One can go from Rising Star to industry veteran in what feels like the blink of an eye. The promotional merchandise field moves fast. It may not be as cutthroat as some industries, but promo is constantly evolving and requires growth from those within it.

Zack Ottenstein, president of The Image Group, knows something about that. In 2018 – then serving as senior director over a branch of the distributor – he was named a PPAI Rising Star. This year, he takes a seat on the PPAI Board of Directors.

It was a circuitous route to the promo industry for Ottenstein. Having graduated top of his class from the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he initially began a career as a network TV reporter before transitioning into a role leading marketing for Welltower, a real estate investment company. Looking for a new entrepreneurial chapter in his life, he joined The Image Group in 2016.

Six years later, Ottenstein is still surprised by how natural the shift was to promotional products, but he has approached this career with similar goals.

“I didn’t expect such a seamless experience,” Ottenstein says. “My role at Welltower focused on helping the company tell its story. Now, I focus on building The Image Group’s platform to help clients tell their stories.”

A Growth Mindset

Growing in this industry means adapting to circumstances and evolving your mindset. Having the results to prove that growth takes hard work. There’s no way around it.

Ottenstein took a quote by entrepreneur Ben Horowitz and made it an unofficial mantra at The Image Group: “There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix [a problem]. We are going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.”

The point isn’t that hard work can ward off innovation. It’s that hard work is often more efficient than the search for greater efficiency. If you treat the goal as a priority, then more efficient ways to approach problems will present themselves. In the meantime, you’ll be getting the job done.

The proof is in the results. Under his helm, The Image Group has been named to 2023’s inaugural PPAI 100 ranking (coming in as the No. 41 distributor). From 2019-2022, the company grew in revenue by an average of 14%. With four offices across Ohio, Michigan and Virginia, The Image Group expanded in 2017 with its merger with Target Marketing, bringing new technological know-how to the firm.

If there was any doubt that bypassing silver bullets still yields innovative progress, The Image Group received PPAI 100 High Marks in Innovation, Responsibility, Professional Development and Industry Faith.

“We believe everything hinges on building the best team, and I’m really proud of ours,” Ottenstein says.

Promo’s Future Is Diverse

Ottenstein’s 2018 Rising Stars nod provides the benefit of a glance at the priorities of a past version of the man. Asked then what sort of change he’d like to see in promo, he responded, “I want to see the industry invest the time, energy and resources necessary to recruit top talent from diverse backgrounds.”

Ottenstein is now positioned to help influence that change. And in 2024, those priorities stand firm.

“Across the world, the leading companies are embracing rigorous, comprehensive CSR initiatives,” Ottenstein says. “They’re measuring environmental impact and investing to mitigate. Additionally, they’re embracing ambitious social impact initiatives. As a result, I believe our customers will expect us to follow suit, especially the largest buyers of promotional products, with consumer purchasing behavior following soon after.”

A Golden Era Looming

Speaking of his colleagues on the PPAI Board, Ottenstein says, “it’s an impressive group of people. I feel fortunate to volunteer with them. I hope in working together with the PPAI team we can make a lasting difference on this industry and the customers we all serve.”

The promotional products industry has been thriving for more than a century, but Ottenstein is not joining the board to preserve the old. He has his sights on the future of this industry and all the people who will benefit from it.

“I believe we are at the very beginning of a promotional products golden era, when you consider new decoration technologies and consumer trends,” Ottenstein says.