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Barri Rafferty: President, Mentor and Leader

Published on October 21, 2016, at 10:38 a.m.
by Sonny Franks.

Barri Rafferty did not always know she was destined to be the first female president of Ketchum, one of the most prominent public relations agencies in the world.

“I did a lot of experimenting early on,” Rafferty said. “I spent the first five to seven years of my career figuring out where I could be most successful, what type of environment I could thrive in and where I was able to do my best work.”

Photo by Ketchum
Photo by Ketchum


She slowly gravitated toward brand marketing and realized she liked the culture of an agency and the freedom it gave her to work on multiple brands at a time.

Despite having moved up the ladder quite a few rungs since she first became so enamored with agency life at the start of her career, Rafferty’s affinity for client work remains steadfast. “I feel like no matter how senior you are if you aren’t engaged in client work you are less relevant,” she said.

Rafferty’s day-to-day life as president is hectic to say the least. Struggling to describe her average day, Rafferty noted that she wakes up in the morning and gets ready while listening to BBC before catching up on more news on the train into work. She described beginning her day with calls and emails from international offices and briefings on current client work, but as she proceeded with her description, it became increasingly difficult for her to describe her “normal” day at the office. From traveling to Davos, Switzerland, to attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, to leading panel discussions of gender equity for OmniWomen, Omnicom’s Leading Women’s Network, Barri Rafferty’s daily life is rather varied.

“Last week I was out every night, which I try not to do,” Rafferty shared. “I try to be home at least two nights a week. I had an Omniwomen board meeting one night, a meeting with a client one night and participated on a panel the night after that, so that’s three nights and before you know it the week is gone.” Rafferty went on to recount how she rushed home that Friday at 3 p.m. to see her daughter’s volleyball game. “She’s on varsity,” she said.

Overall, Rafferty tries to keep it all in perspective. “I try to spend my time less on putting out fires and more with our star players in growing the agency,” she said.

Rafferty credits much of her success to her mentors who guided her along the way, focusing much of her time and energy now on giving back as a mentor to others.

“I feel very lucky that I have had a lot of mentors at different stages in my career,” she said.

Rafferty initially had strong role models in her “new age” social worker mother and entrepreneurial father who taught her that girls can do anything boys can do.

“As a parent, I think a lot of it starts with your family,” she said.

But, Rafferty credits more than just her parents’ guidance in getting her to the top.

“I picked really strong leaders to learn from in my career,” Rafferty said. “In grad school, I worked for a very strong woman, Carol Cone, and saw her building her own firm. I was then lucky enough that when I moved to New York, Rob Flaherty, who is now chairman and CEO of Ketchum, was my first account supervisor. I got to know him early in my career and later joined him at Ketchum.”

Having received the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations’ 2015 Milestones in Mentoring Agency Award, she continues to give back and serve as a mentor to others in the field today.

Photo by the Plank Center
Photo by the Plank Center

“I have had the fortune of having great mentors along the way in my career, but one stands out for me the most,” Debra Forman, president of Ketchum Digital, said in her introduction of Rafferty at the 2015 Milestones in Mentoring Gala. “She has been my boss, my mentor, my compass, my coach, my champion, my sister and my dear friend.”

It is not surprising that Rafferty would have developed such close working relationships. She goes out of her way to build bonds with her peers, as Ketchum Senior Manager of Corporate Communications Alicia Stetzer demonstrates.

“This year for the first time I accompanied Barri to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting,” Stetzer said, recounting a moment she feels sums up Rafferty as a mentor. “It was a busy and exciting week for us both, to say the least, so I was quite touched when at the end of the week, Barri opted to forego a major annual social gathering in favor of a quiet dinner where we could wind down from the week. While there still was plenty of work to discuss, Barri spent much of the meal asking thoughtful questions about my career, my family and other such subjects, listening intently and offering poignant advice. While we have worked together for many years, at this dinner we really had a chance to get to know each other, which only gave me a deeper appreciation for what Barri stands for as a leader.”

A woman’s perspective from the top
As a board member of Omnicom’s Omniwomen program and Step Up, a nonprofit empowering girls from under-resourced communities to become confident, college-bound and career-focused, Rafferty serves as a strong advocate for female empowerment and gender equity in business. Rafferty offered three key tips for women in the public relations industry.

