The Herald Profiles Hill Holliday's "Dynamic Duo", Karen Kaplan & Mike Sheehan
He is the tall, silver-haired former creative director who has skillfully succeeded a legend in the Corner Office. She is the smart, funny former receptionist who has carefully worked her way nearly to the top.
They support each other, make each other laugh and together, CEO Mike Sheehan, 51, and his handpicked president Karen Kaplan, 52, make up the dynamic duo that has kept Hill Holliday steadily growing since Sheehan took the reins in 2003 from co-founder and all-around "Mr. Boston" Jack Connors, who stepped down as chairman in December 2006 without ever writing a single ad.
In what Sheehan calls “the ultimate Darwinian business,” he and Kaplan have survived and thrived.
“Titles don’t mean anything here,” Kaplan said when the pair sat down recently for an exclusive interview with the Herald. “You’ve got to deliver.”
Sheehan joined Hill Holliday as group creative director in 1994 and went to DDB Chicago in 1999 as executive creative director to run the McDonald’s campaign for a year before returning to Hill Holliday as president. The award-winning former copywriter recalled years when he worked 35 weekends. Now, as CEO, the Weymouth native still works hard, but after becoming a father for the first time at age 45, family is a priority.
“I have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. That’s pretty much what I do outside the office,” said Sheehan, a former high jumper and top St. Patrick’s Day breakfast political joke writer.
Kaplan, a mom of two grown children, beat out 40 other women for the Hill Holliday receptionist job 30 years ago. She had planned to go to law school, but got hooked by the ad firm’s culture even though, as a woman, she felt the need to work her way up the “Mad Men” ladder - like the TV show’s Peggy - in a very calculated way.
“I did it in a very deliberate way, because I came in at such a low level,” said Kaplan, who also serves as Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chairman. “I said, I’m going to work two hours a day longer and one of the weekend days. And I did it gladly, because I knew that after a year I’d be able to catch up to people who had a 10-year head start and surpass them.”
With classic campaigns such as “America Runs on Dunkin’ ” for the coffee-and-doughnut chain; “Responsibility, What’s Your Policy” for Liberty Mutual; and “Real Life, Real Answers” for John Hancock, Hill Holliday has been built on long-term relationships - often with clients in Greater Boston.
“Why not?” said Sheehan, who has grown the firm’s revenues 70 percent since taking over. “Why would we ever cede that territory to someone else?”
But the 900-person firm’s client list also includes Verizon Wireless, Chili’s, Novartis, Cigna, Major League Baseball, Oxfam America and Bank of America, where former Hill Holliday account exec Anne Finucane runs marketing out of her Hub office and recently boosted the ad firm’s role.
While it’s part of the much-larger Interpublic Group, Sheehan and Kaplan are proud of Hill Holliday’s Boston roots and approach.
“I think in New York you tend to have a very coastal view of what Americans feel, how Americans think, what they believe. And there’s just a world between Worcester and Fresno that is the real America,” said Sheehan.
It’s clear that Kaplan will succeed Sheehan - it’s just not clear when.
“I want my legacy to be - remembering when Jack left that people thought I didn’t stand a chance, that Jack’s going to be back running the company in a year - and to have that not happen and to have the company grow almost every year since then, to the point where if I’m lucky, when I pass the title on to Karen, we could double in size in that period - and that will be my legacy,” Sheehan said.