Remembering Camp Ketchum


During the ten years I spent at global PR firm Ketchum, one of the things I benefited from was the firm’s commitment to professional development. In addition to gaining the experience of working with some of the world’s leading companies and organizations as clients, on some of their more challenging problems, if you worked for Ketchum, you knew you were an investment.

The company invested in you in a variety of ways, but the most notable was regular workshops and sessions that might happen in your local office, or at some more central location, like Dallas or Chicago.

Everything from business management and creativity, to public speaking and branding. The firm would bring in top-flight instructors, or sometimes tap some of its own experts, to show developing staff how it’s done, and more importantly, how it should be done.

Off to Camp

But the pinnacle of professional development at Ketchum was something where you had to be selected to attend. It was an intense, four-day boot camp at a luxury resort in Siesta Key, Florida, called, “Camp Ketchum.”

If you were selected to attend Camp Ketchum, that meant you were in line for senior management at the firm. Ketchum wanted to make sure you had the complete set of skills that they expected in a leader. The hard and the soft skills.

In that spirit, it was also a proving ground. Not only were you there to learn and improve, but you knew you were being watched. Senior leadership of the firm were all there, engaged and involved, and watching.

I had worked at Ketchum for four years before I got the nod to attend the boot camp with two of my colleagues from my local office. When we got to Florida that January, we joined others from offices from all over the country and other parts of the world. A total of 40-50 Ketchum attendees and their leaders.

The four-day boot camp was a mix of socialization, team-building, classroom-style lectures, and a capstone-style project that brought everything together. To say Camp Ketchum was a career-changer for me would be an understatement. We often hear the over-used and cliché term, “Work hard, play hard.” But that is exactly what Camp Ketchum was.

Four days and nights of intense work, play, competition, and for me, fun.

To be sure, prior to Camp Ketchum I had already experienced my share of intense competition for new business, promotions and opportunities. I had worked in the media and in PR for years, so pulling an all-nighter was familiar to me. And I liked to have fun, so going out on the town with a work crew was something I had enjoyed.

But Camp Ketchum brought all of that to bear in such a way in just four days that you could actually hone your skills in that area, know your boundaries, push them perhaps, but through it all, master it as a combined skillset. Through shared experience, you would form bonds with colleagues from other offices, more fully adopt the “Ketchum way” in your work, and bring all of that to the teams you manage back home. It was about agency performance, culture, continuity and leadership.

An Immersive Experience Like None Other

To get a sense of how immersive it was, I’ll go through the agenda as I remember it. First night was a meet and greet with everyone over cocktails.  You would be assigned your team, which would be color-coded according to the tropical-colored T-shirts and sweatshirts they had given you. Prior to attending, we were given a strict list of how to pack. White pants would be worn for the group photo and the beach dinner on the second night, along with your team sweatshirt. A suit would be worn on the final day when you were to present your pitch.

On that first night, after all the niceties, you and your team were sent off by car to a very nice nearby restaurant to get to know each other over dinner and drinks. The shade of T-shirt our team was given was a salmon or peach shade. One of the first things we did as a team was decide it was more of a watermelon shade and that would be our new identity. The Watermelon Team was made up of me (a guy from Pittsburgh) and members from New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Milan.  No one from your local office was allowed to be on the same team with you, so your team members were all new to you.

Anyone who had worked at Ketchum for any length of time can relate to this, but we all hit it off instantly at dinner. We were all different, but very like-minded, particularly when it came to our careers.

There was a term I had already become familiar with. If you were a man, you wanted to be thought of internally as a “Ketchum guy.” Or, if you were a woman, being called a “Ketchum woman” was a high compliment. Not everyone who worked at Ketchum had earned that sort of identity, but by the time you stepped foot on Siesta Key at Camp Ketchum, all of you were deemed appropriately “Ketchum.”

Such a person tended to be positive and upbeat in nature, serious about work, and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done – not to mention smart and pretty good at interpersonal relationships.

Off and Running

At the end of the first night, we had formed that team bond and had a sense of each other, personally and professionally. We were starting to get a feel for each others’ strengths and assets. This was Camp Ketchum organizers’ intent and it worked.

Next morning and all day was classroom workshops on everything from creativity and public speaking, to persuasion, research and measurement, client relations, and business matters. None of this was new to us, but the way in which it was all covered was at another level. It was both educational and a message to each of us – this is the Ketchum standard, and it’s high.

