance to do creative work in a marketing environment was irresistible and I quit my job that very day. My instincts were right on - my enthusiasm remains to this day.

Tell us about CooperKatz. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

In our early days at Burson-Marsteller the company promoted a team effort. I could tell you amazing stories of collaboration, having one another’s backs and company-wide celebrations of success. As the company grew, and outside management was brought in, the atmosphere changed and the work was segmented into practices. Andy and I felt that people would do their best work in a culture of collaboration, purpose and teamwork. So when we left, that’s what we set out to create. As our business has grown we’ve added expanded talents and capabilities to our team, but we have never wavered on the original vision of collaboration and purpose.  

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to CooperKatz's success?

Significantly, CooperKatz was founded on the basis of a strategic partnership. At the time, in 1996, the Association of National Advertisers was looking to build its reputation and we were looking for a home. What better first home could we have than to live literally within the walls of one of the leading marketing organizations in the industry? We began working on raising the level of their most visible event, the ANA “Masters of Marketing” Annual Conference, and expanded to helping them with all aspects of their communication strategy. Today, ANA is by far our longest-running client.

Subsequent partnerships have enhanced our ability to address many aspects of our client engagements. For example, our membership in the Public Relations Global Network (PRGN), an organization of more than 50 independent agencies around the world, provides us with global reach and an understanding of global perspective. And where we do not have in-house capabilities, partnerships with like-minded, complementary agencies in areas such as web development or large scale technical event production help us control internal expenses while delivering on the range of ideas we develop for our clients.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

In the dynamic landscape we’ve been experiencing, each year presents emerging trends for us to consider in building our programs. But right now one trend in particular is a focus for us: integration.  

We look at integration from three perspectives. First is the integration of earned, owned, social and paid. We added a senior digital specialist last year and have already seen a significant difference in the ideas and approaches we’re bringing to the table. Our clients are benefiting from the power of multiplying the message as these channels work closely together. This has been particularly evident for the Smart Home thought leadership program we have built with long-time client Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

Second is through the lens of our generalist orientation. Because we work across such a wide array of industries, we know a lot about the businesses of our clients’ customers – making us stronger counselors as we segment audiences and develop messages and programs for them.

Third is the natural progression toward integration of public relations and marketing. Many of our customers count on us to go beyond PR into their marketing programs and materials, even advertising. After all, it is our responsibility to drive the overall goals of the organization, and often that requires looking beyond what is traditionally understood as the PR toolbox.

Life Motto?

We are all so connected these days. We genuinely need each other. My motto, or more accurately my interaction, has always been to treat everyone with respect and caring. Life and business are hard enough. How helpful it is to be surrounded by a solid support group covering every aspect of your life.

Your greatest success as Co-founder and Principal of CooperKatz?  Most difficult moment - how did you overcome and what did you learn?

Without question, the most difficult moment in this business came the night my partner, Andy Cooper, told me he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. That was followed by a 22-month treatment regimen until he passed away three years ago in March. As soon as he shared the diagnosis, everyone in the organization assessed the situation and took action. Each member of the team, in their own way, began stepping up to learn and hone those skills that would most be needed without Andy participating in the business. It was an incredibly inspirational lesson for me in how a genuinely caring organization, without specific instruction, will instinctively know what needs to be done to ensure its continued success. I did not overcome this moment. Rather, an entire agency matured before my eyes to ensure that everything would be in place for the time that Andy would no longer be able to contribute.  So I believe that out of that moment comes our greatest success. To mentor and grow a staff of people that had both the insight to recognize how their roles had to quickly change, and the skills to be able to do that, is a definition of success that makes me very proud of the team we have assembled at all levels within the agency.

Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?

I have worked with many start-up entrepreneurs during the course of my career and I feel all of the successful ones that I have worked with had one trait in common – passion. In their heart and soul, they unshakably knew why they were taking the plunge to start a business and deal with all the risks, hours and endless decision-making that go with it. For some, they have conceived a better product or idea that they “must” bring to market; for others, it has been the desire to support an underserved or previously unrecognized cause in this world. For Andy and me, it was a conviction that we could develop a culture and atmosphere within our industry that both made it exciting to come to work every day and that facilitated top-notch client work. Whatever it is, the first step to success is being secure in the reason for your entrepreneurship. Without that, the sheer difficulty of starting from scratch and consistently performing at the level necessary to build something significant will overwhelm you.

Describe the ideal experience using CooperKatz.

Our agency was founded on assuming the role of strategic partner, and we have taken that to mean looking broadly at the business of our clients. This starts at the beginning of every engagement when we come together for a strategic session. With all of the key people in the room from both client and agency, the conversation most often delves deeply into the organization’s business strategy. Only when there is agreement on overall strategy can the communications plan fall into place. Once we are working day-to-day with a client, we relish collaboration with other agency partners and very often take the lead position in coordinating efforts among the agencies. You might say we have a 360-degree appreciation of what we touch within a client organization and it is this open collaboration that leads to the ideal experience with CooperKatz.

How do you motivate your employees?

From the start, Andy and I built a culture from the best of what we had experienced in business and the elements of organizational culture that we could conceive but never experienced in our careers. At the time of Andy’s passing, I found myself to be of a different generation than most of our employees. So I gathered the team and let them know that this was now their company. They should think about what would be important to them and we would be open to building those ideas into the culture. Some of what has resulted from that include:

•    Volunteer days – An opportunity for each employee, including me, to set aside two half-days per year to join together in small groups and participate in a meaningful charitable activity (based on input from our staff, this volunteer time was added to our Employee Handbook as an official paid benefit)

•    Walk It Outs – Randomly scheduled 5-minute breaks during which almost the entire company power walks several circuits around the office perimeter to get everyone’s blood pumping

•    EatUps – Sporadically scheduled Monday lunch hours that bring employees together to discuss current trends and cultural / business developments, and to brainstorm how they might benefit our clients

•    Sustainability efforts – An array of initiatives including idea paint walls and glass panels to replace paper flip charts in brainstorms, a full recycling program and a water purification system to cut down on use of plastic bottles.

One other element that motivates us all is recognition. Since our founding, the principals and currently the Executive Team recognize each employee in a themed presentation at our holiday event, all in front of their significant others. And at each company meeting we bestow “CKudos,” during which any one of us can give a shout out to other individuals for going above and beyond.

What's next for CooperKatz?

From our founding, the North Star, if you will, has been the idea of a smart marriage of strategy and creative thinking. It is only logical that we’ve had the most success when we’ve come up with the strategic insight on which we can craft stories to tell, leverage all available channels, build content and develop fresh perspectives to speak to our clients’ audiences. When I think back over many of the programs I’m most proud of: the switch to MetroCard Gold from subway tokens in New York City; the introduction of new concepts like pay-as-you-go cell phone service for Virgin Mobile and car sharing for Zipcar; and the environmental advantages of two-wheel vehicles for Vespa, I feel that it still comes down to applying creativity to strong strategic insight. We have continued to add new capabilities and leverage new channels over the years. But for us, the foundation of strategy plus creative in our business will remain constant and be the springboard for our continued success.