A Conversation with Sarah Fay in wwwLand, Part 1
By Wendy McHale
Madison Avenue possesses some of the same incredible characteristics that Lewis Carroll wrote about in his children's fairytale classic "Alice through the Looking Glass". That was back in the 1800s. Now it's called, "Alice in Wonderland." These days you don't need to be the Cheshire Cat to see the similarity between what Alice saw then and what you're see now in wwwLand!
MadAve Journal editor Tim McHale had the opportunity to catch up with Ms. Sarah Fay recently and asked if she would be kind enough to share what she's seen along the way, after taking on leadership roles for 16 years in the 21st century ad agency business.
Sarah is now playing advisory roles and serving on the boards of several companies. Over the next three days, she'll be sharing what it was like, more about what she's doing and the exciting wwwLand that's up ahead.
We expect you'll be curiouser and curiouser as Tim takes us down into the digital media rabbit-hole to watch Sarah Fay click ""through the touchscreen glass."
Tim: How are you?
Sarah: I'm doing really well, thanks Tim.
Tim: Great. Before we get into industry issues, tell us about your self. Where did you begin your career in advertising?
Sarah: Sure. I began my career in advertising sales. It was during the rise of high technology in the mid 1980's, I got my first big opportunity to represent a portfolio of computer titles, all published outside the U.S. - Europe, Latin America, Australia, S.E. Asia and Japan. I was in my early twenties at the time, and looking back, I'm almost shocked at the responsibility that was thrown my way.
Tim: What were you doing?
Sarah: I was hired by Pete May who managed a division of my company, M&T International Marketing, based in San Mateo, CA. I was tasked with setting up a satellite office in Boston in order to mine the Route 128 Technology Belt up here. My first job was as an advertising sales person. They hired me and just threw me into the deep end, where I had to start swimming, immediately!
Tim: That's great!
Sarah: It was. That's what was going on all over the high tech industry in the go-go days of high tech growth. It seemed like everyone was a kid! My boss was 27, the president of my company was 28, and Bill Gates was under 30, too. There was never a thought of being too young or inexperienced to do anything. We just did it. I think of myself as incredibly lucky to have had this start. I loved M&T.
Tim: What made it so special?
Sarah: There were a few reasons. First, I worked with a talented and supportive team. Pete was a great boss. We're still friends. In fact, today I'm an investor in his company, Greener World Media.
Tim: Cool. What else?
Sarah: I received formal sales training, which is something that I think still serves me well today. I had a front row seat to witness the evolution of the high technology industry and its miraculous inventions. I developed a taste for its fast pace of change and life-changing breakthroughs. I was exposed to people and business practices all over the world. I learned to operate as part of a global team, and to respect and enjoy the differences in our cultures.
Tim: Sounds great. How long were you there?
Sarah: I was with M&T Publishing for six years. I grew my territory from $500K to $5 million, covering the entire eastern seaboard in the US and Canada. I also got married during that time and became pregnant. This made me start to wonder how I could have a family and keep up the pace in a high-travel position.
Tim: That was a time that our entire generation was wondering about the same things; balancing work vs. family. What did you do?
Sarah: My route was somewhat unconventional. Once people in the agency space build up a certain amount of experience, it's normal that some will "hop the fence" and sell media to make potentially more money. Mine was just the opposite. Like many of the people I worked with in sales, I never pictured myself joining an agency.
Tim: What made you do it?
Sarah: One day I received a call from a woman by the name of Ellen Freeman (she was a client of mine at M&T). Her call came at a time when I was just trying to figure out what I should do next. Ellen had established a small consultancy called Freeman Associates, which was just starting to grow. This was an opportunity to learn about media planning and buying which I never would have had if I had stayed in sales. She became my boss and another important mentor.
Tim: You bucked the trend.
Sarah: It initially looked that way though it became the best move I could have ever made. At the time I thought to myself, "I'll give this a try for two years. I'll learn about the process of media planning and buying, meet all the publishers in high tech, and cherry pick my next position in ad sales." The thought of working a 9-5 job with an all female team; most of whom were mothers sounded almost too good to be true. Besides getting the support I needed at this stage of my life, the idea of not traveling sounded like Nirvana. God love her, Ellen included maternity leave as part of the offer!
