Our talk with Creative’s Leading Lady Sara Rotman


BY KENNETH RICHARD

While menswear certainly has come a long way of late, the foundation of our industry and cash cow is still women’s. And yet in an industry where women outnumber men two to one and are also the household purchasing decision makers, there remains only one female lead creative agency in our industry – MODCo. Led by founder Sara Rotman, the agency is a hybrid of strategy, ideation, media and design that has created iconic work from Tory Burch’s identity system to campaigns for brands such as Vera Wang, Circa, Bailey 44, Alex and Ani, Lagos, Joe Fresh and Via Spiaga, to name a few.

The Impression spoke with Rotman about starting her agency, the new demands of digital, good storytelling, paying her way, breaking glass ceilings, polo ponies,  album covers, and getting it right today.


Sara, I’ve been interested in hearing your point of view for a while now as you play a very interesting role, both as a leader and a role model. Can you tell us how you became interested in art direction?
You know, I thought I wanted to be an illustrator and I didn’t even know what that meant. When I was a kid, I was always into art and drawing and I was quite certain I didn’t want to be an accountant or a lawyer, so I went to art school. But my father didn’t agree with that perspective so he didn’t support me in that endeavor. Which was kind of in the end a huge benefit because I ended up putting myself through college. I came to New York and worked my way through school, which was really beneficial in terms of learning the discipline of 18-hour days and earning what you need to earn in order to get what you want out of your career.

One of the decisions I made as I worked my way through school was to try to work in the field rather than as a bartender or something like that. I was fortunate enough to have had one of my teachers recommend me to a small design studio, so I started working on graphic design even as I was studying illustration at Parsons. And I discovered a real passion for it and maintained the desire to do advertising and writing so I double majored – I switched my major from illustration to graphic design and advertising and then, because of the rigors of my work schedule, I changed from the Parsons School of Design to the School for Visual Arts, which was much more flexible. I literally worked three days a week at a job and I went to school from 8 in the morning till 10 at night on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

By the time I graduated college, I was a full time art director at Sony Music, working on album covers, which was really fun. I worked at Sony for the next eight years and designed over a thousand album covers within the time I was there. It was a wonderful way to learn about art direction and liaising with other creative people. You know, when you’re designing for musicians, there’s really no tangible visual language they speak in, so you have to invent that. You also have to be sensitive to their points of view and the art that they’re working on, how to express that in a way that’s faithful to them. In a way, it was a really great learning experience as a branding professional, although at the time I didn’t know what that meant. My job was to understand and ascertain sort of the essence behind that musician and that brand and then express it visually to the outward consumer across all platforms – we worked on web, we worked on music videos, we worked on merchandising, we worked on ads, we worked on logos, all of that stuff. Doing that in such high volume was also really helpful.

After that, I went to Saatchi & Saatchi and found a lot of things that were interesting and informative about working in a big agency environment, working on big clients. We worked with a lot of Procter & Gamble clients so I understood and learned about very big processes. During that time, I discovered what I thought of as a broken agency business, wherein one creative team would create the packaging, one would do the logos, a different one would do the radio spots and another one would do television, and someone in another country would do digital. We never sat in the same room, we never knew what the other hand was doing. Sometimes we would have a single ad layout with elements on the page from five different creative directors who had never spoken to one another. And I just thought it was not the right way to run a railroad, so I started thinking that I would like to form my own agency where we control all customer touch points for a brand on the creative side. And that’s kind of really how ModCo was born.

I did go and work for another agency, a smaller boutique agency that had sort of similar endeavors and had a lot of digital experience. So I was able to start learning digital right after Saatchi and I worked there for a year. I won them about $5 million worth of business and then thought, you know, it’s time to go out on my own. And when I did, I wanted to be able to control any and every consumer facing touch point that a brand might require, whatever they may be, to insure brand integrity and clarity of brand message. And that’s really what we founded ModCo on.

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Did you start with any of those clients, or how did you find your first clients?
No, I didn’t take any clients. For two reasons: I was morally obliged not to – in some cases, contractually – but just on a moral compass point of view, I think that’s unfair to the people who gave me that opportunity.

But toward the last year of my employment, I literally worked 24 hours a day. I started getting smaller clients on my own on the side while I maintained my position at the company I was working and helped to protect them. I also started developing my own portfolio of clients – certainly not enough to pay the rent, but enough to survive until I could commit myself full time to that. Just through contacts – at that time, I had been in the business for 10 years so a few of my contacts had called on me to do freelance work over time. I started cultivating some smaller jobs and then I developed a relationship through a friend of a friend to two beauty companies, one of whom did become very large. We did the original catalogue; that was one of my first ModCo projects. We worked with them for about 2 years in the beginning and they are now quite a success story in the beauty industry. And then I had another beauty client. And they’re very beautiful, sort of organic, natural, plant-inspired bath and body products and they were with me as a client for a while.

