Steve Barrett on PR: If you want more hunters you have to allow them to hunt

The surprise departure this week of the first woman to run a top five global PR firm speaks to the big challenges of leading an agency brand within the tight confines of a holding company structure.

Ketchum is the most-honored firm in PRWeek Awards history, this time for Discover Puerto Rico in 2019.
Ketchum is the most-honored firm in PRWeek Awards history, this time for Discover Puerto Rico in 2019.

When Barri Rafferty became the first woman to lead a top five global PR firm in January 2018, I doubt she envisaged she’d be moving on to pastures new within 2.5 years.

As she told PRWeek’s Thomas Moore this week, becoming global CEO and president of Ketchum was the culmination of a 25-year career at the Omnicom PR agency, and the firm will remain an essential part of her DNA.

“I'll always bleed green and Ketchum was like a second family to me,” she said. “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.”

Next thing you know, Rafferty is giving it all up to go and lead communications at a bank – Wells Fargo – that has become synonymous with crisis and problematic internal culture.

So what happened?

In 2017, prior to Rafferty stepping up at Ketchum, Omnicom CEO John Wren used an earnings call to exhort his PR businesses to have “more hunters and fewer farmers” in leadership roles, and presumably her elevation was part of putting that strategy into action.

And, soon after she assumed the top role, Rafferty proved she was more than just a continuity appointment by instigating a one P&L structure at the agency.

This week, she added: “I developed a plan 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.”

She also explained how she transformed Ketchum’s infrastructure, finance and operations to align with the new structure and continued to enhance analytics, invest in its tech stack and double down on influencers.

Ketchum has also always been associated with great work, last year becoming the most-honored PR firm in the 20 years of the PRWeek Awards in the U.S., and that creativity continued under Rafferty's watch.

Asking for more hunters is one thing, but funding them and the actions they want to put in place is another. There is a feeling that the Omnicom structure is not necessarily conducive to allowing its agency leaders the investment they require to facilitate real change, disruption and subsequent revenue growth.

In addition to new structures and systems, modern PR agencies must invest in new talent to take them to the next level. Look at the hundreds of creatives hired at Weber Shandwick and Edelman, for example, including superstars such as former Leo Burnett chief creative officer Judy John at the latter.

The emphasis from the bean counters at head office is very much on margins and costs and it’s a tribute to the strength of the holding company’s creative and PR agency brands that they perform as well as they do under these constraints, producing impressive profits on the bottom line if not managing to grow the top line.

It must be frustrating if it transpires those increased profits can’t be reinvested in transforming the group’s constituent agencies, and that trend will only have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 health pandemic.

The jury is still out on the Omnicom PR Group umbrella structure experiment, with a full-time replacement for Karen van Bergen, who went off to run Omnicom University at the start of this year, yet to be announced.

It was likely something of a shock for the Omnicom leadership when Rafferty announced her plan to leave, but as she concluded: “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.”

And you have to take that at face value. There’s a new CEO on board at Wells Fargo in Charles Scharf and a big challenge for Rafferty to get stuck into, all while retaining her base in New York. Rafferty is an extremely well-respected and excellent PR practitioner who will no doubt rise to that challenge.

In her place at Ketchum steps up Mike Doyle, a well-liked and well thought of internal candidate whose lack of international experience will be supplemented by the continued presence of former CEO Rob Flaherty at the agency.

It will be interesting to see if Doyle is able to prosper within the tight confines of the Omnicom structure and whether the holding company will back any transformation plans that he has.

Elsewhere in agency-land this week we saw Ogilvy raid the consulting market to replace its long-time leader John Seifert with Andy Main, global head of Deloitte Digital and a principal at Deloitte Consulting. Scottish-born Main starts as global CEO at the storied creative firm in July.

Another Omnicom firm, Porter Novelli, recently appointed former McKinsey alum David Bentley, also a Brit. Bentley has already made some moves and stamped his mark on the agency, closing its San Francisco office and combining operations with Ketchum in Brussels.

It will be interesting to see how the consultancy executives fare in the heavily structured agency holding company worlds, and whether they can extract the investments they need to implement true disruption in a way that possibly Barri Rafferty wasn’t fully able to realise at Ketchum.

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