Ketchum’s Barri Rafferty on Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Barri Rafferty

Earlier this year, Barri Rafferty became the first woman to lead a top five global public relations firm as president and CEO of Ketchum. For Rafferty—a Greenwich, CT, resident who has spent 24 years with the agency—the glass ceiling wasn’t a deterrent, but more of a challenge. She credits her unwavering rise to the board room with things like saying “Yes” to new opportunities, making it a goal to always energize and inspire her colleagues, and being firm in her resolve to go big or go home. She gave us some insight into her leadership style, and why she considers earning trust to be the cornerstone of success.

What have you been most excited about in your new role?
Since I became CEO of Ketchum in January, I am most excited about having the ability to lead change, to set the weather for the firm and to be able to unleash the full potential of our people.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I am very proud to have been, and to continue to be, an entrepreneur within my company—I like to call it “intrapreneurship.” Over the course of my career, I raised my hand to run several budding groups within the firm that have now grown into some of our most successful business units. I pioneered a new shareholder model that has been replicated within other businesses around our network. And I’ve also supported the growth of offerings that have failed—but those failures taught me important lessons about the many variables required to make a new venture thrive.

Your LinkedIn profile has rave recommendations from colleagues. What would you describe as your biggest asset in the corporate world?
My goal as a leader is always to help motivate and energize the people I work with. If colleagues leave my office with more energy than they came with, I feel the meeting has been a success. I also think the way I approach people has gotten me this far in my career. Our former chairman once said to me that I “throw a punch with a velvet glove,” which I think is the ultimate compliment. As a woman leading a company, you have to be firm and determined in your resolve, but I always remember to have good manners and generosity of spirit.

Barri QuoteMuch of your job is staying ahead of the media landscape. Do you see your focus shifting in the next year or two?
What keeps our industry so exciting is that it is changing every day, every minute, every second. As such, our agency is constantly shifting to help our clients stay ahead of that change. I think we will continue to see increasing interest in influencer marketing, in data-driven insights and analytics, and in borderless teams. I’m eager to help our agency and our industry continue to evolve in my new role.

You’re a big advocate for women’s leadership, and things like gender parity. What are the biggest challenges facing women in the corporate world today?
It’s no secret that women have a lot of obstacles to overcome to get to the top of the career ladder. As just one example, the latest data from the World Economic Forum shows that it will take 217 years to close the salary gap. I personally experienced bias one of the first times I went to the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, when countless people approached me asking whose wife I was. This understandably frustrated me, as I attended the event as the leader of a successful business, not accompanying my spouse. It did, however, inspire me to do something—I started making small changes within my own company, some of which expanded to our entire holding company, and in time, women’s issues became a true passion of mine. I have since given a TEDx talk about how my passion—which I call my life minor—has helped to make my life more fulfilling, and I encourage others to consider declaring their own life minors.

What professional advice do you give women who ask?
My favorite mantra for women is ‘It is better to be trusted than to be liked.’ This is not always easy for a Southern gal like me to abide by, but it has served me well in my career. I think men are appreciated for being bold, but when women act the same way, they are criticized for being overly aggressive. This happened to me earlier in my career, and my response to my bosses was that they are benefitting from my aggressive approach to growing the business and by how motivated and transparent I was about my personal goals. So I recommend women take a similarly firm stance and don’t let men intimidate you from being true to who you are and what you want.

What advice would you give your younger self?
I prefer to look forward instead of backward, but what I would tell my kids as they enter their careers is, most importantly, have more fun! Do what you love to do, and find opportunities to follow your passions in your career. I would also tell them not to leave vacation days on the table. You need energy to be generous with others, so make sure to take care of yourself.

Who do you look up to?
I am lucky to have two sisters who are amazingly successful in their own careers. We share in our success, commiserate on the tough days, and make time to laugh and celebrate life together. I also could not do what I do without an amazingly supportive husband, who shares life daily with me, and together we have two children who
bring us joy as they create their own paths.