So quickly after that, I was able to get business from Carolina Herrera and that led to Nina Ricci and Paco Rabanne, and then after that to Tory Burch. So, you know, I guess the traditional way, working on little money and constantly talking to people and trying to perform well and have them refer you to other people that need your services.

May I ask where you grew up?
Sure. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan and a little bit in Asheville, North Carolina. But I came to New York to go to college so I really consider New York to be the place that formed me. I’ve been here for my entire adult life and I definitely feel like a New Yorker. But I think my Michigan roots influence me to some degree in a positive way, a Northern Midwestern mentality and work ethic is a really helpful thing. And, ironically, I find that a great deal of my friends that I have now that I’ve met in my time in New York and Los Angeles are from Michigan or the Northern Midwest. Not the people I knew when I was growing up, but just people that I naturally gravitate towards.

That work ethic that you have, that is so phenomenal.
Or potentially foolish – I’m not sure!

[laughs] So true. My wife reminds me of that all the time. Did you work in high school?
No, I was a terrible student in high school! It’s funny; I use this as a tale of encouragement to all of my friends who now have children in high school. I was a terrible student at best – except at doing the things I love. I got A’s in art, I got A’s in writing, I failed math, geometry four times – I literally have not taken a math course since 10th grade. I just did not enjoy chemistry, but I got by. I was really uninspired.

I’m a classic entrepreneur who was sort of being pushed towards more traditional roles so I resisted, and in doing so, kind of harmed myself by being a poor student and petulant and disgruntled. Except for the things that I loved – I was amazing at art, I did jewelry design, I did creative writing, I wrote history – I absolutely adored it – I did music. I got A’s in all that but the stuff that they wanted me to do well in – D.

And then one day, it occurred to me in my freshman year of college – I went to North Carolina for a year because my family would not support me and at the age of 18, I did not have the financial wherewithal to take off for the big city – and I realized, holy crap, I need a job to get where I want to go. And overnight, I went to a 4.6 average, I aced everything. But I didn’t do it until I realized why. I had a purpose and a direction – I wanted to go to New York and I wanted to get into the good schools and I needed someone else to pay for it so I was able to gather my frustration and point it into a very positive direction. I literally worked a hundred hours a week, pretty much every day, to ensure success and excellence because that was my only tool. I didn’t have any financial backup at all, nothing; all I had was hard work. So if I couldn’t beat you because I was talented, I beat you because I worked harder.

Again that strong work ethic. What would you describe as the forte of the agency?
I would say, as esoteric as it sounds, our job is to find the client’s truth and tell that story faithfully. I would say authentic storytelling and brand strategy are our core competencies. And then of course roll out of the brand strategy is also our forte. That’s probably what we’re best known for.

But the roll out – what sounds like such a throwaway statement – that’s the thing that changes every year. Now everybody is talking about content. Well, that’s just good branding, isn’t it. It just so happens that now we get to tell longer stories in digital format, and video is now more accessible to a great many clients. But the most important thing is to really be able to understand the client’s story, to understand their truth, their message, or to help them clarify it and then to faithfully deliver that message across any medium that’s relevant at this moment. That’s really what we do.

And that’s why, as I said earlier, I want to control every system and touch point of the message to make sure that we control any brand messaging that the customer hears. That’s the thing that we were founded on and that’s what we excel at. And on top of that, what we do is create very memorable work. We’re known for our sense of color, we’re known for being the bright guys at the moment with the graphics that we create, the storylines that we tell. And we’re a little bit edgy; there is a little bit of a rock and roll edge to the work that ModCo does. You know, not every client is looking for that, but the ones that are are very pleased with our standout results because we do what’s different.

How do you feel the storytelling has changed for brands? Or has it? Is it just the mediums that are different?
The medium is just different. I think the requirement hasn’t changed. I think it’s gotten a little messy for a lot of brands because the access is so quick or so readily available and there is a lot of misunderstanding from senior management who are less agile with digital format. I often see a sort of reaction, oh let’s just get a 22-year old to do it, they grew up with the internet, they understand it. It’s like, well, yeah, but that’s like saying you understand how to read but that doesn’t mean you write beautifully.

