Phrases used to describe Cynthia Ham at the Thursday, Jan. 24, American Advertising Federation Memphis meeting included “the Memphis enthusiast,” “the art-aholic,” “the hostess/entertainer,” “a local celebrity” and even “a pushy broad.”
That’s because Ham, former 15-year chief public relations officer at archer-malmo and now president and CEO of BRIDGES, was the 2013 recipient of AAF Memphis’ Silver Medal award – the highest recognition the advertising organization presents to one of its own each year.
“I am just truly shocked and amazed actually,” Ham said. “I never even thought of myself as a potential nominee even for this – I didn’t know that PR counted. I so appreciate this and the recognition coming from all of you creative folks just means so, so much.”
Before that acceptance speech, a brief video was presented to the roomful of the city’s creative executives at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis chronicling the life and accomplishments of the visionary marketer and Downtown influencer.
Ham grew up in Parkway Village with her mother, an English professor, and father, who served in the armed forces. She would go onto obtain a journalism, advertising and PR degree from the University of Memphis, where she was business manager with The Daily Helmsman and also introduced to John Malmo when he lectured in her Advertising 101.
After college, Ham became Libertyland’s first sales director before working as advertising and promotions manager for Opryland USA. Malmo then recommended her as the first marketing director of Mud Island, where she later became the park’s second general manager in the early 1980s – a time when Downtown was a shadow of its present self.
Ham’s next profession was with the Beale Street Historic District as vice president of marketing. The entertainment district was only 15 percent leased at the time, but Ham organized events and experiential marketing to attract crowds.
Her next stop was in 1987 at Memphis in May International Festival, where she spent 10 years as its executive director, converting the Beale Street Music Festival into the massive operation that it’s known as today. During Ham’s stint at Memphis in May is also when she married board member Jeff Sanford.
“Prior to Cynthia’s arrival, Memphis in May was nearly dead,” the video explained. “Due to her innovation, the festival still has an enormous economic and cultural impact on the city.”
Ham left Memphis in May after its 20th anniversary. While doing some freelance work, she was asked by Ward Archer to come head archer-malmo’s PR department. She stayed there for 15 years, and was among the group of principals that purchased the agency from its founders in 2001.
It was during her tenure at archer-malmo when Ham worked with local and national clients like Terminix, AutoZone Corp., Medtronic Inc., Colgate-Palmolive, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Verizon. She oversaw and grew the PR team’s service offerings like media relations, international communication, crisis management, and strategic philanthropy – and launched archer-malmo’s experiential marketing practice.
Ham also created a course called Memphis 101 as a way to bring new executive commerce to the city while also building relationships with those who have lived in Memphis for years. Originally developed as a new business tool for archer-malmo, Memphis 101 was eventually integrated into the Leadership Academy’s curriculum.
“I had a glorious 15 years at archer-malmo working with my partners and with the PR and experiential teams,” Ham said.
In 2012, Ham left the city’s oldest and largest advertising agency to become president and CEO of BRIDGES, a 91-year-old local nonprofit known for its leadership work with thousands of Mid-South youth.
Outside of her professional life, Ham has been involved in civic affairs such as chairing the openings of Central Station, the South Main Arts Festival and the Cannon Center of Performing Arts. She even played an integral role in bringing the Memphis Grizzlies to town.
Boards that Ham serves or has served on include Beale Street Caravan, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Women’s Foundation, Methodist Health Systems, Concerts International, Urban Art, Memphis Rotary Club, the Memphis Development Foundation, and the Memphis Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. Additionally, Ham is a member of the International Women’s Forum.
The AAF Silver Medal comes after other honors Ham has received like the University of Memphis’ Outstanding Journalism Alumni Award in 1999 and Downtown Memphis Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 – a co-recognition she shared with her husband, who served as the redevelopment organization’s president for 12 years prior.
Ham was lured to Thursday’s presentation under the impression that her former partner and CEO of archer-malmo, Russ Williams, was the Silver Medal recipient.
“Incredible achievements,” Williams said of Ham. “I’m inspired by them, and I hope everybody in the room is inspired.”
Ham is the eighth archer-malmo employee or alumni to win Silver Medal. Past honorees are Ward Archer Sr., Joan White, John Malmo, Ward Archer Jr., Ed Bailey, Michael Thompson and Linda Roberts.
“Malmo said an interesting thing that didn’t make the video, but I thought it was great,” said archer-malmo chief creative officer Gary Backaus. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody that was able to change their career at will and be successful in each successive outing more than the previous one.’”