When Karen Kaplan, 53, first walked through the doors of Hill Holliday in 1982, she had no advertising experience, or even the shorthand skills to work as a secretary. The 22-year-old was placed at the front desk of the Interpublic-owned shop as a receptionist — the bottom of the agency ladder.
Her first week on the job, two mean girls who worked hidden behind the closed doors of the switchboard room wanted to make sure Kaplan knew just how low she was.
“They come on my second day, and they stand in front of my desk,” Kaplan recalled. “They’re looming over me with hands on their hips with their little headbands, and I remember they were like, ‘Just so you know, just because you’re out here and everyone can see you, you are still on the bottom of the totem pole. You are below us, you are below the guy in the mail room, you’re below the guy who delivers the packages.’”
Shocked, Kaplan looked up from her square desk phone with four Lucite buttons. “I thought to myself, ‘We’ll see about that.’”
Thirty-one years later, Kaplan was just promoted to become the CEO of that very same ad agency, which made approximately $184 million last year. She sits in an office surrounded by the spoils of the day’s 19 congratulatory flower deliveries.
“It looks like a funeral home in here,” she told Business Insider. “An art director came in my office and he said, ‘There are only two times you get this many flowers, and one of them you aren’t there to enjoy it.’”
Kaplan has reached the top of the Hill Holliday totem pole. And the switchboard operators?
“One married a rich guy and the other I lost track of,” she said. “Maybe jail.”
Getting the job
Kaplan didn’t plan to go into advertising.
Graduating as a French literature major from the University of Massachusetts in 1982, an era that makes this century’s recession look like kid’s stuff, Kaplan considered going to law school.
“I moved back in [my parents'] house and was looking for any job to save money,” she said.
So a recruiter set her up with an interview with Hill Holliday president Jack Connors for a receptionist job.
“I was told two things: He had interviewed and rejected 40 candidates before me,” Kaplan said. “I wanted to get it. I’m competitive. But I also wanted to meet him,” a minor celebrity in the Boston area.
She was hired almost immediately. Connors told her, “Congratulations, you are now the face and voice of Hill Holliday.” He took the position seriously, so Kaplan did as well.
“Connors jokingly says he never paid me enough to go to law school,” Kaplan said, but really she fell in love with the job and its culture.
Apart from the occasional catty operator room girl trying to jam up her phone lines, Kaplan liked the company and position.
“I also say that my prior work experience included babysitting and waitressing, both of which came in handy,” Kaplan said, expertly deflecting questions of just how those skills were put to use.
Kaplan took advantage of the opportunities the reception desk offered: Everyone from secretaries to executives passed her desk whenever they needed the kitchen or bathroom, top clients and VIP guests made small talk as they awaited meetings, and bigwig’s children and wives became phone buddies.
“I met more people that first year in town than anyone in the agency.”
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