I think what changed around it is this propensity towards volume over quality, and I think, finally, it’s starting to shift back, where people are understanding that the volume now does need to be there because that’s the way that we communicate with customers now, but that the quality still has to be on brand and I think that people are starting to see that. I think that there is a bit of a conundrum, everyone’s so concerned with the millenials, and the millenials do buy product because their friends recommended it. But the friends recommended it because the friends believe in the brand and the brand story. And that’s a researched truth. People know that these guys really want to understand an authentic brand, a brand has to be authentic by being very careful about their messaging and their strategy and their point of view and then being faithful to it.

But if any Tom, Dick, and Harry 22-year old just out of college runs your Instagram page and they don’t have any sense of what the authentic voice and point of view of the brand should be, you really risk sullying that brand. It’s very important that you either understand very clearly yourself and are very disciplined about putting the messaging out there that is true to the brand, or you need to hire a good agency that understands those things and will create content or messaging that will support your brand point of view and help it grow rather than creating diffuse messaging that in the end could do it damage.

Do you find that brands are prepared for the commitment that it takes to be on 24/7?
No, I think it has really kind of jumped up and bitten everybody in the ass. It’s a startling volume of work. And I think everyone is struggling with it. I think it’s also been problematic in our industry because of that volume. The message by which we work, the beautiful photoshoots that we do for hero advertising can’t be done on that level; the costs would be absurd. But I think we still need to do the high water mark, main marquis, hero branding imagery to help inform the more voluminous stuff.

When we work with brands, we divide and conquer with them to have day-to-day messaging created internally because it’s impossible for any agency to know what’s happening, for example, to every fashion designer every single day. But we can help them control overarching brand messages and give them some filters to work from in order to make that process less arduous.

You hear brands say they just need content and they don’t even know what that means. If you ask them to define that, they would struggle with it. I was at a conference and when that point came up, I asked the speaker, who is a big talented research analyst, what she meant by content. And she said, ‘I mean good branding, I mean good advertising delivered across the social channels.’ And I thought, EXACTLY. You need a good agency. Everyone needs a good agency that can get the audience to understand their brand, craft a very concise and appropriate and authentic strategy for them, and then help inform that strategy roll out. I think the high volume is a challenge and is something that all agencies and all brands need to work on together to achieve those goals and make sure that they don’t besmirch the brand message as they do so.

Where do you feel you’ve gotten it right?
I like to think we get it right most of the time. We get it right mostly when we are able to develop a concise plan with our client that augments what they’re doing and seamlessly bridges the gap between what they’re doing and what we’re doing. If I’m pushing traffic into stores and it’s converting into sales, we’re getting it right. The good news is: everything is so measurable now. Oftentimes they’ll say, oh we increased our likes by blah blah blah, and I’ll say, really? Did more people walk into your doors or did they push through to your web and actually make sales? Perhaps that’s not the goal but, if it is the goal, then you need to make sure that you’re doing your job.

We do that every day with all of our clients and I would say that most of the time, we are able to. We have a research analytics team at ModCo Group that actually gets it right every day. I mean, we spend a lot of time on a daily basis monitoring the performance of the work that we do. That’s new. And that’s kind of exciting. Certainly as creative directors, it’s unusual to talk in those terms, but for us, it’s been very gratifying to be able to really measure the performance of the creatives and the strategies that we’re putting out for our clients and be able to shift on the fly when it’s not performing as we’d like it to. So the biggest win that the ModCo Group has achieved is coming together and putting creatives and analytics in the same room; making sure that we’re all aware of how the work that we do is performing, and learning from that immediately to shift or adjust course as necessary in order to enhance our client’s performance.

Did any of those learnings surprise you?
Yeah, sometimes it does happen where you realize, “Wow!” I think mostly it happens when the consumer doesn’t get the read on a piece of messaging that you intended. Now that’s very unusual, but it does happen from time to time. More often we’re surprised, or our clients are surprised, when they’ve been existent for a long time and then research sort of indicates that what they thought the brand was is not what the consumer thinks the brand is. That happens a lot.

And that’s partly why companies like mine exist, to help course correct. Because I think it’s human nature to think in terms of “that’s how we’ve always done it, that’s the brand that it is.” And we might come with a different idea that we think is spot on for the target or the brand and they’ll say, “No no no, that’s not us,” and we’ll put the research out there and we’ll find out “Yes yes yes, that actually is you.” And now we have to decide whether you want that to be you, or we have to change direction. That happens quite a bit.

On the analytics side, I’m starting to hear people speak for the first time about the fact that the internet is just another medium and perhaps the analytics that drive to sales aren’t as important as those that drive to brand.
I couldn’t agree with that more. But what we’re also seeing is that if the branding is correct – and I’m sorry, I assume that’s a given, because we’re a branding agency – if that branding is correct, authentic and true to the brand, that does enhance the performance of all the other minutia things that support the brand that we can measure. So it sort of sounds like a dichotomy, but I don’t think it really is. It’s not about shouting, “Buy now! On sale!” faster, louder, more times directly. It’s about presenting the consumer with a brand message that is compelling.

