At RPA, the culture of People First builds a strong platform for equity

Fern McCaffrey explains the importance of Recruitment, Retention, and Visibility to breaking down barriers

кем India Fizer , AdForum

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Fern McCaffrey
SVP / Executive Account Director RPA

In the latest of our series spotlighting incredible women in advertising, we had a moment to chat with Fern McCaffrey of RPA on breaking down the barriers to women's advancement and how RPA's People First culture is focused on creating a supportive, collaborative, and inclusive environment.


Can you tell a bit about your role and your journey to arriving there?

I oversee our agency’s client relationships with American Honda Motor Co., Inc., as their agency of record.  This includes cross-channel national campaigns for new vehicle launches and the brand, as well as Honda Certified Pre-Owned marketing, and social marketing.  I also help support our Southern California Edison business.  Currently, I oversee an account management team of 30+ people.  And as a member of our Executive Committee since 2014, I also work on various special projects as needs arise.  

My journey started in a non-traditional way for advertising – with a double major in English and Politics and a minor in Women’s Studies at Oberlin College.  My first job out of college was in website development.  I came to RPA in 2001 as the team was preparing to start a major website redesign for Honda.  I helped support that work while expanding my skillset to include digital advertising.  Over the subsequent years, I worked in a number of different verticals and across clients as my responsibilities expanded.  But in 2013, I crossed over from a purely digital role to a fully cross-channel role, adding responsibilities for “traditional” channels like TV/video, radio, print, etc.  At the time, I also became more dedicated to Honda. 


What barriers do women still face in our industry and how can we challenge them?

While our industry has a majority of women (67%), the percentage of women shrinks as you move up the ladder to about ~50% of managers, and drops further at the VP level, to around 35%.  This in itself shows that women face disproportionate barriers in upward mobility.  And if you are someone who follows this topic, you are certainly also aware that women of color are even more significantly impacted in their ability to pave a career path in this industry, much less move to higher ranks.  Initiatives like the Cannes Lions See It Be It have put a spotlight on how important it is for women to see other women in leadership positions, to show that you too can achieve and be successful in these types of roles.

Taking down barriers to women’s advancement is not an easy task, and there is not one perfect solution. However, a strategy built on key pillars can be really effective. First, there has to be an open and honest dialogue recognizing the problem.  This requires commitment at the most senior levels of any organization. And includes quantifying the problem and getting executive support to develop and maintain programs to address it. Beyond that, key areas that need to be addressed and supported are: Recruitment, Retention, and Visibility.  Recruitment may be less of an issue when it comes to women as a whole (going back to the 67%), but through the lens of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and women of color, it’s a significant challenge.

When it comes to Retention, training is one tool to help development and retention. At RPA, thanks to our People Director Laura Small’s dedication and creative approach, we offer a myriad of training opportunities, from webinars and management courses to a custom-built program designed to develop our mid-level managers through executive-taught seminars.  Mentorship and visibility with executives is another key component to helping women rise up through the ranks. At RPA, we have a formal mentorship program to help provide coaching and support. We also have an Employee Resource Group focused on women’s development. In addition, we formalized the nomination processes for both Vice President and Senior Vice President, putting clear criteria in place for Officer Nominations that considers a number of criteria. As a result, 60% of our Vice Presidents are women, while 44% of our Senior Vice Presidents are currently women. We also created a self-governing Policy and Action Committee to bring a more diverse and grassroots perspective to the policy and operations of the agency. All that being said, we are not perfect as an agency, and we continue to look for ways to improve our practices. 

We need to support our working mothers better. And we need to encourage our working fathers in their participation in childcare and household management. An approach that is rooted in an understanding of Equity recognizes these factors and builds programs and performance expectations with this understanding. 

At RPA, our culture of People First gives us a strong platform to recognize and value our Associates’ lives outside the workplace. This benefits all of our Associates, but it has the added benefit of particularly supporting our working parents.


How do you use your position to build equitable teams that are diverse and balanced?

We work very closely with our People Team (aka HR) when it comes to recruiting new team members. They have done an excellent job in recent years of operationalizing practices designed to bring in more diverse recruits. This includes more openness to non-traditional work and educational experiences. Our People First culture is focused on creating a supportive, collaborative, and inclusive environment. This includes a recognition of the importance of work-life balance and understanding that flexibility is really important to people’s ability to be productive and happy in their work. 

I also take coaching and mentoring seriously as a responsibility as a manager and member of the ad community.  We take a proactive approach to coaching and development, and encourage team members to take advantage of training and development opportunities. I also participate in formal mentoring programs and informal mentoring and encourage my team to do so as well.  And I nominate members of my team for VP and SVP when they are eligible and meet the criteria.  Two of my four direct reports are currently SVPs (and, like me, also working mothers).


Who are your female advertising icons/role models and why?

I am inspired by the everyday heroes in my life.  Any woman working day-to-day is surpassing challenges both obvious and unknown.  I observed women in leadership positions early in my career, and saw that there could be a place for me in the higher ranks.  These women were informal mentors; I sought their advice, modeled their behaviors, and hoped that I would be able to rise to those ranks someday.  Some of those women include Meridee Alter, Cathleen Campe and Joan Egan.  My own mother had a career, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t do the same.  I am very grateful that I could follow her example in that way.  Today, I am inspired by Rebecca Mendelson at RPA, who was instrumental in launching – and continues to run – our RPAUp program.  Laura Small, our director of HR, is an inspiration in her passion and commitment to developing our Associates and creating a supportive and collaborative approach.  There were a number of women I worked with as clients at Honda over the years who were incredibly supportive and helped me learn how to be a better account person, including Robin Fernandez, Jenny Howell, and Susie Rossick.  And I continually learn from my current clients, colleagues, and team.  I am very fortunate to work with more women now than ever before.