Marilyn Barefoot: The importance of being brave

It has been 15 years since veteran creative director and The Message columnist Craig Redmond would sit across from Marilyn Barefoot at a boardroom table at BBDO, silently marvelling as the agency’s then VP of promotion and events took control of the room.

The two haven’t been in the same room together in the decade-and-a-half since then, but have remained in regular contact. “That’s the thing about Marilyn,” says Redmond. “She is deeply bound to people and she never forgets you, never neglects you, [and] never underestimates your importance to her as a human being.”

(I experienced that first-hand when, about 20 minutes into the Zoom interview for this story, Barefoot abruptly asked: “I know this is supposed to be an interview about me, but what were you doing before what you’re doing now?” Then, minutes after our interview ended, an email arrived: “Thank you for your time today. I loved it.”)

Such genuine interest in, and consideration for, others is one of Barefoot’s signature traits, says Redmond. “[M]ore than anything, she cares very deeply about people and what makes them tick,” he says. “That’s what has permeated her life’s work.”

At its heart, this is the story of a successful and respected marketing business leader who today provides high-level strategic counsel to blue-chip clients like American Express, Aviva, Bell Media, McDonald’s and Viacom as the owner of Barefoot Brainstorming.

Her career began with account roles at agencies including Bozell, Vickers & Benson and MPG before she went the entrepreneurial route with the creation of her below-the-line agency, Square Peg.

That agency was going to be her retirement fund, she says candidly, but some unexpected losses led to a difficult decision to close its doors in 2004. She returned to agency life almost immediately—first as VP of client service on the McDonald’s account with Cossette, assuming the new role just weeks after Square Peg’s demise, then later with BBDO.

“The only way to heal for me was work, so I didn’t really grieve for Square Peg,” she says. “I was just right back out there.” She spent a little more than two years working with agencies before taking another stab at entrepreneurialism with the 2006 launch of Barefoot Brainstorming.

She has spent the past 15 years as a much in-demand consultant, coach and public speaker who specializes in helping clients get “unstuck” from problems. “They’re in the business of big ideas, and best ideas for the brand is all I think about,” she says.

But beyond her multiple professional accomplishments, Barefoot’s life and career is also a hard-won testament to an indefatigable spirit and the power of bravery.

Her life has been marked by triumph over both significant trauma and challenges almost from the beginning. As a young child, Barefoot suffered horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an alcoholic mother. Speaking up would often result in the young girl being called “stupid,” or being hit or thrown down stairs.

She often responded to these violent outbursts by retreating to her room, lying on the floor with her colouring book and crayons. That not only helped her self-soothe and focus, but gave her time to think about the type of person she wanted to become—someone who would be strong and resilient, independent and brave.

Right from the earliest days of her career, Barefoot was no longer content to remain silent. “I’m not rude, [but]I say what I think,” she says. “I’d never say anything to hurt anybody’s feelings or be rude…but if there’s an elephant in the room, I’ll be the first one to talk about the elephant.”

But being a woman in a male-dominated industry meant that Barefoot had to wage yet another battle for what she believed in, this time against the casual sexism that saw her punished for prioritizing her young children as a single mom. She was fired from one agency job because she simply couldn’t attend a weekly 7 a.m. breakfast meeting since her childcare didn’t start until 8 a.m.

More recently, Barefoot fought a difficult battle with breast cancer in which she once again showed no compromise. She had surgery to remove a malignant tumour on Oct. 11, 2018, and just three days later was in Minneapolis to deliver one of the multiple custom-made keynote addresses she gives in a typical (read: non-pandemic) year. These keynotes range from the creativity and innovation that resides in all of us, to personal storytelling in business and, brave, authentic leadership.

She returned home to face 20 straight days of radiation treatment, during which time she managed to deliver several keynote speeches and continued in role as an external facilitator for Deloitte University North. Her chest and back were wrapped tightly in gauze so she could move her arms freely.

Barefoot has been in remission for nearly four years, but that cancer scare provided her with both perspective and a renewed appreciation for bravery in the face of overwhelming challenges that would inspire her podcast, Breaking Brave with Marilyn Barefoot.

The bi-weekly podcast features Barefoot, a thoughtful and skilled interviewer, talking with people from all walks of life about being brave in the face of significant obstacles. Bravery, she says, comes in many different forms.

“I started to realize that there are hundreds of thousands of stories of bravery every day,” she says of the inspiration the podcast. “I saw it in the people around me going through chemo, just their ability to dig down and find that bravery within themselves.”

The cancer battle only heightened her commitment to being forthright, honest and true to herself and her beliefs. What she describes as her “bullshit meter” became even more sensitive, and she became less tolerant of artificiality and disingenuousness.

“When you have that little scare, you meet a lot of people on that journey and you start to realize what’s important and what’s not,” she says. “And you quickly clean out what’s not.”

That belief in the importance of speaking out, instilled in her during a difficult childhood, has persisted into her early 60s. “[Speaking out] has always been a character trait based on childhood abuse,” she says. “You can potentially deal with it through substance abuse, as a lot of people do or you say ‘I’m going to fight.’

“I chose to fight. Speaking up, speaking out and fighting back was the road I chose at an early age, and that was what formed the person I am today.”

Toronto born and raised, Barefoot left her hometown several years ago. Today, she and her husband are in the midst of renovating a 150-year-old “project house” in Cobourg, Ont. For a while, their efforts were focused on unsexy but important work, such as the roof, the foundation, etc.

But now Barefoot says she’s ready to tackle the more exciting aspects of any home renovation project. “I want countertops. That’s the last piece of the puzzle,” she says with a laugh that belies a hard-won understanding of the importance of building on a solid foundation.

“This old beautiful girl needs so much work, but we fell in love with what hadn’t been wrecked,” she says. “It has great spirit.”

Chris Powell