And that’s why I say everyone is like, “content content.” And I’m like, “no no no,” it’s still good branding. We need the good branding but it needs to be delivered on every avenue that you deliver to that consumer. But what’s interesting is we can do research and analytics to find out if it’s actually true for them. So if I have a brand message that doesn’t ring true, it’s not going to perform as well.

Gotcha.
So I think I’m in agreement with what you’re hearing, maybe I just said it differently.

Sounds like you are. You’re pulling back the layers and saying “It’s always been true that great branding has been relevant.”
I mean, just tell a brand story faithfully and it’s never going to not be true. It’s the reason why Hermès is amazing, the reason why Ralph Lauren is amazing. The delivery mechanism is what changes.

Right. So, I see you’ve gotten into brands yourself. You’ve launched two brands yourself, Dark Horse and Loquita. How did that come about?
Very organically. Loquita is a brand that we developed just for my own personal proclivities. I like scarves and we’re known for color and pattern. I wanted to have a place to practice some ideas and I just wanted a little bit of creative freedom, something to work on that didn’t have a client’s point of view. Basically, a little chance to do some free styling of our own. So it’s completely for myself but also some of the other designers in the studio like to have some fun and practice some marketing techniques when we want to be in a creative environment. You know, we can’t play with other people’s money or brands, but we can certainly play with our own. And so Loquita was born out of that.

And I think Dark Horse is the more bad-ass version of that. That came really specifically out of my polo team. I play polo competitively and I had this fantasy because the sport is so beautiful that there would be these amazing things to wear and there just wasn’t. So, because I’m a designer and a creative director, I just created my own team uniforms and my own denim and my own jackets, and branding for my trucks and trailers and the horses and all the paraphernalia they wore. And it sort of evolved into this brand unto itself that a lot of people were very very interested in, at least within the games and the sporting events that we participate in. We’re quite a hit. Those kinds of people are often asking us where our swag is from so that brand was born out of that.

How did you and polo find each other?
I started playing polo about ten years ago now. I had a dressage horse. I’ve been an equestrian my whole life and I’ve been barrel racing and catch riding as I could. Unfortunately you need to be wealthy-ish to have horses and we weren’t. So I rode anything anybody would give at any time for any reason. If it had four legs and you could put a saddle on it, I’d get on it. I started riding dressage when I got old enough and had enough money to buy a horse so I started doing that. And I had a horse that got very sick, it was a career-ending disease and I had retired him at a farm upstate NY where I had a weekend house. I was heartbroken, he was a wonderful horse, very young, I had actually taken out a home equity line of credit on my house to buy this fancy show horse and just 6 months later he came down with a career ending disease at the age of 6, which is very young for a horse. And I was pretty devastated by that and some other life circumstances, and I was moping around the barn, brushing him and lamenting his lack of performance capacity.

It was a barn where there was a polo professional, he had about 30 horses and he was pretty disgusted with my melancholy and asked what’s wrong. I explained and he said, “Look, I’ve got 30 of them, why don’t you start riding some of mine.” Honestly, for him, it was a way to exercise his horses so I started taking out these horses and they were tiny and quick and delightful and I had no idea what they did. When I asked him, he said they’re polo ponies. I had never even seen a match so I asked, well, how does that work and he handed me a mallet and I started to play, just stick and balling a little bit, which is what they call it when you practice just hitting the ball.

I was immediately in love. I thought it was the most amazing thing, it had speed, it had horses, girls and boys can play equally on the same footing, on the same team, which I thought was an amazing revelation after being a woman in businesses and never having felt that kind of equality. It appealed to absolutely every sense for me. So I was an immediate addict and just endeavored to learn as much as I possibly could. I quickly became a competitive player and worked my way up to medium goal level, which is what I play now. I developed my own team. I recently, with my husband, bought a ranch in California where we have our horse now, so I have my own, which is always a joy. But it’s definitely a lifelong addiction which has not dissipated at all.

Congratulations on finding something that’s so in line with you. You mentioned earlier about the equality. Can you share your thoughts on the… how do I put this question?
You can go ahead and put it bluntly. There’s no nice way to say it.