Tim: Wow that is great!
Sarah: It was. However, my expectation of a slower pace at Freeman Associates never materialized. It was more like a rocket ship ride! We hit a need-vein in the high tech marketing space where marketing managers were up to their eyeballs in too many advertising options. They were hungry for guidance and negotiation assistance. We could barely hire people fast enough to keep up with all the business coming in. Anyone who has ever worked in a start-up can tell you there is no room for egos or politics. We all had to roll up our sleeves. I did everything from pitching new business to typing insertion orders and answering phones.
Tim: I can relate!
Sarah: I sometimes think of the days when we were fewer than twenty people. It was precious experience, where moving the company forward was truly a team effort. We had to be nimble, innovative and frugal. This was a bootstrap start-up, which meant we had no investment dollars. Ellen and I used to joke about never even throwing away paper clips - a habit I've never been able to shake.
Tim: LOL! What happened then?
Sarah: Two years passed. Instead of following through on my plan to go back to publishing, Ellen made me a Principal in the business, which made staying the obvious choice. We grew to become the largest media agency in the high tech space, with clients like AOL, Symantec, CMGi, Akamai, and divisions of Microsoft.
Tim: Sounds great.
Sarah: Freeman Associates had all of its clients in high technology, so we were close to the emergence of the internet. Many marketers were curious to try online advertising in the mid nineties. So were we. At the earliest opportunity, we jumped right in. Many people on our team became instantly passionate about digital technology. It presented so many exciting possibilities...but there was no guidebook. We essentially taught ourselves how to execute and evaluate online media programs.
Sarah: We were bush-whacking like the rest of the industry. For example, in the beginning we weren't even using ad serving tools. Freeman Associates soon became a leading authority in online media in New England. As compared to our main business, our spend and our business in online was small, but it was still exciting to me and became my passion area in the business.
Tim: Cool. Then what?
Sarah: In 1998, Freeman Associates was acquired by Carat.
Sarah: It was. I was already familiar with Carat from my days of selling space in the European marketplace, and knew it was a market-leading business with an excellent reputation. Overnight, Freeman Associates went from being a media hot-shop in high tech to being Carat Freeman, part of a large, global media agency.
Tim: What was that like?
Sarah: It was a big change. I can see now that my personal experience in being part of an acquired company helped me to communicate and empathize with company founders we later worked with taking them through the same process.
Tim: Which is what?
Sarah: Well, an entrepreneur needs to adjust to a number of things that go along with joining a large organization, like corporate governance, financial reporting and decisions that need to be taken for the greater organization vs individual units. These things can feel like a hindrance to getting business done. However, there were big benefits that came with a joining a global team. In many ways it was just like coming home to my international publishing days.
Tim: How's that?
Sarah: By becoming part of Carat new business flowed to us through the parent company. Also, the dotcom boom was upon us. We were perfectly positioned to capitalize on an exploding marketplace. When I think of that time, it was like holding a basket and catching money as it fell out of the sky - I just needed to get there fast enough!
Tim: LOL! Was there a painful part?
Sarah: Our biggest challenge once again was hiring to keep up with incoming business!
Tim: So you obviously stayed on after your agency completed its earnout...
Sarah: Yes, Carat needed a central hub to provide online media services to all its US clients. Ellen was planning to leave the business in 2000. She lobbied for me to be given the opportunity to launch the online media business for Carat. With the dotcom market still going crazy, Aegis agreed and made a strategic decision to invest in building our digital practice. We took 25 employees from our office in Newton, MA, and moved to a cool, new space on Newbury Street in Boston.
Tim: Sounds exciting.
Sarah: This was the first time I was solely in charge of a P&L. I was both nervous and excited. I missed Ellen's guidance but I had the great opportunity to report to David Verklin.
Tim: David's a great guy. One of the all-time talents in the media business.
Sarah: For sure. As the CEO of Carat, David became a huge champion of our digital business. I also began working Steve Andrews, who would be my CFO partner over the next 10 years.
Tim: Two really good guys. Then what happened?
