Sarah Personette’s career has taken her on a wild tour around the industry.
After graduating from Northwestern in 2001, she landed an agency job at Starcom – taking the interview on a whim. She was on an upward trajectory when she left the agency world to join an upstart social media company called Facebook.
“My dad said, ‘This is the worst decision you’ve ever made. Why would you leave a senior leadership position for a company I've never heard of?’” she recalled. But Personette wanted to learn about technology and social – an education she wouldn’t get sticking with the agencies.
Since then, she’s circulated through the industry, bouncing back to the agency world when she became Universal McCann’s US president in 2013, at the tender age of 33. She then bounced back to Facebook, and ran through a short stint in publishing as COO of Refinery29.
Now she’s back in the social media world. For more than a year, she’s served as VP of global client solutions at Twitter.
“If you’re the master of your own education, you’re always going to be successful and improving,” she said.
She spoke with AdExchanger about her career.
AdExchanger: How’d you become an agency chief at the age of 33?
SARAH PERSONETTE: I joined [Facebook] as a CPG strategist. We weren’t supporting agencies, so I built the global agency team.
After being there for three-and-a-half years, I was asked by Jacki Kelley, who was running IPG Mediabrands in North America, to run UM. I was like, “Really? You want me to do that?” I had to say yes. It wasn’t about leaving technology, but running toward this life goal.
Why did you go back to Facebook if running an agency was your life goal?
I was asked by Facebook to come back and oversee the global business marketing team. I had media as a background, I had run a company, but I had never been in the pure-play marketing space. It was also the transition of Facebook going from one app to a portfolio of apps. Figuring out how to go to market as a suite of brands was an interesting, complex problem.
What appealed to you about Twitter?
I wanted to learn how to drive sales and revenue globally. I couldn’t deny the gravitational pull toward [Twitter’s] mission of serving the public conversation. I gravitate toward people with a principled value system, and I think that’s what Jack and the leadership team at Twitter create.
Marketers run into brand safety issues on Twitter a lot. How do you handle those conversations?
Business is the most personal thing in the world. When a client or an agency is upset, I lean into understanding what occurred and how we can solve it as quickly as possible.
I’ve also sat on the agency and marketer side. I know the challenges they face and how when something along the lines of brand safety occurs it makes their day-to-day harder. It is my responsibility to lean into that.
You also sit on the board at Build-A-Bear. How’d you end up there?
Our ability to create equality starts with leadership at the boardroom level all the way through to the classroom, the living room, a meeting room and to the Congress floor. That flows through to women being in leadership positions and upper management, where a lot fall out of the workforce because we don’t recalibrate how we support them.
Two or three years ago, about 17% of publicly traded boards had women on them. Yet the workforce was over 50% female. There’s no reason for that disparity. You [reach] a tipping point when you hit 30% of a group being represented in a discussion. When you have only 17% of women at the director level, you miss the opportunity to think about how they should be paid and supported.
What would you like to see change about how women are supported by employers?
Women are the primary caregivers, whether of the elderly or their children. If you’re not thinking about that, you can’t support your workforce. If you’re not taking into consideration what women or minorities are experiencing, you’re not going to have the best products for them.
You have two young kids. How do you balance your career responsibilities with being a mom?
I have a 5 and a 7-year-old. I take the responsibility of being present with them really seriously. When I am home I do not have my phone out. I work from home every Friday, even if that means taking a red-eye flight from India. No matter what, I take them to school every Friday morning. On the weekends I am fully focused on them.
What advice would you give to young people trying to find a good work-life balance?
You know how you want to operate to feel like you can be successful. If a company can’t meet you there, then you need to recalibrate whether that’s the right place for you.
No company will hug you 10 years from now. I’m very clear on who will hug me 10 years from now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.