ADOTAS Conversations: Sarah Fay, President, Isobar US

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It would be almost an understatement to say that plenty of women are taking more active leadership roles within the interactive space. But while the field is now saturated with top execs of the female persuasion, a few names stick out of the pile, including Isobar US President Sarah Fay.

An online vet who got her start in high-tech ad sector with Freeman Associates, Fay has rapidly climbed to the top of the advertising echelon through her many years at Carat. In fact, her online prowess caught the eye of the company’s higher-ups early on, so much so in fact that they handpicked Fay to build and lead Carat Interactive in 2000. As expected, she didn’t disappoint either, turning an interactive media shop into a full-service digital marketing agency with over $800 million in billings and premium clients like Pfizer, Adidas, Gateway, Wachovia, and AOL.

But perhaps Fay’s greatest coup occurred within just the last 18 months, as she spearheaded the acquisitions of five specialist digital marketing firms — Vizium, Lot 21, Freestyle, iProspect, and Molecular. Now, all companies are nestled within the Isobar umbrella, which Fay currently serves as president of all US operations for.

So in our ongoing series of ADOTAS Conversations, we were fortunate enough to steal Sarah Fay away for a few minutes, and learn how she became a Carat chief, what the future holds for the interactive space and how she handles managing such a wide net of companies.

Hi, Sarah. So tell me a bit about your background.

I was a partner at an agency that was acquired by Carat back in 1997. When I began, we were five women and our niche was [being] a media agency for high-technology companies.

Is that Freeman Associates?

That’s right.. Carat acquired us in 1997. At that point, we did have an online advertising practice. There was a point in time, when I think about 85 percent of the advertising market that was doing online was high-tech companies.

Right. That’s what I heard.

So we kind of got dragged into it, but we were—you know, interested in it. One of our early clients was—not CMGI, but the company that became CMGI, Booklink. [CMGI founder/CEO] David Wetherall led us into his office and gave us a demonstration of the Internet, and talked about how this is a marketing platform. And we were like “Wow, this is just so cool!”

So, we were interested and started getting involved early on, and we actually became one of the major companies in New England that held events on the interactive space and became a sort of go-to place that was actually executing online advertising. That was in the days without servers, and we were really bushwhacking, like everyone else, in that space. So when Carat acquired us, they were just trying to build presence in the United States, and this gave them a geographic presence in the Boston/New England area, and also in B2B.

So tell me more about the Carat acquisition.

Actually, our acquisition became final the day [Carat North America CEO] David Verklin started. He came to join our celebration dinner and nobody had met him before! So it was the really, really early days for Carat. And when Carat was ready to get into the interactive space, valuations for the online agencies were just incredibly high at that point. They didn’t see a way in through acquisitions. They said, ‘You guys seem to be doing a lot.

Why don’t you write a business plan and we’ll look at launching Carat Interactive out of your unit in Boston, and we’ll airlift you out so that you’re no longer just part of the Freeman Group, but you’ll really be the hub for the whole agency.’ So that’s what happened. That was in 2000. That was very close to when the whole market came to a dead halt.

Right, the infamous bust.

Yes. We had investment dollars, and we were ready to go, and we had a vision for how we were going to launch this great interactive media group. We kicked off, but quite honestly, a lot of the online budgets were drying up. So it caused us to shape a very different kind of company. Really early on, we started to get into search—both organic and paid search. It didn’t take a huge budget to do that, and you could still achieve major results. We also got into the affiliate marketing practice really early on. And then, as we moved along, we realized, ‘it’s really hard to execute an online media plan without a tight connection to creative. We think we need a creative offering.’

For Carat to say, “Okay, go ahead and build a creative offering” was really a big deal, because their whole position was media independence. They said, ‘You’re going to make your own ads?’ and we said, “We need to if you want us to reach our goals.” So they allowed us to pursue a creative practice within interactive. And interestingly enough, that same phenomenon was happening in all of our company’s interactive groups—around our company in different areas of the world. So, for instance, independently, France launched a creative practice, and Italy launched a creative practice.

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