Sarah: Well, we launched Carat Interactive in January 2001 - right in the teeth of the dotcom bust! As you may recall, we were surrounded by high-profile business disasters like Enron and all of the crumbling dotcom businesses. Just as we opened doors to Carat Interactive, the entire online media marketplace practically came to a halt.
Tim: Yikes! What was that like?
Sarah: Not surprisingly, our first year was not easy. Every time we won an online media account, the budget got cut to zero. Most online media budgets were small, so we had no choice but to change our business model to include services beyond online media. We began looking at other digital service offerings like Search Engine Marketing, eCRM and Affiliate Marketing. In many ways it was a great time to begin hunting to acquire marketing practices that could add digital creative and girth to our company.
Tim: Smart move. Who were your initial acquisitions?
Sarah: By the end of 2001, we acquired two businesses: Lot 21, a hot San Francisco based interactive agency led by the iconic Kate Everett-Thorp, and a Boston based eCRM company called Vizium, led by Alan Osetek.
Tim: Both great companies.
Sarah: Agreed. With these new services, Carat Interactive had a much stronger strategic platform versus many of our competitors. We were able to win business on our own - bringing in new accounts from outside of the Carat client base, as well as providing digital marketing services to the Carat clients.
Tim: I remember there were very few companies that had the breadth and depth of Carat Interactive's business at the time.
Sarah: Up until that time, many of Carat's clients tended to be "traditional" accounts. Digital was still considered to be more of an experimental medium than a true contributor to the marketing plan. We ploughed through that, with a mindset to always move forward. Everyone at the company believed in what we were doing. It wasn't always easy getting digital programs off the ground, but when we did, they would inevitably lead to growth, based on the fact that they provided measurable results.
Tim: Can you give me an example?
Sarah: Sure, I remember a pivotal moment with one of our accounts, adidas: It was 2003 and adidas was launching the most significant branding program in the history of the company - "Impossible is Nothing", which featured Mohammed Ali and his daughter, Laila.
Tim: I loved that campaign!
Sarah: Me too. There was originally no budget slotted for online. There wasn't a level of comfort that online media could provide branding impact commensurate with TV, print and Out of Home.
Tim: Sure. How did you address that?
Sarah: Timing is everything. Carat and Yahoo! had just completed a study called, "Born to Be Wired" which proved that the internet had become a core medium for teens, which was an extremely important segment to adidas. That research data was news at the time, though of course it's something we take for granted today. The study proved what we felt in our bones to be true, and we used the information to re-think the media mix.
Tim: How did you do that?
Sarah: We called a summit meeting which included adidas client and agency team members from around the globe to discuss and decide whether the digital platform would be right for the "Impossible is Nothing" campaign launch. The team's decision was YES, but we had very little time left to execute. There was a distinct feeling then that the allocation to online was still a risk. We knew that, so we did everything we could to ensure that the online execution would be great.
Please click to turn on the video.
Tim: Tell us about the campaign.
Sarah: It was one of the first campaigns featuring home page digital video units. The creative spots were inspirational; video spots of Mohammed and Laila boxing each other in the ring, with a voice over from Laila claiming the sport of boxing as her right.
Tim: I'm a huge Ali fan. I get chills today when I see that spot!
Sarah: We ran these spots on the home pages of Yahoo! and MSN. They carried the same emotional impact as TV. They were a huge hit. The campaign received more than 5 million views! They were considered the most successful broadband spots on those sites at that time and the buzz behind the creative and the digital strategy generated an enormous amount of buzz. It was a watershed event that turned the adidas marketing organization into real believers in digital marketing.
Tim: I remember.
Sarah: Looking back, it was one of the happiest moments of my career, as the collective client/agency team took a risk we believed in and helped adidas make a bigger branding impact. More importantly, we shifted perspectives about what could be done with the digital medium.
Tim: What impact did it have on Carat?
Sarah: We began to grow much more rapidly and kept an eye out for attractive digital shops which met the caliber of quality that would fit into our corporate culture. We acquired another creative shop in San Francisco - Freestyle Interactive, founded by Karim Sanjabi, a passionate entrepreneur and digital philosopher/gamer.