1. Leave the apologies behind.
“I often hear women say, ‘This might not be a good idea but…,’’ Rafferty remarked. “But it is really important early in your career to come in and be confident and speak confidently in meetings. Your ideas are important, and particularly when you’re young, we want to hear those ideas so feeling like you can share them is important.”

To Rafferty, leaving the apologies behind is more than just a motto, it is a way of being.

“She truly walks the walk,” Stetzer said of Rafferty. “The leadership traits I probably most admire about Barri are her confidence and decisiveness. Both are innate to her, but not necessarily to all women.”

Rafferty acknowledges the fact that men and women are often perceived differently in corporate America and advocates that women be conscious of such perceptions so as not to let them be limiting.

“If you don’t speak confidently, a man can say the same thing in a more confident fashion and sometimes they’ll get more credit for it,” Rafferty said. “I think that’s key to think about when you’re starting out”

2. Have male and female mentors.
“I think that women are more empathetic toward certain things,” Rafferty said. “I’ll come out of a meeting and say to a female colleague, can you believe that person said this or wasn’t aware of this, and she will say ‘I know. I can’t believe it either.’ And then I’ll say the same thing to a male that was in the meeting and he’ll say, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t even notice.’ I think you need both perspectives.”

Rafferty stressed the importance of finding the balance of characteristics that may come more naturally to women.

“I think that sometimes with women our emotional intelligence causes us to over-think or over-dramatize things and so finding that middle ground of being businesslike but also using your EQ to your advantage is really important to me,” Rafferty said. “It can be an asset and a liability depending on how you utilize it.”

3. Stretch yourself past your comfort zone.
“Men will apply to a job if they have 60-70 percent of the skill set and women will if they have 90 percent,” Rafferty said. “I think that as women we have to get more comfortable putting ourselves in positions where we are actually uncomfortable and stretching ourselves and saying I’m going to put myself out there for this position or I’m going to try something different.”

Rafferty knows this from experience. Stepping outside of her comfort zone got her to where she is today.

“I volunteered to take on our digital business,” she said. “I wasn’t even a candidate, but I made the case for why I was the right person. I basically said, you know, none of us really know, we’re diving into something new, but I have launched new businesses. I have done this before and I’ve done that before. I have a way of approaching this business that’s a different kind of model and I think you should give me a chance.”

Rafferty also encourages women to use other women as resources in overcoming such challenges.

“Sometimes as women, we wait until we think we have every skill set before we put ourselves out there, so I think that we can use [our gender] to our advantage but we can also sometimes let it be an obstacle for us. We need to try to be more aware and use it to our advantage more often because women can help women in this field,” Rafferty said.

Lessons learned
Rafferty has learned a lot over the course of her career, but there is plenty she wishes she had known earlier.

1. It is OK to be afraid.
“If you don’t put yourself out there and stretch yourself into positions that make you ask, ‘Can I really do this?,’ and you push through and earn your own confidence and the confidence of the people around you, then you are probably not pushing yourself enough in your career,” Rafferty said. “I think early on I would try to be that ‘A’ student and always achieve everything before I went to the next step, but I think being comfortable pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is so important, particularly for women. I think men are better at that than women and it took me a while to get there.”

2. It’s better to be trusted than to be liked.
Rafferty admitted that it took her some time to figure this out, but that it now serves as her guiding mantra.

“I grew up in the South, my mother was very Southern, and I think females, in particular, grow up in school wanting to be popular and liked, but in business sometimes what I’ve found is that you have to make the tough decisions,” the agency icon said. “But if people trust you, they’ll follow you. They could like you and they might not follow you because they don’t trust you as a businessperson. Reconciling those two things took me a while.”

3. Pursue lifelong learning.
In her recent TedxTalk, Rafferty explained the importance of every person finding his or her “minor” in life. She made the point that every adult should have a focus outside of his or her career and family to make him or her a more well-rounded individual.

While her gender may make Barri Rafferty unique among top executives in the field, it is her dedication to mentorship and advocacy that truly set her apart as a leader in public relations. Rafferty serves as a role model to all young public relations professionals, male and female alike.

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