#100K: Karen Strauss


There are great women in Public Relations. And there are particularly great women. One of them is Karen Strauss.

Ketchum is one of the oldest communications agencies in the world (celebrating its 100th anniversary this year - yes, that's true!), and it's a pioneer for introducing the role of creative director to a PR agency. At Ketchum, I was happy to see that women held this position over the years.

When I started at Ketchum as a trainee 30 years ago, I was excited that a female creative director from New York was coming to the Munich office to facilitate the first brainstorming session I had ever attended. That experience convinced me that I wanted to become a Creative Director. Over the next several years, I observed various professional creative directors – how they inspire and motivate individuals and teams to come up with ideas. I learned from all of them. But then came Karen Stauss. And a whole new world opened up.

Karen wasn't just creative. She was also innovative and highly strategic. She made clear that the job of a creative director extended beyond serving up attention-grabbing communication concepts for clients. She perceived creativity to have a bigger mission - to move businesses forward. At Ketchum, she developed and launched a variety of innovative products and processes that had a massive impact on the image of the agency, not to mention the agency´s profitability and growth.

With Karen I learned that creativity is a true game changer – for business – for an individual career – and for my own identity and self-esteem. I learned so much from her. I am very grateful that Karen made time to talk to me for this #100K-interview.

Karen, it's so great to see you. Especially after this horrible time of the pandemic. Almost three years, we were locked up or at least limited in so many ways. How did you experience the lockdown and what´s the one thing you´ll take with you as a memory of that time?

For extroverts like me who thrive on live human interaction and collaboration, working through screens was pretty dehumanising. It was especially disorienting because I had left my work family at Ketchum at the end of 2019, and just two months into a new job leading strategy and innovation for M Booth Health, I was suddenly and unexpectedly trying to figure out how to build new bonds and ways of working without the benefit of the work rhythm and relationships I’d cultivated at Ketchum. A persistent memory from that experience was how hard we have to fight to overcome feelings of isolation and loneliness – both personal and professional. America’s Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, calls the epidemic of loneliness and isolation a true public health crisis.

The pandemic made me rethink where ideas come from. For much of my work life, creativity was fueled by teamwork. I’ve always relied on the inspiration that colleagues, friends and family provide. Ideation for many of us is a co-working process. In my experience, brainstorming is often most productive when it involves lots of sparring, laughter, and interplay between diverse thinkers.

Fortunately, and you’ll remember this Petra, at Ketchum we had great success with what we used to call IM-storms – getting a cross-section of people together online to respond to facilitated prompts and type into the chat function to build on ideas.

When Covid forced us all to work from home, I was happy to at least have a digital connection to colleagues, who I slowly oriented to the participatory sport that is online brainstorming. It’s a great way to allow introverts and extroverts to contribute equally because it’s less of a verbal sparring contest, and more of a silent give and take.

The other big takeaway of pandemic life – and it’s persisted as more of us still work from home – is the loss of genuine eye contact. Sure, Zoom makes it seem like we’re looking at each other – but it’s not the same kind of connection you get when working face to face. It’s harder to “read a room” remotely, and that makes building trust, gauging reactions, and selling ideas so much more difficult.

Now that I’m a solopreneur, largely working from home, I put a good deal of effort into close listening – and yes – eye contact through screens. After all, our eyes are windows to the soul.
Many people became quite creative during the pandemic. I was impressed by the father who built a ski lift in the backyard for his two girls because their ski vacation was cancelled. Just read “Creativity for New Normal – Where ideas come from in times of Corona.” So much progress was made in healthcare. Never before had a vaccine been developed so fast. Creativity and innovation have always been your strengths - no matter in which position you have been working – as Chief Innovation Officer for an agency, running a Marketing to 50+ practice, or in establishing your 
own consultancy. Many people, especially those who perceive themselves as not so creative, ask creatives like you: What's the secret? Tell us about the superpower of creativity.

Curiosity is the superpower. I always thought I’d be a journalist because my mind has always gone to the ‘Who, What, Where, When, How’ of nearly every challenge and opportunity I encounter.

We have more ways than ever before to satisfy our curiosity – to uncover the motivations and sentiments that drive humans to do what they do.

One of my clients is an AI-powered human response platform called GLIMPSE (shameless plug: www.glimpsehere.com) which allows anyone to ask any audience around the world how they feel about any topic, and get back sentiment-rich analyses. Taking an interest in, and better understanding human emotions is a phenomenal creative catalyst. And if all else fails, Google is a creative person’s very best friend.

Creativity is also about making novel connections. But to connect unlike ideas to form new ideas, you have to start with a vast inventory of knowledge. That inventory comes from reading a lot, travelling a lot, exploring a lot, questioning a lot. If you don't fill your brain with new information all the time, you can´t make interesting combinations (check out the Kirby Ferguson video essay “Everything is a remix”).

We are still living in challenging times. How do you see this and what´s your contribution to make the world a little bit better?

With the precariousness of the economy and the job market being what it is, I have committed myself to helping someone each and every day – either to land a first job, land a new job – and even – navigate the transitions from high school to college – and college into the workforce.

After nearly 4 decades positioning and packaging companies, brands, and executives, it’s been rewarding to parlay those skills into supporting good people who need help shaping and writing their own stories, and then finding receptive people to give them a shot.

Related to helping early and later stage career seekers discover new opportunities, I often share my perspective on reinvention. Too many people are unhappy at work, and I’m not shy about urging them to be brave and find more rewarding roles because I know they’re out there.

For many years at Ketchum I was lucky to work for an agency that allowed me to reinvent myself often. If you're rewarded for reinventing yourself, that's a great starting point for a creative and fulfilling career, and a fulfilling life overall. That's what I wish for all young talents just embarking on new careers – to find a profession and place where they can be curious, and where their ideas and innovations are appreciated.

About #100K
In 2023 Ketchum - an international communications network - celebrates its 100th anniversary. This makes it probably the oldest communications agency in the world. I´ve worked more than 25 years at Ketchum and learned so much at this agency. I am thankful for this time and the many colleagues and friends I´ve met there. So I´ll take this as an opportunity to meet old Ketchum-friends. And ask them some fundamental questions. Thanks to Karen, Robert Burnside, Lukas Adda, Linda Eatherton, Gustav Averbuj, Sabine Stadel-Strauch, Gesine Märten and Martin Dambacher.

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