Sarah: Freestyle was doing some incredible work, and walked in the door as the interactive agency for EA. It helped to keep the agency at the cutting edge of digital creative. The combination of Freestyle and Carat generated numerous wins. At the same time, it created a philosophical departure from Carat's original positioning as a "media independent" agency. Carat was known for its creativity in media planning and buying, not as a shop that offered creative strategy and production as well.
Tim: It was a time when the lines between creative and creative media were blurring everywhere in the industry.
Sarah: It was happening across Carat/Aegis on a global level - creative capabilities were cropping up all over the group. It posed new branding questions for Aegis. The company had an opportunity to create a consistent strategy that would resonate both corporately and on the ground in each country.
Tim: Interesting. How did that take shape?
Sarah: Well, Aegis had already created a task force back in 1998 headed up by Nigel Morris who is now CEO of Aegis Media North America The team's purpose was to share best practices across countries and to shape the digital strategy for our global organization. Working with this group was one of the best experiences in all my years with Aegis.
Sarah: Yes, if you've been part of a global team, you know that people from all different cultures don't typically begin as a team by seeing eye-to-eye. You have to get over some differences. When we first met during the dotcom boom I'd say the theme of these meetings was "That's not how we do it in my country." Everyone had their own approach to digital strategy! However when the dotcom boom went bust, people around the table were humbled by the state of the market. Our global meetings took on more of a "group therapy" feeling.
Sarah: Our collective focus went from highlighting our differences to facing our challenges and helping each other with ways to overcome them. By the time the market started to recover, our businesses were much more aligned, and we shared an ambition to move in the same direction. This is when the Isobar strategy took shape within Aegis.
Tim: I remember. What was the key insight that got the ball rolling?
Sarah: Consumer media behavior was measurably changing. Digital media usage was growing significantly. Aegis recognized the opportunity to claim a leadership position in the digital space. Digital marketing was still a cottage industry across Europe and in emerging markets such as China and Latin America.
Tim: What is Isobar?
Sarah: Isobar was Nigel's brainchild, and he became CEO, Worldwide. It was created as an umbrella brand to house best-in-class digital marketing services, known for their expertise in specialist categories, and prominence in their countries. It empowered independent agencies joining the Isobar network around the globe to keep their own brand's focus and culture. Nigel was clear about supporting, rather than disturbing, the DNA that made them strong services in the first place.
Tim: Makes sense.
Sarah: The Isobar network grew from what began with a few hundred staff to more than 3,000 digital professionals in just a few short years.
Tim: Impressive. What was your role?
Sarah: I became CEO of Isobar US. One of the first things we did was to hit the acquisition trail, to fill out the US network with services that would help us win. We met with numerous independent digital service organizations all over the country to explore a mutual fit. When I think of all the things I've been lucky enough to do in my career, I would say that having the opportunity to meet so many inspirational entrepreneurs with innovative business models is right up there at the top.
Tim: How did you go about doing that?
Sarah: We had a small swat team that traveled around to make these visits. It included Alan Osetek, who had moved into an acquisitions role, Steve Andrews, me and Nigel Morris who came over from London for many of the exploratory meetings. After touching down in most major cities, we eventually landed right back in our own Boston neighborhood, and acquired two market leading practices.
Tim: Who did you acquire?
Sarah: iProspect, the number one service in Search Engine Marketing strategies, led by the acclaimed author and evangelist of the SEM world, Fredrick Marckini. And Molecular, an internet marketing consultancy that produced best-in-class web sites and business strategies for the web, led by Ralph Folz , who later went on to become Isobar's Global COO.
Tim: That's right.
Sarah: We also acquired a Word-of-Mouth agency called Ammo Marketing, led by Julian Aldridge, a foremost expert in influencer marketing. These companies changed the shape of our US business.
Sarah: For me it was like, "Holy cow!" In just a few years, I went from leading our merry band of 25 to running a network of agencies with 700+ staff in the US!
Tim: It must have been exciting!
Sarah: We caught the next digital wave of business and participated in delivering true global digital strategies to our clients. Our ability to deliver global execution of digital strategies resonated with the companies who brought us on board to help them navigate the digital landscape.
Tim: Tell us about it.
