Sara Rotman on being strong-willed and stubborn

Sara Rotman is owner and Creative Director of independent agency MODCo (My Own Damn Company), which she started in New York City in the late 90s. Despite the male bias in the industry, she grew this agency into the success it is today working with a range of fashion clients including Tory Burch, Carolina Herrera and Vera Wang. From working in the music industry and the world of graphic design to her current position in advertising, her keen eye for storytelling and design has remained constant, while her strong will, determination and persistency has been key to her success. 

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             Sara in her office  Photo: Darryl Estrine

           Sara in her office Photo: Darryl Estrine

What did you want to be when you grew up?
Originally I wanted to be a fairy but I grew out of that fairly quickly when I learned there were no such things as magic wands! Then interestingly enough, I toyed with being a lawyer. But I think I always thought I'd be an artist without really knowing what that meant.

Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Robert Johnson (Singer-Songwriter) for some good singing
Doctor Ruth (Media Personality / Sex Therapist) because she's always a good time

Robert Plant (Singer-Songwriter) because he's a hero of mine
Seymour Chwast (American Graphic Designer)
David Fincher (American Director and Producer)

I would like to have a conversation with each of them about the amazing work they’ve done. 

What single book had the greatest impact on you?
This is going to sound very romantic but as a young child I read T.H. White's The Once and Future King. There is a section in it called the Badger's Tale that my Dad used to always quote. It's a beautiful fictionalized account of the power of learning and curiosity. It has always stuck with me.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I usually keep New York hours even when I'm on the West coast so I go to bed between 11 and 12pm. I usually get up between 5:30 and 6:30am.

What is your favorite time of the working week?
The times when people are listening to me and I'm not worried about the P&L. As long as I get to be a Creative Director, it doesn't matter what time of day or night it is, that's my favorite time.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
To some degree I can explain it in the word circuitous. Generally speaking and even as a child when I thought about being a fairy or a lawyer or a writer or an artist, I think we all have this desire to tell stories and to do it effectively. Any good creative person is just a storyteller. What our medium is changes. It doesn't matter if it's a painting, a movie, a commercial or a logo, our job is to filter and tell stories. I've been doing a version of that my whole career and I’ve done it with tenacity and stubbornness.

I come from a very classic family as first-generation American daughter of a Jewish Doctor. My dad gave me two choices: Doctor or Lawyer. That was it. In my stubbornness I said I wanted to be an artist. So I upped and went to New York alone and paid for my college and followed this path.

I was writing my own story and I was sticking to it. Throughout putting myself through school I always made a point to work in the creative industry. I wasn't a bartender. I was a young designer at a design studio and I was doing illustrations for money on the side. Anything and everything I could pay my way with that had something to do with my chosen career path. At the time I thought I wanted to be an artist or an illustrator because I didn't really know about graphic design or advertising until I got to school. Then I found those things and discovered I could tell a more interesting story. I also felt I wanted to keep my drawing to myself. I felt that that was a personal trait that I didn’t want to share with clients. So I started doing graphic design, which I quite liked and added into advertising where I could use my writing skills.

I went from design studio to record industry and spent 10 years designing album covers. It was a really great learning position to be in. We would do over 200 shoots a year and I did over a thousand album covers during my time there. I learned a lot about production and what I loved and didn't love about the industry. I was fortunate enough to work with some extraordinarily talented people. Working with musicians is very good training for working with fashion designers because my job was to express their work visually. It's so esoteric. I learned to manage the personalities and requirements of the record company, which are sometimes divergent. I learned about styling, websites, rock videos, t-shirt design and everything. As a designer and someone who is also a musician, it was heavenly.

From there I switched because I knew the record industry was dying and the job that I did which had been so important in the 70s and 80s, was becoming increasingly less important with the advent of digital mediums. So I shifted back into advertising where my craft was the product. Good clients know that good creative has value intrinsically to their business. Not all clients understand that. When they start treating me like a pair of hands then everybody's lost the plot and you get pretty miserable. When you are given the opportunity to think and tell the client's story in the truthful way, then their businesses flourish and I'm a happy creative director.

