Barri Rafferty reflects on 25 years at Ketchum: ‘I was able to continually reinvent myself’

She also shared what she’ll bring to her new role as Wells Fargo’s comms head.

After 25 years, Barri Rafferty is leaving Ketchum. Mike Doyle replaced her this week as Ketchum’s president and CEO as she exits to lead communications for Wells Fargo.

Rafferty sat down with PRWeek to reflect on her time at the agency and plans for her new role.


What do you think about as you look back at your career at Ketchum? 
I was able to continually reinvent myself. I was a client director. I ran the global brand practice. I moved back to my hometown actually and ran our Atlanta and Dallas offices. 

I then ran New York. I started what was Ketchum Digital. I helped found brand marketing and entertainment and sports. So I was always able to be really entrepreneurial while I had my career, and always kind of found that next opportunity to help reinvent the agency and transform us. 

The people and clients were the foundation of that system. There was great talent and great people. I talked yesterday to our team and I'll always bleed green and Ketchum was like a second family to me. My kids are 25 and 21 and they have never known me working anywhere else. They've moved with me. They've seen my passion for the job. And they've met so many of my coworkers and clients through the years. So Ketchum really has been part of our family. 

Why leave such a plum senior position?
If you look at my career, I've been really involved in a lot of change management and transformation in each of my jobs at the organization and at different points. I really had developed a plan that I thought was the way to transform the agency, to double down on industries and specialties and to create what we call a fix and flip model where 50% of our staff now are specialists that come in and out. 

I really worked to help us transform our infrastructure and finance and the operations side of the business to align with the new structure. I helped us to really continue to enhance our analytics and invest in technology and our tech stack and to double down on influencers.

We had a strong Q1 with the agency growing. But when you get a call like this and it looks like just a totally different challenge and another big transformation project, it was just one of those opportunities. 

I thought at this point in my career I'm either going to be brave and take something new on, or have a great career at Ketchum for my whole career and continue to lead the agency. And it just seemed like [Wells Fargo was] something totally new and different to take on with a great leadership team. And so I decided to take that plunge.

There are only a few female CEOs at top PR agencies. Will your departure hurt the cause of female leadership in PR?
I hope not. I hope going to work for a Fortune 50 company as the lead of corporate communications and continuing to have a very senior role in a very large organization will count for that. 

I was thrilled to kind of break the glass ceiling in the PR agency realm. I always felt I got it based on merit, because I was a great leader and deserved the senior position at the time. The opportunity is there for many more women to join the ranks of the top firms and the ranks of the top levels of corporations. And I hope that I'm going to be a role model for both.

How will you use your background in brand comms in this new role?
I’ve worked with technology brands and food clients. Some of the biggest clients I ran were Frito-Lay and Kodak as a client director early on. But in my career I've worked with corporations, [which means] reputation and recalls and safety and employee issues. So, just because you worked for more of a brand type of company doesn't necessarily mean you only do brand marketing.

In a company like Wells Fargo, enterprise reputation with the numerous stakeholders they have is really helping them rethink their brand and it helps them reimagine what it will look like for the future. It helps build reputation both internally with employees and externally and it means leveraging all the different channels and communications today.

It's earned media, it's social, it's digital, it's experiential, it’s influencer. I think when you look at what I bring, the change management work that I've done, that really cool experience is what I'm going to need to draw on in a company like that.

Wells Fargo is seen as having a problematic internal culture. What are the challenges in moving to a company like that?
Actually, it has a very nice collaborative and collegial culture. But I think there were definitely challenges as you stated with the leadership and the regulatory issues of the company. I think the goal with new leadership is to tackle that. So it's not about just communications. It's about really closing the say-do gap and putting the right controls, the right changes and the right things in place.

And that's what the new CEO Charles Scharf is committed to doing. And once we do those things as a company, then we have to communicate those milestones along the way, and to make sure that all of our stakeholders understand that. So it's a big corporate evolution and cultural evolution that relies on communications to help tell the story as it happens.

You have touted Ketchum’s transformation into a consultancy model. How hard was it to transform the agency in the holding company environment?
Look, we're a business and [Omnicom] is a public company. So I'm not sure that it’s a holding company challenge or a public company challenge. I think in any public company you're committed to delivering results while you're changing the tires on the car. 

A lot of the agencies, Ketchum included, felt it was the time to modernize. We needed to invest in technology and different types of talent. We've doubled down on our tech stack and analytics and influencers powered by AI solutions and made sure that our people were doing things that took a much more modern approach. 

We needed to update some of our financial approaches and infrastructure to support the new model. And so those are the things that we went through. And we did that while we remained profitable and while we maintained a strong business. That is just part of any company that's going through a transformation. But it didn't hurt our ability to invest and shift [course] and I think that's what you have to remember.

While discussing disappointing results during a 2017 earnings call, Omnicom CEO, John Wren made a statement that the company’s PR firms needed more hunters and fewer farmers. How did you feel when you heard that?
We've had to double down on consultative selling and I think we need to be both hunters and farmers. And we need to build strong relationships with our clients, and those you work with over time. 

The goal is for us as consultants to come to them with business solutions. And hopefully a lot of those are within the communications realm. But we've worked hard as an agency to understand consultative selling and to be really strong at that. And it is a muscle that we've had to build over time. 

I think compared to some of our advertising brethren and others, we approach it a little bit differently. But I think that we do it in a strong way and we're continuing to evolve as consultants and to make sure we're more sophisticated in how we work with clients to really help them deliver business results and not just impressions.

PRWeek ran an analysis piece last week about diversity at PR agencies and the progress they have or haven’t made. What do you think the industry can do to become more diverse?
We all have a commitment. And I think since the social justice movement of the past weeks arose we've been even more committed to looking at the diversity, both inside our firms and inside corporations at the top levels, to do a better job. 

I was the first woman leader at a large agency, and that was not that long ago. We’re talking two and a half years ago. So we need to have more women that are Black and brown and men of color. We need to work harder at that. And I think that we all are becoming more aware of the bias that exists.

I know I've undergone a lot of education, as I'm sure many others have, to better understand what it means to grow up white versus Black or brown. And we've got work to do. We’ve done, I think, a pretty good job at Ketchum at recruiting at the more junior and mid-levels. But it's sometimes harder to keep those people.

So we've got to look at inclusion and we've got to look at attracting top talent at all levels that are diverse. We're working hard to look into ourselves. We’re working with the PR Council, which has a big program with other agencies and agency leaders, to not only set goals of being more accountable, but also create training and educational programs. 

I am hopeful that in this business, in the years to come, we'll see a lot more diversity at the senior levels. I think many of us are committing to the year ahead, and the next two to three years because we have work to do to create that pipeline. 

We've, I think, created the pipeline of women. I have been very involved in Omniwomen working across Omnicom on doing that. But I think now everybody, including the holding company, is making a much bigger commitment to diversity.

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