Why aren’t there any women doing what you’re doing, for a women’s industry?
I think it’s a very fair question. I’d like to ask the same to many women and men alike. I think because the sexism in this country is real and profound, and it does not exist exclusively in the mindless mass. That’s my short answer. I also think women marginalize themselves. For the last twenty years, I’ve been teaching college, I’ve been an employer, I see women marginalizing themselves. I have young women coming to me and telling me that they need to go home to cook dinner for their husbands and I never would have heard that twenty years ago. I have had women whose husbands forbade them to go back to work after having children. I never would have heard that twenty years ago.

I don’t understand it, I’m disappointed by it, I would love to see it change. I think there’s just still an insidious and pervasive perception that women are less than and should not be in senior management roles and it’s tragic and disappointing and something that I am aware of and I experience day to day. I prefer to avert my eyes and move forward as if it were not the case because if you give it a lot of credit, you marginalize yourself as well.

So, what do you see are the next steps for women in the industry?
I think averting our gazes and moving forward as if it weren’t there is the best thing. And supporting one another. I think one of the challenges women face, quite tragically, is a lack of the kind of fraternity that we see among men. We certainly have competitive edge, but I think that women are taught at such an early age that we are less than or should not behave in certain ways and we start to believe it. And I think that there’s, sadly, a cattiness that can tend to exist.

And again, there are huge exceptions to everything. I know tremendous, amazing women who have done far more interesting things than I have ever achieved and are people I look up to with extraordinary admiration. And yet I think on a day-to-day basis, women still do behave like women in business, which is sometimes problematic. I don’t think that we shouldn’t be women, but I think sometimes we get too emotional and we have to find a way to still be productive. I don’t think becoming a man is the answer, but I think we should not let those elements get the upper hand, we should support one another, encourage women to thrive in roles of leadership, mentor women into leadership positions, and encourage that community.

But I think it almost starts with mothers teaching their girls the same thing they teach the boys, that they can actually truly be anything they want to be. And I do think it’s changing now. I think young girls who are 12, 13, 14, at the very bottom edge of the millenials, are much more devoid of some of the tracks that lead to place women and men separately. And I’m very excited to see that. But I think there was a generation in front of them that did not hold that truth to be true. But I do see it shifting again, which is very exciting. Also, more women mentoring women, I would just love to see that. And not overseas, but right here at home.

I can’t tell you how many women I have who are in their early twenties who come in and tell me, “Omg, no one’s ever told me that.” What the hell? No one’s ever been tough on these girls. No one’s ever been encouraging. They’re just told to be perfect; of course it’s a disaster. Go make a mess, get strong, make a mistake, and then have someone behind you to pick you up and point you in a different direction if you fail. They’re so afraid of not being perfect. Who cares? Just work harder and overcome imperfection. I think it would be great to see more girls get messy and then pick themselves up and do well anyway.

Well, I think we have the field for it, frankly.
I do, too.

What’s up for next for the agency?
Like everyone else, we are moving very quickly and expanding extravagantly into our digital world. And for me that’s a really exciting place; that’s really where our focus is. I mean, obviously branding is still the core of what we do and we do it very well. But now that exists on a digital platform because that’s the way that people receive media.

It’s such a great time – as a storyteller and someone who enjoys writing as much as I love visuals – to be able to tell longer stories again! It used to be a 2 million dollar, 30-second commercial budget and now we do that for all of our clients. That is just delightful. We just signed a contract with a client and there’s going to be an enormous amount of video content and storytelling and it’s so much broader than a single ad for a brand. We’re actually going to delve into the kind of lifestyle that supports this brand. Literally before our phone call, I was brainstorming different ways, different, really long-form storytelling moments that we can do for this brand to enhance the experience for the user. And those types of things are super exciting.

We’re also doing a pretty aggressive West Coast expansion. We have a wonderful office in New York and it’s really thriving and there are a lot of people and of course great talent there. But especially in the world of fashion, there’s so much going on in Los Angeles now. I split my time between the two cities but I see tremendous opportunity on the horizon on the West Coast with emerging brands. It’s a little bit easier on the West Coast for the emerging brands because of the production element. So we’re seeing a lot more clients all up and down here on the West Coast, from San Francisco all the way down to Manhattan Beach, forming our client base.

We also do a lot of work in the beauty industry, which sort of forms my roots. And I’m very excited about that. I love fashion, of course, as well, but beauty is another opportunity to tell great stories because you’re dealing with color, you’re dealing with fragrance, and these things are so esoteric; it’s really a great, exciting type of business for branding because the creative requirements are broad and open-ended.

Well, thanks, Sara. I really appreciate the time today. And I’m really excited for you, the agency, the next phase and step. I think you’ve got your finger on the pulse with regards to it.
Well, we’re working. I appreciate your time; it was lovely to chat with you!