After years of amazing feats in media, PR and advertising, Sarah Hofstetter, the former CEO of 360i, president of Comscore and a current member of Campbell Soup Co.’s board of directors, offers some sound advice on the road to success. Namely, don’t go it alone. Look for mentors and confidants who can support you along the way. And when it comes to non-negotiables in the constant work-life struggle for balance, Sarah says, stick with them. You’ll be happy that you did.
How did you get to where you are today?
When I look back at my career to date, there are a couple of key themes. The first is storytelling, which was consistent throughout my time in journalism, PR, social media and advertising. When I was a journalism student, I absolutely loved the narrative development and how you had to write to keep readers engaged. When I moved over to PR and later social media, I loved the idea of earning attention because it was deserved, not because you were the loudest or the richest. And advertising is one of the best storytelling mediums out there.
The second is fearlessness. When we started the social media practice at 360i almost 15 years ago, we weren’t just starting it at 360i, we were blazing a trail for the industry. We were not only doing things that no one else was doing, people thought we were outright insane. Why would anyone care what a blogger had to say? Why would I want to go on Twitter and see what you had for lunch? What’s the point of Facebook? As it turned out (and as we predicted) social media did become the mass movement that put consumers in control of brands at scale and that has turned the industry upside down.
What pivotal moments did you face along the way?
"People tend to respect those who are committed to their values, regardless of the stakes."
After we did the OREO Super Bowl tweet six years ago at 360i, our inboxes were blowing up with companies trying to capture lightning in a bottle, throwing money at us to create real-time newsrooms and be their social media agency of record. But instead of going down a very narrow path of just being a social media agency and making an extra buck or two, we stayed true to our mission to become the best digitally-led agency (beyond social). We did this by partnering with brands to capitalize on the changing marketing landscape to grow their businesses. I’m very proud that we created a much more sustainable agency as a result rather than getting distracted by a bright, shiny object.
On a personal note, about 10 years ago, I decided to be more open and public about my religious observance (I’m observant Jewish). I had long thought that my observance, which includes eating exclusively kosher and observing Sabbath, would put me at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. While many folks in the advertising business rely on fancy dinners and trips as mechanisms to build relationships, I can assure you that nothing builds a bond like spending two hours trekking around St. Louis with the CMO of Enterprise trying to track down the only kosher joint in the city. People tend to respect those who are committed to their values, regardless of the stakes. Embracing my vulnerabilities and turning them into assets has been a cornerstone of my credo since then.
What do you see as the major opportunities and challenges for women today and what advice can you give them?
I look at the differences in the workforce composition from when I started my career until now, and I feel more optimistic for my 19-year-old daughter’s ability to do whatever she wants than I ever thought I had when I graduated college.
"My advice applies equally to men and women, which is to get a true smart friend at work."
My advice applies equally to men and women, which is to get a true smart friend at work. Mentors are ideal, but sometimes they’re harder to find, so if not, find someone whom you trust professionally and will be candid with you. The complexities of an office environment are highly situational, fraught with unique personality issues, and interdependencies. Because of this, only friends within your office can really give you advice on how to advocate for yourself – they can hold up a mirror to you, provide you with the candor you need to help you put on your best self and succeed at your job and in your career.
Who helped you in your journey and how did they help shape your thinking and career?
Bryan Wiener has been a mentor of mine for almost 20 years. He started out as a friend when we worked at Net2Phone, a Voice over IP startup, and his advice proved invaluable in helping me become a better advocate for myself (see my note above on advice). Bryan encouraged me to challenge the status quo and played a critical role in inspiring me to start my own consulting firm helping entrepreneurial companies craft their positioning and marketing strategy. 360i became one of my first clients, which changed the trajectory of my career dramatically, as a couple of years later, I resigned my other clients to join him at 360i. Together, we were able to build [it] into one of the best agencies in the country for many years.
What one thing would you have done differently early in your career?
I would have fought more to take off more time when I had each of my kids. I had my kids early – when I was 24 and 27, and my boss gave me six weeks with each of them, which was just not enough physically or emotionally, and took its toll on me for many years to come. I didn’t have the self-confidence to ask for more, and was petrified I was going to lose my job, so I just didn’t ask. It’s time I just simply will never get back and have always felt awful about it.
How have you found the right balance between your personal life and career?
Is balance really a thing? I certainly haven’t mastered it. It’s more about choices than balance; those who seem to struggle the most are the ones who think they can have it all without consequences. These are very personal decisions around picking the non-negotiables for each person, whether it’s career-oriented or personal life. Over my career, I pretty much gave up the idea of having hobbies and going to the gym regularly in exchange for picking the things that mattered to me more, like my family, my religion and my job. And as life evolves, those non-negotiables have changed. I’m just a few months away from being an empty-nester, and so perhaps without my kids at home, I’ll be able to get my tuchas to the gym a bit more.