Sarah Hofstetter on resilience

Sarah Hofstetter is CEO of 360i, a digitally-led full-service advertising agency. During her 11 years with the business, 360i has developed industry leading practices that have helped cement its reputation as "A-List" agency and one of the "Best Places to Work" in Media & Marketing. Sarah's expertise is in providing strategic counsel to clients. Her career started in journalism before a stint in PR led her to the ad world. Sarah is clever, consistent and action-oriented. There’s a lot to learn from this mother of two. 

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be 2 things, a mommy and a teacher. By the time I was 10 my teacher at school had completely inspired me. She was so good at finding ways to get information into my brain that it made me want to figure out how to do that for others. I continued wanting to be a teacher till I got to college, but there were too many credits needed to get an education degree, so I switched and focused on sociology and journalism.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
Someone who can build a boat! I need more diversity of thought than just being with one person forever. I must get off that island.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It helped prepare me for being CEO. Horowitz was a serial entrepreneur before becoming a venture capitalist. The book is so special because it provides insight into dire business scenarios and how to navigate the best, of what are seemingly bad options. It’s reflective of real life and helps to uncover deductive reasoning with an air of practicality.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I go to bed sometime between midnight and 1:00am, and I am up between 6:00 and 6:30am. Except for Friday nights. Friday nights I sleep.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
When I gave up a teaching career as an option, I wanted to be a journalist so I became a journalism student. My first internship turned into my first job at The New York Times. I was editing op-eds for syndication but it did not pay the bills, so I went to the dark side of PR, client-side to a company called net2phone. I stayed there for 10 years.

Then I went out on my own and founded Kayak Communications taking net2phone as my first client. 360i was also one of my early clients and while consulting for them I helped start the social media practice. That’s more than 11 years ago now! I enjoyed it so much I resigned all my clients and came to work at 360i full time. I moved up over the past 11 years from marketing consultant to Global CEO.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
Probably the biggest obstacle was people telling me I couldn't do things. Not because I was stupid, but because agency life would not be suitable for somebody like me, and by somebody like me, it's because I'm Observant Jewish. That means that from sundown on Friday till late at night on Saturday I can't do any work. Other people in the ad agency business will work 24/7. I also only eat kosher. Relationships are a big part of the agency business, so here I am limited in what I can eat and drink with clients. I’ve had a number of obstacles just by virtue of the fact of my faith-based choices. A lot of people call that an obstacle, and it has definitely been a vulnerability if you will.

But I believe because of those things, they have actually become strong assets for me. I think people tend to be more likely to trust people that stick with their convictions. I find that even though I don't sleep much during the week, I catch up a ton on the weekend and it's definitely prevented burnout, being able to have that unplugging time. What was my strongest vulnerability in the agency business has become a very important asset for me, as I see it.

What motivates you?
Beating the odds. When we started the social media practice at 360i people thought we were bananas. Social media started out as mostly being bloggers, and brands put no credit against bloggers. They thought they were guys in their underwear living in their parents' basement, and yet they were starting to grow in significance and influence. When we started doing marketing on Twitter, I remember other agency executives saying, "Why are you on Twitter? I don't care what you had for lunch today." We saw that as an opportunity for brands and consumers to connect without anything in the middle.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I had known to be a better advocate for myself, which may seem silly because I'm relatively young. I'm 41, and I'm running an agency, and that's kind of cool. When I first started out in my first few years, I was doing the work of other people and I did not advocate for myself. I thought that was the way it needed to be.

I think it's important to find a way to advocate for yourself. Once somebody taught that to me, which was only about 8 or 9 years in, then I was off to the races, but it took a while until I figured it out.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Having kids, that's the biggest freaking deal there is out there.  My daughter just turned 17 last week, and my son will be 15 this summer. I was 24 when I had my daughter and one of the bigger achievements, which I had no choice in, was coming back to work after six weeks of maternity leave. That totally sucked.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
Resilience. I don't usually use that word to describe myself but one of our clients used that word for me in a meeting last week. In the agency business you get knocked around a lot, it’s not for the faint of heart.

What is your life motto?
My kids will tell you that I often say “Hope is a terrible strategy.” I believe you’ve got to make things happen.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Take on the challenges nobody else wants. It was a big piece of advice and one I give to our interns. It’s a great way for you to stand out, because if you don't succeed, well that sucks, but neither can anybody else. However, if you do succeed, then the confidence that you'll have in yourself will increase exponentially, the trust that others will have in you will exist, and the PR value will go up as well.

What's your favorite TED talk?
Sir Ken Robinson Do Schools Kill Creativity

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I greatly admire my boss, Bryan Wiener. I have worked with him for 16 years and he’s taught me a tremendous amount about how to build a business and how to find and nurture the right kind of talent. A good portion of my positive contributions have come from learnings that come from him.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
At 360i we hire for three key qualities so I believe they are the secret to succeeding.
1.              Passion. You've got to love what you do and who you work with.
2.              Purpose. Knowing where and how to spend your time.
3.              Perseverance. Figuring out different ways to solve a problem.

Are there work ethics and attitudes that you naturally gravitate towards in the office?
Adam Bryant, who writes the Corner Office column for The New York Times, talks about people with a high do:say ratio, people who say what they're going to do and then actually do it. When I heard this, the light bulb went off in my head and I realized that I love people with a high do:say ratio.

What's next?
I've got a lot more to do here, this job is far from done. It’s ironic that with so much more content, information and media being digitally driven, the advertising industry is notreally  digitally driven. At 360i we are on a mission to re-imagine advertising, and look at it as a digitally-led but not digitally limited medium. For progressive marketers who want to build brands today, I think we're the right agency. The industry's got to come along, obviously we have some clients that have done it, and there are a lot more we've got to convert, so we're on a mission.


As told to Caroline Hugall at 360i New York Office on Monday 27th June 2016.