Sarah: Isobar had deep expertise across the spectrum of digital marketing specialist services and was composed of the best talent in the industry. The leaders of the businesses within Isobar knew each other and wanted to succeed together. You might think I've got more than a little Pollyanna in me, but it's true that this added to the success of the network.
Tim: Not if the results prove it
(Please click to access study)
Sarah: You know nothing makes collaboration work like real relationships. I've always said "If you've got a communication problem, order up some pizza and beer." And we had plenty of that - lots of late nights and working sessions all over the world. The network was made stronger through friendships. Isobar had many industry firsts.
Tim: Like what?
Sarah: We were the first network to take a market leading position in Search Engine Marketing, Mobile Marketing, and Word of Mouth Marketing. With the help of MySpace, we stepped up to co-launch the biggest piece of research that had been done to date on social media behavior and marketing ROI.
Sarah: The study was titled, "Never Ending Friending." It's still referenced today by many industry analysts and pundits. In 2007 MySpace asked Isobar to be their partner because our work in social marketing was already the most advanced at the time.
Tim: Never Ending Friending" was such a great name.
Sarah: I agree - it just popped out of someone's mouth during a brainstorm and everyone was like, "YES"!. Digital strategies were growing significance in the media mix. The entire advertising industry began to grapple with account strategy and structure. When the online media budget was $2 million out of $100 million there was no question that digital took a back seat, but when some digital budgets were getting into the $100 million range, the digital accounts became big businesses unto themselves, and sometimes went in a different direction from the traditional strategies.
Sarah: Carat recognized the importance of integrating digital marketing into the core strategies of its clients since our digital practice was significant in its own right. While communication and coordination between the digital and traditional teams was pretty good, it wasn't optimal. We were talking to our clients from two different sides of the house and basically running two separate businesses.
Tim: Many agencies still have a problem doing that.
Sarah: Carat made a move that was once again an industry first. We restructured the agency. We brought our digital and traditional media businesses together, which created one combined traditional plus digital organization.
Tim: I remember. It created a "deer caught in the headlights" feeling across the industry. Everyone knew it would someday end up like that but you guys took the first step. Tell me how you organized yourselves from a management perspective.
Sarah: Scott Sorokin, who had been running Carat Fusion, stepped up into the position of President of Carat. I kept the title of CEO of Isobar as well as the new title of CEO, Carat.
Tim: Wow, lots more on your plate for sure.
Sarah: It was a big challenge. The appointment of course was an honor. We were embarking once again on new terrain; combining two very different businesses. We were crafting a new approach to client service and strategy. Luckily, we had clients who wanted an improved service model and who were willing to help shape the changes that came about. Other agencies have since made the move to bring their digital and traditional businesses together.
Tim: Then what?
Sarah: Several months after taking the helm of Carat, David Verklin informed me he was leaving the company. I was asked to step into his shoes and take the position of CEO of Aegis Media North America.
Tim: Wow. How did you take it?
Sarah: It was bittersweet news for me, as I enjoyed working with David. As you know, he is an icon in the business, and an evangelist of change in the media industry. No surprise that he moved on to change the way TV is bought and sold at Canoe. While I had more on my plate than ever before, I was once again exposed to yet even more innovation than I had experienced before.
Tim: For example?
Sarah: There's Posterscope. It's the world's largest out-of-home (OOH) agency. Many in the traditional and digital business are not aware of how exciting and dynamic the OOH space is. Another is Hyperspace, the only service dedicated to innovation in digital OOH.
Tim: What else?
Sarah: Velocity and Vivid, two companies which specialize in creating immersive brand experiences in the sports and entertainment venues, respectively. Another is Copernicus, an organization which provides market segmentation and targeting strategies. There is also Aegis Canada, which leads in Toronto and Montreal in integrated media and marketing strategies.
Tim: Wow that is impressive.
Sarah: The acquisition and coordination of how these companies collaborate together is a testament to Aegis' leadership.
Tim: That brings us up to today. What does it all look like in the rear view mirror?
Sarah: Well, I never expected to stay with the agency for 16 years when I first joined Ellen Freeman! I consider myself fortunate, going as far back as that first call I received from her. It was a great ride, and I'm lucky I had the opportunity to experience it all.
Stay tune to tomorrow when Sarah talks about companies she advises and those she serves as a board member.