Most Admired CEO

Article by William Hicks - Assistant Managing Editor
As Featured in the
San Francisco Business Times

Janis MacKenzie has helped the top companies and organizations in the Bay Area tell their stories for almost 40 years.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1974, MacKenzie started her career in journalism before making the switch to public relations and marketing. She founded Mackenzie Communications in 1983, growing the firm into a mainstay and receiving two MarCom awards in 2020 for excellence in branding and print design.

She has helped build San Francisco’s Presidio into a cohesive brand and aided the Bay Ferry system in outreach to riders following the pandemic.

As board president of San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, MacKenzie has a long track record of community outreach and involvement. She previously served as chair of San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce and the 5 Buckets Foundation, a financial literacy nonprofit.

What was your first job out of college?
I was able to snag a first job at a journalism school at the Chicago Sun-Times, which was an awfully big place for a recent graduate to start. I worked in their syndication division, and I was a gofer, edited columns, got them out — everything from Ann Landers columns to crossword puzzles, you name it.

How did you start your own business?
Where did the startup capital come from? I had a dear friend who was a banker, Steve Leverone, who gave me a $30,000 line of credit, which back then was something. But I started with a couple of clients, the Nature Company, which became Discovery and the California Land Title Association. And from there, I built my business. We built it organically, never took on debt, never took on outside investors and have remained what I call fiercely independent for all these years.

What is you favorite part of your job?
Landing a new piece of business and then figuring out how we’re going to help that business and the individuals in that business to reach their goals. I love that ideation process working with working with clients. It’s still my favorite thing to do.

Has there been a specific client ad or specific campaign that you’ve worked on that that really stands out?
Our recent work on behalf of the Presidio and the Presidio Trust in the rebrand, which has been absolutely phenomenal. It’s been a two -and-a-half-year project, and we are now in the midst of activating that brand throughout the park. And to see how the Presidio has always been a very important iconic part of San Francisco. But I think even since Covid, the appreciation of parks and national parks, and the great outdoors has really grown. And being part of creating that sense of place and bringing it to a broader group of people has been very exciting for us.

What did the rebrand entail?
Messaging, how you talk about this great place called the Presidio. How you ensure that people understand what it stands for. How you make sure people can find their way around the park. Everything from a new logo to new messaging to a new way of talking about the park and all its attributes.

What have you gained from your involvement in the community?
There’s a lot of personal satisfaction in it. I’ve made some of my best friends over the last few years through my board and community work. And I’ve also met some wonderful clients who’ve become friends. It’s just sort of part and parcel of who I am and really how the agency values its place within this ecosystem of a bigger community.

Who is a CEO that you admire?
Coming from a journalism background and family, Katharine Graham [former publisher of the Washington Post] stands out. She was an early role model for women in business – fearless, steadfast in her support of employees, surrounding herself with talented people, and willing to take their advice. Her leadership and integrity are prescient and inspirational for addressing the challenges we face today — in our businesses and in society at large.

About Janis:

Education: Bachelor’s degree, UC Berkeley School of Journalism
Advice for women executives:
“Women should support other women. I’ve always had a wonderful support group of women around me to help talk through the problems, figure out solutions, and ask, ‘How did you handle this?’”

About MacKenzie:

What it does: Marketing and communications agency
San Francisco
Notable campaigns:
San Francisco Bay Ferry, Dignity Health, Service West, Cal State East Bay