I was at Saatchi&Saatchi and then I moved to a smaller company called RDA, which was more boutique. Then I went to Sony music and also BMG. Those were my big jobs before I founded my own agency called MODCo (My Own Damn Company). I officially started doing business under the MODCo name in 1996 but I still had my day job. I opened my first office in 2000, just shortly before September 11, 2001. In my first year of business the towers came down, three of my clients disappeared in that horrible event, business was impossible, and then I got divorced. My husband tried to take me for everything I had which was nothing at the time, I'd just started my company. So it was a rocky start.

Despite that, it turns out working all day and all night can yield good results. I was working all day at my regular job them gathering clients at night so I could go out alone.  One of the women that I worked with at Saatchi was very good friends with a gentleman that was the Acting President of one of our first fashion clients. He and I met and he had some trouble with his existing agency and truthfully had blown a whole budget on a campaign he ended up rejecting. He called me and said I don't really have any money but I need you to do this... It was a wonderful partnership that has lasted to this day. He's taken my agency to most of the places he's gone. 

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your industry?
I don't know if there's a single one. Advertising has an arc. Like a swarm of locusts that come every seventeen years, I think with advertising I notice every seven years or so, some disaster enfolds us. Whether it be September 11 or 2009 after the financial crash. Those were two very challenging times. 

I think now is a challenging time. I think the advent of social media becoming so powerful has left us truthfully devoid of quality work. I find it challenging as a creative to embrace it because so much sub-par work is being put out to the universe and it's not interesting, productive or provocative in a positive or negative way, it's simply noise.

Volume for volumes sakes doesn't always reflect a lift in sales or better impressions for my clients. If my job is to push sales and further a brand position and a brand identity that they believe in, the sheer volume of it doesn't always make sense.

What motivates you?
Stubbornness and aesthetics. When you talk to any entrepreneur they will tell you, “We have a stubborn optimism”. Failure is never an option. You've got to show up tenaciously everyday of the week. Even when times are really hard, if I can do something I genuinely believe in creatively or even spend half an hour with my team doing something that is aesthetically pleasing to me, then I get happy and excited. I never get bored of that.

What advice would you give to someone at the start of his or her career?
Stay curious. Embrace change. Be malleable. Never never never never never never give up. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Still being here. Not giving up. Staying excited about the work. 

I'm not Steve Jobs. Nobody is building a monument to me. I haven't amassed a fortune that anyone could point to. But I remain interested in inspiring people that work with me to do work they enjoy and love. That's always my intent and my journey.

And never asking my Dad for money.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Stubbornness. I will never give up.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
It's okay to be afraid. When people's jobs are on the line, when people are counting on you, it can be really frightening. It can be paralytically frightening. To move forward anyway and to face failure and success equally, that's the key to success. 

What do you believe are the personality traits of great leaders?
A lack of dogma. You cannot simply do something because that's the way you've always done it. Ever. That is the worst thing in the world.  

Do you believe there’s a secret to rising up to the top?
No. I just believe in hard work every single day. 

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
Other business owners. It's been a long time coming and it's been hard to find people to talk to that truly empathize with the challenges I face. They are the most valuable resource. Not all business owners but a couple of friends that understand the weight and responsibility of a payroll. It's a really big deal. I don't think employees understand how taxing that is for a business owner, how truly heavy that is. I don't know a business owner that doesn't care.

What's next?
I'm spending a lot of time thinking about what my industry looks like as a creative person in the next 3-5 years. I think the good news and the exciting part is that there is opportunity now for telling longer stories and broader tales. It’s an exciting new time where we can engage on a deeper level. Finding a way to make that make sense consistently and financially for our clients and our creatives, is what's ahead. It will mean reshaping the complexion of my creative department but that's exciting too.

As told to Caroline Hugall over Skype on Friday 17th April 2015. Sara splits her time between New York and Los Angeles.