Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018, Fern McCaffrey

"It’s a well-documented phenomenon that women often don’t stretch for promotions or additional responsibilities. That women don’t push for higher levels unless they feel “fully” qualified."

Fern McCaffrey
Group Account Director, Honda Regional Marketing RPA


Perspectives: Women in Advertising 2018

Tell us about who you are and what your job title is?
I started my career in digital start-ups in New York City in 1996. When I came to RPA in 2001, I was hired to work on digital advertising and website support for Honda (including Regional Marketing and Honda Certified Used Vehicles). Over time, my role grew to overseeing digital for other accounts. And then in 2013, as part of an account-management restructure, I was put in charge of overseeing all of Honda Regional Marketing efforts across all channels, including digital, social, television, print, POP, radio and more. As Senior Vice President, Group Account Director, I now manage a team of more than 30 people.
Was there a job you had at one point, outside of advertising, that prepared you most for success later in life?
I took a year off between high school and college, and supported myself working as a receptionist at a small privately held company. I reported to the head of IT (a three-person department, including me) and supported that department too. In that role I learned a lot about attention to detail, and taking pride in a job done efficiently and well. And some of the skills I learned applied when I started working in digital startups after college. I taught myself HTML so I could help out in a pinch and understand the underlying technology better.
What do you see as being the biggest change in the advertising industry since women have begun to break the “glass ceiling”?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that once you get a critical mass of women in senior management positions (and men who are actively concerned about diversity), the space to have a real dialogue about diversity opens up tremendously. And with that space comes the opportunity to take action.

It’s a well-documented phenomenon that women often don’t stretch for promotions or additional responsibilities. That women don’t push for higher levels unless they feel “fully” qualified. I saw a great all-women panel at SXSW with Marnie Levine, COO at Instagram, Belinda Johnson, COO at Air BnB, Evan Ryan, EVP at Axios, and Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior adviser to President Obama. They suggested that women should pursue self-advocacy workshops and training. I think this is a great practical thing women can do to advance their own careers.

In my own case, I was able to stretch for a promotion that involved taking on traditional areas of advertising. While I had less experience in those channels, I had 12 years under my belt working with the client. And I had the support of key executive men in the agency who felt I was up for the challenge.

With men making up the majority of senior executive positions in much of the industry, it is critical that women build a support team around them of both men and women who will act as mentors and sponsors – not just giving advice but also actively advocating for them.
From Like A Girl to Fearless Girl, a raft of advertising campaigns have set out to empower women. How do you feel about these campaigns? Can they change attitudes within the industry?
The great thing about these campaigns is they open up a dialogue. And while the creative itself might not change someone’s opinion, the dialogue – and the actions that stem from that dialogue – will have a huge impact over time.
How have the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements played out in the advertising sector? Are they making a significant impact?
The biggest impact I see in the short-term is revealing the sheer magnitude of what’s been going on in some quarters. I think it’s a bit of a difficult awakening for some men to realize that there have been some really bad actors out there. And to come to terms with how damaging it is to the women who are impacted and to the women around them who don’t see any consequences. In the long-term, I hope that it will create an environment where abuses of power like this aren’t tolerated.
Initiatives such as Free The Bid are trying to create more opportunities for women in advertising. But what could be done at a more grass roots level to attract women in the first place?
If you look at college-graduation rates and entry-level hires, we don’t have a problem attracting women to advertising. We do have a problem attracting women of color. And we have a problem retaining mid-level women and promoting mid-level women to more senior roles.

When it comes to attracting women of color, agencies can be more aggressive about recruiting, offer paid internships, and actively recruit mid-level and senior-level people of color so that more junior associates can see that there is a career path for them.

When it comes to both entry-level and mid-level women, advocacy and mentors/sponsors (both men and women) can help. For mid-level women, it can be really challenging to negotiate the transition to raising a family. And we know this is one of the big hurdles for retention and advancement of mid-level women. Companies need to look at solutions that help keep these women in the workforce; whether it be flexible schedules, subsidized childcare, co-op/shared jobs or other policies that create more flexibility. And women need to work together to find senior-executive support to build momentum around policy changes that will help support them. And by the way, there are a lot of men now who are actively involved in or are primary for childcare and would also benefit from these kinds of policies.
Can you reflect on a mentor that helped guide you in your career and tell us what made them special?
I’ve had a lot of informal mentor relationships over the years. There may be some folks who wouldn’t have recognized themselves as a mentor to me, but I modeled myself after them as much as I could. Meridee Alter, who oversaw the digital media team at RPA for many years, is one such example. One thing she taught me is that your career path will not always be the linear route you imagine. And sometimes you can’t envision the next step, but things can open up in surprising ways.

I’ve also been very fortunate in having direct managers who were incredibly supportive as I reached for new challenges. Pete Imwalle, currently our COO, was my direct manager when I “stretched” to ask for responsibilities on digital beyond Honda and later when I returned to working with Honda full-time and assumed traditional advertising responsibilities. And Brett Bender, my current manager, has been a huge advocate for me and also extremely supportive when I made the transition to having a family. I’m currently on the Executive Committee of the agency, and I feel I wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for the advocacy of both Brett and Pete.
How do you as a successful woman plan to inspire the next generation of women? In a few words, what advice do you have for women entering the advertising industry?
Currently, I participate in our official mentoring program at the agency. I am an executive member of our diversity and inclusion group, RPA Represent. And I am an executive sponsor of our women’s working group, which just recently hosted an event at RPA with Cannes See It Be It. In my career, I always pushed for more responsibility. I always wanted to have more ownership, more scope, more visibility, a bigger view of things. And a bigger impact. My best advice would be to lean in, participate, join groups that are doing more than just your immediate job responsibilities. Forge relationships with mentors and sponsors. And start maximizing your 401(k) now. Your empowerment is also rooted in financial empowerment.


Fern McCaffrey
Group Account Director, Honda Regional Marketing RPA