Rafferty named Ketchum global CEO, becomes first woman to lead top five global PR firm

Current global CEO and chairman, Rob Flaherty, will continue as chairman.

Barri Rafferty
Barri Rafferty

NEW YORK: Ketchum has promoted agency partner and president Barri Rafferty to global CEO, effective January 1.

The Omnicom firm’s current global CEO and chairman, Rob Flaherty, will continue as chairman.

In her new role as global CEO and president, Rafferty will report to Karen van Bergen, CEO of Omnicom Public Relations Group, and directly oversee 2,500 staffers. Ketchum has no immediate plans to name a new president.

Rafferty said she and Flaherty will "divide and conquer." She is taking on more of the day-to-day operations of the firm, working with its leaders on its structure, growth initiatives, and expansion plans.

Flaherty, meanwhile, is increasing his involvement with Ketchum’s clients while also working with van Bergen on the growth and success of Omnicom Public Relations Group. He joined Ketchum in 1989, was named president in 2008, and stepped into the CEO role in 2012.

"Agencies are always evolving structures," Rafferty said, when asked about her focus areas as CEO. "As we continue to evolve having deeper talent and analytics, adding Emmy-winning producers and content developers, looking at influencer relations, and making sure people are working with the top AI-enabled technology, the goal is to be more client-centric and borderless and make sure we are bringing all the areas of the firm to bear seamlessly to our clients in real-time."

Flaherty said the firm and its clients are "fortunate" to have Rafferty as global CEO and he believes she is ready to run the firm’s next chapter.

"We have been in a lot of meetings over the past couple of months planning 2018," he said of why this change has happened now. "When I saw the vision [Rafferty] has for the year ahead and for the future of the agency, and our desire to put in place an even more nimble client service model, she has been taking a lot of the leadership on that. She is restless and ambitious for our organization, progressive, clear in her vision, and decisive, and that is exactly what we need right now."

Rafferty has served in various roles at Ketchum since she joined in 1994. She stepped into her most recent position as global president in July 2016. Before that, she led the firm’s largest region as CEO of North America. Earlier this year, Ketchum named Mike Doyle and Hilary Hanson McKean its first regional presidents, replacing the need for a CEO of Ketchum North America.

During her time at Ketchum, Rafferty also led Ketchum’s global brand marketing practice and served as director of the firm’s largest office, New York; launched Ketchum Digital under the agency's first shareholder model; and counseled clients such as Gillette and Pernod Ricard. Additionally, Rafferty founded Omnicom Group’s Omniwomen board.

In 2016, Rafferty was named to PRWeek’s inaugural Hall of Femme list.

The changes at Ketchum come one month after Omnicom Group CEO John Wren warned during a Q3 earnings call that leadership changes are due at one of the holding company’s PR agencies.

At the time, Wren did not name the agency to which he was referring. The holding company owns and operates firms including FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, Porter Novelli, Marina Maher Communications, and Portland Communications within the Omnicom Public Relations Group.

When PRWeek reached out to Wren to ask if Ketchum was the firm he was referring to during the earnings call, Omnicom SVP of global communications Joanne Trout said via email, "This is really a Ketchum story so we aren’t going to comment further on his remarks during our last earnings call."

Flaherty said he doesn’t think Wren’s remarks were aimed at Ketchum.

"[Rafferty’s promotion] has been in the works for so long that I don’t think at all that’s what he was referring to," Flaherty explained.

Wren’s comments followed a third quarter in which its communications shops reported an organic revenue drop of 0.4% to $345.9 million, compared with Q3 2016 in which organic revenue was up 4.4% over the year prior. Wren also noted in July that Omnicom was "adjusting some of the leadership" at its PR firms after a second quarter in which revenue was down 0.3% organically.

"We are doing OK," Flaherty said, when asked about Ketchum’s revenue. "It has been a challenging year across our industry. We haven’t been entirely immune from that. We are having a phenomenal new business year and a strong fourth quarter."

He added that Ketchum is "in great shape" to enter 2018 under Rafferty’s leadership.

"We are proud of our commitment to diversity and gender equality," said Flaherty. "We couldn’t be more proud that our global leadership council is majority women, our global partnership is 50-50 men and women, and now we have promoted the first woman as CEO of a top five PR firm."

In 2016, Ketchum saw solid growth across existing clients and a record new business year, chairman and CEO Rob Flaherty told PRWeek in May.

Diversified Agency Services, the Omnicom unit containing its PR firms, recorded organic revenue growth of 2.8% in calendar year 2016 — an improvement on its 1.4% dip in 2015. Ketchum grew organically in the mid-single digits.

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