Despite being in business for almost a century, making it older than most of its global PR peers, Ketchum has not had many chief executives. Recent years, in particular, have seen successively smooth leadership transitions: from Ray Kotcher to Rob Flaherty in 2012; Dave Drobis to Kotcher in 2000; and Paul Alvarez to Drobis one decade earlier. 

In joining this select club, Barri Rafferty becomes the first woman to lead the agency. The significance of this elevation should not be underplayed. There have been other women to lead major PR networks — Donna Imperato and Marcia Silverman at Cohn & Wolfe and Ogilvy PR, respectively, and Rafferty's new boss Omnicom PR Group CEO Karen van Bergen at Porter Novelli  — but none at an agency this big. That a woman finally calls the shots at a top five PR agency is long overdue. The hope, of course, is that it heralds an era of greater diversity among the industry’s leadership ranks.

Ketchum, unlike many of its rivals, is an agency that handles leadership transition well. There is rarely any sense of a horse-race for the top job and departing CEOs stay on as chairmen, much like Flaherty will — in a counselling role that not only plays to his considerable strengths, but also ensures that clients perceive stability. 

Yet there is more than a touch of haste about Rafferty’s appointment. This is less down to any great sense of surprise — in true Ketchum style, she has been the presumptive nominee for a fair while now — but because Flaherty was probably expected to last longer in charge. His immediate predecessors, after all, each enjoyed much lengthier stints in the CEO role. That Flaherty exits after a relatively short tenure of five years probably says as much about the predicament that publicly-held agencies find themselves in as it does about the accelerated era in which we live.

Groomed for the top job for a number of years, Flaherty became CEO just as publicly-held agencies were starting to struggle against more nimble, less risk-averse peers. That phenomenon only became more pronounced as his era progressed, highlighted by Omnicom’s unwillingness to make the kind of acquisitions that could help Ketchum better compete among global agencies. 

Flaherty, always considered one of the industry’s deeper thinkers, rarely lacked for big ideas. But his job, like many network CEOs, often appeared to revolve more around the prosaic concerns of internal change management than the poetry of big picture vision. Indeed, you could forgive the Ketchum veteran if he sometimes felt like the last person at the party when the lights came on, saddled with an era in which the advantages of big agencies could no longer be taken for granted, and forced to exist within an OPRG superstructure that risks diluting the value of individual agency brands.

Even if he was typically described as "the smartest person in the room", Flaherty’s understated leadership style may not have suited the demands of the current environment either. Our Profile of him in 2014 found a man who sometimes seemed a little ill at ease with the challenge of turning a big corporate player into a more agile digital consultancy, particularly at an agency whose strong culture made it more resistant to change than most. 

Ironically, Flaherty was never more eloquent than when describing the PR industry’s need to evolve fast or risk irrelevance, a predicament that has become only more precarious as publicly-held agencies are denied investment in the battle to preserve profitability.

Those were always prescient concerns, but they were brought into sharper focus by the faster pace of decision-making that has gripped Omnicom under van Bergen. Several observers noted Flaherty’s relative lack of rapport with his seniors at Omnicom, particularly once van Bergen took on the top role above him last year. All of this, furthermore, was taking place against a backdrop where CEO John Wren was publicly outlining the need for agency regime change.

So even if Ketchum was hardly alone in underperforming expectations this year, there were probably actions that could have helped mitigate this particular scenario. A greater degree of decisiveness — an area where, not coincidentally, Rafferty is clearly no slouch. And, no doubt, the kind of collaborative spirit that van Bergen demands of her agencies as she attempts to craft an OPRG offering in tune with the requirements of a more integrated marketplace.

"What I’m looking for is much more growth than we’ve seen so far this year," confirms van Bergen, admitting that 2017 has been much tougher than expected. "Ketchum is a big part of that as our second largest agency. I want all the agencies to be really versatile in terms of looking at client needs. They need to react fast — speed is of the essence nowadays and we really have to make faster decisions."

Rafferty, adds van Bergen, is "incredibly collaborative" — one of the top priorities, along with talent and integrated solutions, that the OPRG CEO set out when she took on the job almost two years ago. To his credit, there has been considerable leadership restructuring under Flaherty, including an expanded global leadership council. Rafferty has been involved in many of these initiatives, of course, and will face much the same set of challenges — if not an even tougher economic situation — that Flaherty did. 

It is, of course, too early to draw any conclusions about Rafferty’s prospects for success. She has proven to be a formidable agency leader, bringing particular innovation to Ketchum's marshalling of its creative and digital resources in North America. And her 16-month stint as global president has no doubt given her an idea not only of the scale of Ketchum’s global challenge, but of the need to widen her own base of support across the network.

Beyond the welcome sight of a woman in the top job, one other thing in her favour is that Rafferty — like Flaherty, Ketchum and Drobis before her — is a proud creature of Ketchum. She has spent 23 years at the agency and her close working relationship with Flaherty ensures that, at the very least, cultural stability will be preserved. Yet whilst we should probably not expect any rude shocks to the system, Rafferty will be expected to accelerate the pace of change at the 94-year-old firm. Not many would bet against her.