That night was the beach dinner, the ‘class photo’ and more socializing. Teams were encouraged not to retire early to their rooms but to go out ‘on the town.’ This is that work-hard-play-hard thing. Everyone knew we could stay out late and be fresh for more classroom instruction in the a.m. After all, we’d done it before. And so, we did.

Next morning, more of the same. Intense classroom instruction, some role-playing and a lot of internalizing of what would be expected of us when we returned back to our local offices.

At the end of this day, however, there was no planned group dinner. Instead, we were given a team assignment. We had to put together a full-blown new business pitch. In our case, it contained elements of marketing, branding, media relations, crisis and issues management, and of course, research and measurement. We were given the bare essentials in terms of tools to work with, but we were expected to show up the next morning with something that was every bit as good as if we had weeks to prepare and full office facilities behind us.

We were to compete to win the business against all of the other teams. We would be judged harshly, so we had no choice but to come with our A-game.

Keep in mind, this is after two days of all-day workshops, socializing, and for most, not much sleep in the past 24 hours. But here we were, expected at 5 p.m., to start work on a PR program and pitch that we then had to present at roughly 8 a.m. the next day.

No one flinched. Not on our team. Not on all the other teams. We now looked at those fellow Ketchum staffers in the other-colored shirts as competition, not colleagues. We formed our group, met at our headquarters, which happened to be the hotel suite I shared with our team member from New York.

We elected him leader, and we set about defining the problems and putting our program and pitch together. We divided up tasks and responsibilities, and we identified the things we needed to know, but did not know. We had to do research and had no access to a computer. At the time, that was not permitted.

We hit the nearby establishments and conducted man-on-the-street interviews to get consumer perspectives on the famous brand we were to be pitching.  We came back and then worked all night. We worked on the content, the program, the pitch and the presentation. Then we rehearsed.

We. Did. Not. Sleep. 

By the next morning we were ready. By this point, we were running on adrenaline. Over the past 48 hours, the most sleep any of us may have had was 2-3 hours. We had to get showered and suited up for our presentation.

Then at the appointed time, we went in as a team, made our pitch and received interrogation and questions from our simulated client, which was agency leadership. It was brutal and exhilarating at once.

Once we made our pitch, we had the opportunity to sit in and watch the other teams make theirs. This was educational for those of us who presented early, but it only added to the pressure on those presenting after us.

And then by the end of the morning we were tapped out. The adrenaline was wearing off. We did it. It was over, right? Wrong.

There was a quick lunch and then time to change into our white shorts and colored T-shirts again. Beach games!  That’s right. We had to participate in a series of picnic games on the beach, again, competing with the other teams. Think “dizzy bat,” relay races, etc.

By the end of the afternoon, we were physically, emotionally and mentally wiped out. It felt good.

Then at dinner, Dave Drobis, our CEO and pseudo client prospect for the week, announced the winners of the pitch. I’m a little fuzzy on this, because I know somewhere in there Paul Alvarez, Ketchum’s Chairman at the time gave a speech, too. We may have had to wait until the next morning to learn who won the pitch.  I can’t remember. By this point, most everyone just wanted to have their nice dinner and go to bed.

Next morning was for packing, having breakfast, saying our goodbyes to our newfound friends and colleagues, and some parting words from the CEO.  Then, off to the airport.

So, what did it accomplish?

When we went back to our teams, we were psyched. We had bought more deeply into the Ketchum way and were even more energized to make sure that was integrated into how we operated as groups. We had contacts in other offices we now not only knew, but we knew we could trust. We’d be more likely to bring other offices into work projects as it made sense.

And individually, we knew how better to handle ourselves in extreme business situations in ways we hadn’t before.

About a year later, I vividly remember handling a major media event for a coalition of companies that were members of a leading national trade association that was my client. Much like Camp Ketchum, it was work 12 hours during the day, and blues clubs and drinks with the client and the media all night. And then back at it with little-to-no-sleep the next day.

After Camp Ketchum, I thought, “This is nothing.” And yet, I was able to push those limits without ever compromising my professionalism. That’s when I realized what a gift Camp Ketchum was to me. I was grateful.

In various ways over the years, I have drawn upon that Camp Ketchum experience again and again.  I had honed a complete skill set I once never knew I needed, and it was a skill set that made all the difference in my career.

Posted in Corporate & Strategic Communication, Crisis & Issues Management, General, Marketing Communications, Pittsburgh, PR & Media Relations and tagged , , , .