Happy (Real) Birthday, Ketchum

February 13, 2019

Six years ago our agency celebrated our 90th birthday in a big way, including 90 pro bono brainstorm sessions for 90 non-profit organizations all over the world.

The occasion dated our origins back to 1923, but that date — long the official date of our founding — obscured one inconvenient fact that is worth noting.

George Ketchum

Ketchum was primarily an ad agency for most of its existence, then it became a group of agencies (including Ketchum Public Relations) under the name Ketchum Communications, until it sold to Omnicom in 1996.

Shortly after the sale, the ad agency brand, Ketchum Advertising, merged into TBWA and ceased to exist.

Omnicom said at the time that what they most valued and wanted to buy was the public relations firm, a firm that had already begun its stretch as the most-awarded firm in the business.

Because the successive owners of Ketchum were very proud to be an integrated ad/PR/promotions firm and advertising was the largest discipline among that set, they wanted to date our founding to the year we became an ad agency, which was named Ketchum, MacLeod and Grove. That year was 1923.

Even though I knew the real history, I allowed this date to continue to be celebrated when I was CEO in 2013 out of respect for the preference of all the previous CEOs.

But here’s the real history. Ketchum wasn’t founded in 1923 as an ad agency. George Ketchum and his brother Carlton founded Ketchum as a PR firm called Ketchum Publicity four years earlier in 1919.

Here’s a passage from Ad Age’s Encyclopedia of Advertising:

“KETCHUM, MACLEOD & GROVE”

Started by George Ketchum as a PR firm, Ketchum Publicity, in Pittsburgh, 1919; created its first advertising effort, 1922; changed name to Ketchum-MacLeod Advertising, 1923; became Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove when Robert Grove joined, 1923.”

The Ketchum everyone knows today, the public relations part of the larger Ketchum, remained an important part of the overall agency since its founding. Consequently, we were certifiably one of the original pioneers in this field, founded four years before Edward Bernays wrote, “Crystallizing Public Opinion,” which many consider the book that codified PR as a profession.

So, Ketchum — its clients, employees and alumni — should probably take a moment to celebrate our actual birthday. We turn 100 this year and are the longest-thriving public relations firm in the world.

Many of my colleagues have heard me say that history doesn’t mean all that much in a business that is all about the future. On a good day, we are sensors of social change, anticipate what’s next, serve as the conscience of the corporation, and innovate the latest ways to engage people.

So rather than celebrate ancient history, let’s celebrate George Ketchum and his foresight, one long century ago. Cheers, George.

Rob Flaherty is Chairman of Ketchum, the global communications consultancy with 130 offices and affiliates worldwide. He is on the board of the Arthur W. Page Society, the Institute for Public Relations and the advisory board of Room to Read, which focuses on literacy and girls education in developing nations. Follow Rob on Twitter at @flahertyrob.