As Sara Rotman was rising through the ranks of corporate America, she quickly learned that if she wanted to reach the pinnacle of her industry she would more than just design talent. She would also need to become business-savvy, something she learned and handled with aplomb as she navigated jobs until she became the CEO of her own creative agency, MODCo Creative, which stands for “My Own Damn Company”.
Whether it’s flying to Italy for research, training her staff in New York, or shooting a campaign across the pond, Rotman is constantly working and she doesn’t take many breaks. But that comes with the territory of running your own creative agency, and luckily for Rotman, she loves what she does, so the long hours and hard work don’t really feel like work at all.
To climb to the summit of the creative world and run your own company is not at all easy, but it’s a summit that many people aspire to reach, so we wanted to chat with Rotman about how she got to where she is and what advice she has for those who are thinking of following in her considerable footsteps.
How did you become a CEO/CCO within the fashion advertising industry?
The short answer is 25 years of back-breaking labor and dedication. The slightly longer one is working my way up from the position of entry level designer and gradually gaining understanding and responsibility (not necessarily in that order) until I arrived at the position of CEO/COO.
I think that having a rabid curiosity about the business side of things enabled me to gain the necessary knowledge to do the job, as well as made me a much stronger and more strategic in creativity. I think it’s imperative that creative professionals understand the business imperatives of both the agency and client in order to do their job well. If you can accomplish that, you’ll set yourself up well for leadership roles in any company.
Did you receive formal education in this area or were you self-taught? How did you learn your skills?
I went to the School Of Visual Arts and studied graphic design. The school prepared me very well for my job as a designer. As for the business side, I learned on the job and through my own personal interest and desire to be more in control of my destiny and to promote good work.
Early in my career I felt frustrated that people with MBAs were leading the creative discussions simply because they could read a spreadsheet. I figured if I could become fluent in the language of business, as well as creative, I would have a better opportunity to promote my ideas. Thankfully, that turned out to be true.
How did you break into the fashion advertising industry?
I had been working in the music industry designing album covers and image campaigns for artists, which was a great training ground for the fashion industry. Translating an artist’s musical vision into a visual language is pretty esoteric stuff, and managing their often quirky and demanding sensibilities is very similar to working in fashion, which is somewhat easier as the medium is already visual, so we are at least starting from a common language.
I had started MODCo Creative and was still doing a lot of music and some beauty work when a friend of mine, who was the newly installed president of Carolina Herrera, called to say he had just ended his relationship with his agency and asked if I would step in and create his upcoming campaign.
What are some skills that you have as a CEO/CCO that you believe are key to your success?
First and foremost, accepting that there are a great many things you don’t understand and then finding the smartest people to help you make sure you learn to understand them. Equally important, having an understanding of the ethos of the company you are running and making sure everything you do is true to that ethos or purpose.
Can you give us a description of what you do, how you do it and the methods that have helped you to create brands and campaigns?
This is a near impossible question to answer, as each client requires a different set of solutions and approaches to achieve them. But in general I always say my job is truth. I must tell my clients the truth about their brand and then I must communicate that truth to their intended consumer in a way that resonates.
In order to do that, I must understand the truth about what my clients’ businesses require, what opportunities exist, what hurdles must be leapt over and what strengths must be leveraged. Then my job is to clarify their position and communicate the essential truth of their brand through all the various communication platforms that will best transmit that message.
What have been some of the best ways that you have built and marketed your business?
By doing great work and keeping my clients happy. Thankfully those clients tend to be the best ambassadors for my brand.
Where do most of your clientele come from?
So far, it’s all referrals and word of mouth.
What are your favorite things about being a fashion advertising CEO/CCO?
I love the fact that I’m making a living doing something creative. The creativity is our product, our stock and trade — our reason for being. As such, it has an implied respect that I don’t think it enjoys on the brand side, which of course allows us to do better work. I guess I also love that I can put on heels and lipstick with torn jeans and still be properly dressed for work, no matter who the meeting is with.
Can you give us a synopsis of a typical work-day?
Well for one thing, my day has never gone from 9 to 5, it’s much more like 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., or when I’m traveling, 5am-midnight. And thankfully there are very few typical days.
I could be shooting a campaign in London, meeting a client in Ohio, mentoring my staff in New York and LA, conducting research in Italy or any combination of those things on a given day. The good news is I love my job, so working constantly doesn’t feel like work, it feels balanced.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced when starting out, which others should be prepared for?
I think making the transition from being perceived as a one-woman shop to being seen as an agency is my biggest hurdle. This is one hurdle I think many creatives in entrepreneurial roles share.
If you had to do it all over again, what kind of advice would you have given yourself as a potential fashion advertising CEO/CCO? Are there certain areas that you wish you would of focused on closer in order to further your career?
As much as I hate to admit it, I think learning the politics and better people skills earlier would have served me well. I am fiercely independent and do not suffer fools lightly. Early in my career, my poker face was not at all well developed and people knew when I thought they were wrong.
No matter what I actually said, my face told them what I thought, which did not make for the smoothest relationships in a creative field where opinions vary wildly. Thankfully I have since mastered a softer touch – although I do still always tell my clients the truth, and I’ve now mastered a gentler delivery.
Do you have any final words of wisdom to others aspiring to become an executive in this space?
Get the smartest people you can find around you and actually listen to what they have to say. Believe in those mentors, but be sure to find your own voice.