Fern McCaffrey is a Fairygodboss in every sense of the word. She leads a team at the forefront of media, cares for her family - through an extremely difficult situation - and introduced us to William Gibson! Fern tells us: Be positive, proactive and speak up! This is a lady who embodies the term “Kaizen.” Read more below!
Fairygodboss of the Week: Fern McCaffrey
Senior VP, Group Account Director - Honda Regional Marketing at RPA
Los Angeles, CA
FGB: Tell us about your career. How did you get to where you are now?
FM: I graduated from college in 1996 with a BA in English and Politics. At the time, I thought I would work for a couple of years and then go to law school or grad school for public policy. But I started working for a digital startup in NYC that was developing websites for other companies. And it was a really exciting time. The technology was so new, there weren’t really classes or certifications. You had to wear a lot of hats just to deliver a project on time. I taught myself how to code HTML so I could pitch in if needed, and also to understand the technology better.
Eventually I moved from a project management role into client services. And from NYC to LA. But then the bubble burst in 2001, and I got laid off. I took about six months off from salaried work, built websites freelance for small business clients and helped a friend with her business.
But freelance wasn’t really for me, I like a structured environment and working within a team. So I went back to full-time work in the fall of 2001, at RPA, where I am now. I joined the digital group at RPA as an account executive, working primarily on Honda Regional Marketing, the client I still work with today.
Moving from a digital start-up to a traditional full-service advertising agency was a massive adjustment. But it seemed like about every two years something would change significantly about my role, responsibilities and the obstacles our clients faced. I always felt interested in what I was doing, and challenged in a good way. And I kept taking on more responsibility. Eventually I oversaw the digital marketing client services team for the majority of our agency clients.
When Honda put the business in review in late 2012, I was part of the core pitch team. As a result of the review, we restructured the account team. When we kept the business, I took over account direction of all of Honda Regional Marketing – including video, radio, point-of-purchase and print, along with all the digital channels I had previously overseen for them. It’s now been four years since that change. And I continue to be super excited about, and challenged by, my role and the business.
FGB: What is an accomplishment that you are proud of?
FM: Working with the same client, much less the same ad agency, for nearly 15 years is unusual. But I feel incredibly privileged to be able to work on this account. Over the years, we have won accolades together, achieved record sales together, and conquered innumerable challenges. Early in my career I really embraced the concept of “kaizen” (continuous improvement). Keeping a sharp focus on how we can improve in all dimensions keeps it exciting and interesting for me. And I get tremendous satisfaction from knowing that we run a very well-oiled machine; that we are always striving to do our best, but also ready to look at our failures and learn from them.
FGB: What is a challenge that you've faced and overcome?
FM: On a professional level, making the jump from a digital role to overseeing all advertising channels was challenging. I felt from the beginning that I needed to articulate a clear vision of what we were trying to accomplish. I worked closely with our strategic planning team to refine a business planning process that guides everything we do but also allows us to be nimble when market conditions require a pivot.
On a personal level, my husband was diagnosed with cancer when our son was three months old. Returning to work with a new baby and my husband in treatment was extremely difficult. But the agency (especially my manager) and our clients were incredibly supportive and flexible when there were times that I had to be at doctor’s appointments or take care of other family things. One of the things this experience has taught me is that people are far more adaptable and resilient than they realize. There is that concept that the universe gives you what you can handle, but I think really it’s that we rise to meet the challenges we are given. And we are lucky to have the strong support of our family and friends.
FGB: What do you do when you’re not working?
FM: Family, family, family. As a working mom, I don’t have much time for individual pursuits. But I also do crosswords, play sudoku, and read a lot (English major). And someday I hope to dust off the pool stick in the back of my coat closet.
FGB: If you could have dinner with one famous person - dead or alive - who would it be?
FM: William Gibson. He’s one of my favorite authors.
FGB: What is your karaoke song?
FM: “I don’t have one! I only sing to my son, not in public!”
FGB: What is your favorite movie?
FM: There are so many incredible movies, but one of my favorites is Maborosi by Hirokazu Koreeda.
FGB: What book would you bring with you on a desert island?
FM: Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 100 Years of Solitude.
FGB: What is your shopping vice? What would you buy if you won the lottery?
FM: Well these days it’s baby clothes. At this point in my life, my priority is less on material possessions than setting up my family and my son for the future. So if I won the lottery, I would be more focused on things like funding my son’s education, paying off our mortgage, giving to my family and my husband’s family, things like that.
FGB: Who is your Fairygodboss?
FM: Not exactly a boss but a mentor. Meridee Alter oversaw the digital media team at RPA for many years. We worked together very closely in the early years and together built up Honda’s in-market digital media presence throughout the 2000s. She could be incredibly tough on vendors during negotiations, but always in a way that was gracious, friendly and respectful. She is incredibly smart and also funny. She is approachable and warm. But she is also unafraid to present an opposing point of view to senior team members. And fight for that POV. Our boss during those years often referred to Meridee and me - fondly - as his “insubordinate” employees.
FGB: What is the #1 career tip you'd like to share?
FM: There is no one thing that will make anyone successful. What’s important is to be positive and proactive, collaborate eagerly, don’t be afraid to speak up, merchandise the accomplishments of your team (whether colleagues or direct reports), and participate in anything you can that’s bigger picture and affects your organization beyond your immediate responsibilities. When we start out in our careers, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. The more you can lift your vision to the larger agency, and understand the larger client dynamics you operate within, the more successful you will be. And always be respectful and friendly to everyone in the organization both internal and client, from the CEO to the cleaning crew.
And for those starting out, start your 401k now. Commit to putting in the maximum. It’s hard to prioritize, but it is absolutely essential. And the pain you feel in your 20s putting that money away is nothing compared to the pain you will feel in your 40s if you realize you haven’t been saving enough. It’s much harder to catch up later.
FGB: Why do you love where you work?
FM: RPA truly feels like a family. I always felt like I had opportunities to grow and that I had mentors who were looking out for me and saw my potential. It’s a truly collaborative environment where people are committed to making great work as a team.
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