How I Did It: The Marketing Visionary Behind Your Favorite Social Media Stars

(In a new series, “How I Did It,” FN profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)

“Carpe diem.”

The Latin aphorism, which stands for “seize the day,” has become Kendra Bracken-Ferguson’s life mantra.

From her days as a Golduster cheerleader at Purdue University to her current role as chief digital officer at the largest brand management agency in the world, the 38-year-old visionary has made the most of each and every moment on her journey to become a world-class publicist.

She interned at global marketing agency Fleishman-Hillard, developing social media strategies for big-name clients including DKNY. Then she joined American designer brand Ralph Lauren, where she became the company’s first director of digital media.

And now she’s got not one but two businesses under her belt: social media talent management agencies Digital Brand Architects, founded in 2010, a time when the word “influencer” still had its skeptics, and The BrainTrust, which has welcomed clients such as Drew Barrymore, Halle Berry and Molly Sims since its launch two years ago.

Here, the roads Bracken-Ferguson has traveled to get to her destination.

What was your dream job growing up?

“From sixth grade, I knew I wanted to be a publicist. I saw [President Bill Clinton] giving a speech, and someone walked over and handed him a piece of paper, and I turned to my mom and said, ‘Who was that person?’ and she said, ‘The press secretary.’ From that moment on, I knew I wanted a job in PR.”

What was the toughest thing you did or the biggest sacrifice you made to break into the industry?

“[At Purdue], I had the opportunity to work at the Indiana Pacers in the communications department, and I won a scholarship to get my master’s degree in sports administration. However, the summer before the Pacers, I had interned at Fleishman-Hillard in New York — and literally just before I was going to start my master’s program, Fleishman called me and offered me a full-time job, but I had to be in New York in two weeks. So I accepted the job, declined my scholarship and packed up to move to New York.

“I didn’t have any family or friends in New York and did not have the money to get an apartment, so I stayed in housing for professional women provided by the church and supervised by nuns. For the first time since I had left home for college, I had a curfew of 11 p.m., which I did miss a few times. [Laughs] That was a tough decision and big sacrifice — to leave the stability of a scholarship and my family to move to a big city like New York without a place to live and truly be on my own.”

What was your big break?

“I’ve had several breaks in my career — from getting my job at Fleishman and moving to New York to being the first director of digital media at Ralph Lauren and starting two successful companies [Digital Brand Architects and The BrainTrust]. I would say that Ralph Lauren was a pivotal point in my career because I had been working at Fleishman for about eight years at that point, and it was the first time I moved into working at a brand. I was also the first person to have that job at the company, and it was an exciting time in the industry with social media finally being an accepted and sought-after form of marketing. I launched Ralph Lauren on social media and had the opportunity to work side by side with David Lauren. It was an amazing learning experience.”

What was the craziest thing you did to get your business going?

“I left two really dynamic jobs to start new companies. I have learned that preparedness and opportunity equals success.”

Describe the defining moment that solidified to you that you had broken through.

“For me, I look at every moment as a key part of my journey — some big, some small, but they are all interconnected and an important step along the way. The second company I founded, BrainTrust, a social media and digital marketing agency, was acquired by the joint venture, CAA-GBG [Creative Artist Agency and Global Brands Group] at the end of last year, and when we moved into the CAA office in Los Angeles, it was a moment that took my breath away, [thinking about] how far my career had come and how much opportunity lay ahead of me. I don’t take anything for granted and work extremely hard to turn my dreams and aspirations into reality.”

What’s the one thing you do every day to be successful?

“Meditate and pray. Prayer coupled with faith is a very powerful combination.”

What’s your best advice for someone who wants to break into the industry?

“Carpe diem; seize the day! When I was leaving Ralph Lauren to co-found my first company, Digital Brand Architects, someone very senior there said to me, ‘Your last name isn’t on the door — if you go and start your own company and it doesn’t work, you can always come back or get another job.’ Go for it, and don’t look back. I believe that you have to turn fear into faith. When we started DBA, we didn’t have a business plan or a large bank account, but we knew we had an idea that was filling a void in the marketplace for bloggers as talent. Fast-forward almost 10 years later, and bloggers — now influencers — are integral to marketing campaigns and brand building.”

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