Why Never Asking Dad For Money Is One Of This Woman's Greatest Achievements

Photo: Courtesy of How Did She Get There.
As told to Caroline Hugall

Sara Rotman started and runs one of the only female-owned advertising agencies in New York and has been in operation for almost 20 years, working with a range of fashion clients, including Tory Burch, Carolina Herrera, Vera Wang, Theory, Via Spiga, and more. Considering that the industry is predominately run by men, this is no small feat. Rotman has remained an independently owned agency to this day, and she's got some powerful words on life and work.
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); and 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 quote. It's a beautiful, fictionalized account of the power of learning and curiosity. 

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 12 p.m. I usually get up between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m.  

What is your favorite time of the work 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. 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.

My dad gave me two choices: doctor or lawyer. I said I wanted to be an artist, and so I moved to New York, where I paid for my college education and wrote my own story. Throughout putting myself through school, I always made a point to work in the creative industry. I didn't bartend; I was a young designer at a design studio and I was doing illustrations for money on the side. 

Eventually, I started doing graphic design, which I quite liked. I soon looked into advertising so that I could utilize my writing skills. 

When you are given the opportunity to think and tell the client's story in a truthful way and their business flourishes, that makes me a happy creative director.

Before I founded my own agency called MODCo (My Own Damn Company), I worked for some other ad agencies, including Saatchi & Saatchi and RDA. I officially started doing business under the MODCo name in 1996, even though I hadn't quit my day job. It was a rough start: I opened my first office in 2000, just shortly before September 11, 2001. Three of my clients disappeared in that horrible event, business was impossible, and then I got divorced. Despite that, it turns out working all day and all night can yield good results.
Photo: Courtesy of How Did She Get There.
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 every day 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 am 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 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'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.

To read more about Rotman and her career path, click here.

More from Work & Money