As the CEO, CCO and Boss Lady of MODCo (My Own Damn Company), Sara Rotman leverages strategy and an eye for beautiful aesthetic to create and redefine iconic brands.
Prior to forming MODCo, Sara's professional experience ranged from Sony Music to Saatchi & Saatchi and RDA International, where she was the creative director for clients such as VH1 and Broadway Video. It was during this tenure that she found her niche working in fashion, beauty and entertainment.
Some of her most recognizable successes are the creation and launch of the Tory Burch and C Wonder brands and working with Vera Wang across brand extensions (including Vera Wang Lavender Label, SimplyVera, Vera Wang White and Vera Wang Love). Additional clients have included True Religion, Century 21, Nina Ricci, Theory, Jack Rogers and Carolina Herrera. MODCo is the only female-owned-and-operated creative fashion ad agency.
From The Truth
If you have a degree, in what field is it? A BFA in graphic design from the School of Visual Arts.
Which designer (or design studio), other than yours, do you most admire? Hands down, Saul Bass. Then, Raymond Lowey. As for contemporary design studios, Pentagram. MODCo is a creative branding agency, so we do a great deal more than design but design excellence is the cornerstone of our business and has been our bread-and-butter since inception. To see another studio consistently producing such outstanding work on such a large scale is both gratifying and inspiring.
What’s the strangest request you've received from a client? I once had a client with a daughter who was a senior in art school. Toward the end of her senior year, he asked me to help her with her senior portfolio thesis—which I was happy to do. I expected her to request a critique and perhaps a review or two to help her refine her projects. However, when we met, I discovered that she had done none of the coursework for the year and expected MODCo to produce her entire portfolio. Needless to say, I politely declined the request.
If you weren’t working as a designer what would you be doing? I’d like to be a chef or a Formula 1 racecar driver. Seriously.
What well-known identity is most desperately in need of a redesign? It’s hard for me to keep my answer to just one identity, so here are a few that mystify me: The “new” United/Continental merger identity was a hugely missed opportunity for something special but the merged identity contains none of the strength of either of the original two brands, and instead weakens both by simply blending them together. And, Duane Reade, which, quite simply, begs the question, why shouldn’t the place where I can purchase body wash, lipstick, roasted almonds, digital video cards, oxycodone and condoms be sexy and inspiring? Finally, California Pizza Kitchen needs an overhaul. Let’s keep the pizza the same, but update the identity.
From where do your best ideas originate? It’s tough for any creative to answer this question without sounding pretentious. To me, it’s like asking, “How do you make a billion dollars?” And, if there was one simple answer, we’d all be world famous designers and billionaires. That said, although this sounds maddeningly oversimplified, my honest answer is, from the truth. It’s imperative to understand the challenge in front of you and then (especially in the communication arts field) devise solutions that tell the truth about that challenge. Whatever solution we come up with absolutely must be the one truth for that client, job or project. When this truth is hard to find, I always try to narrow the creative box or boundaries I’m working in because the narrower the parameters, the more creativity is forced into action and the more pure communication results. Seek the truth. If you can’t find it, look in a smaller box until you’re able to invent something that is singular, true and memorable. Easy, right? Now where’s my billion bucks?
How do you overcome a creative block? Generally speaking, I find ass-in-the-chair is the best solution. In my experience, creative blocks occur when you’re locked into a specific solution that isn’t working. But instead of sensibly abandoning it, you keep reworking it until the idea is dead. When I realize anyone on the MODCo staff (myself included) is drowning in that quagmire, I always encourage a complete about-face, a flying leap, a crazy winger, a scribbling outside-the-lines, a scary-insane-possibly-offensive solution to the problem to shatter those loathsome self-imposed blinders. It always yields something of interest and gives all our minds a break from forcing that round peg into a square hole. And if the insane solution isn’t the right one, most times the break from the grind enables a fresh outlook that leads to finding the right solution to the original task.
What’s your dream project (not client, but project)? All of my dream projects include a 360-degree approach where we can control all consumer touchpoints. It’s the reason I founded my company; bifurcating various creative challenges among different agencies dilutes the message. It’s rare that any agency gets the opportunity to manage every element of a job, but sometimes we do get lucky enough to do just that. When we do, I’m a complete design dork about it—all grins and Pollyanna-like enthusiasm. Right now, I’m a little obsessed with Tractor Supply. I’d love to do a complete overhaul on that chain (from ID and packaging, to the advertising messaging, online and in-store environment). I’d also love the opportunity to work on bringing Levi’s back to their well-deserved place as America’s most important (apparel) brand. To work on a brand with that much history and value would be both daunting and gratifying—the Levi’s logo is absolutely perfect and, dare I say, sacred. I’m also dying to do a feature film. The idea of a 90-minute, beautifully-written and gloriously-art-directed commercial is irresistible to me. Any creative director worth their chops secretly (or openly) wants to do a movie.
Do you have creative outlets other than graphic design? I am, like so many of us graphic designers, a control freak and I like to design many (OK, nearly all) elements of my living environment. As a result, I spend my spare time designing outdoor furniture or rugs for my L.A. home, textile designs for cushions, curtains and wallpaper and handbag and shoe designs for my accessories line, LOQUITA NYC. In addition to design, I do love writing—although it’s a love/hate relationship. Focusing on writing can be hard, but when I do, I will get lost in it for hours and hours. I also spend a lot of time cooking, which I think is an incredibly aesthetic exercise and one I take very seriously.
What’s your approach to balancing work and life? Consider them one-and-the-same and you’ll live in a constant state of balance. I am fortunate to own my own company which means, like all business owners, I work 24/7 and am never more than a few minutes away from returning an email or phone call. That being said, when I do need to get away, I can make those calls from a mountain-top or the back of a horse in New York, Los Angeles or La Pampas, Argentina. I am completely committed to work but not because someone is telling me that I have to show up. I do it because I love what I do. Period. I work with clients who believe in what I’m doing, so the work is always strong and I’m proud of all of it. I wasn’t able to say this when I worked for someone else, but now, I can say with a great deal of relief that I never execute work that I’m not proud of. That’s all the balance I need.
What product/gadget can you not live without? Both of my cell phones.
What's your favorite quote? “Courage is being scared to death...and saddling up anyway.” —John Wayne.
Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Nurture your discipline. There are lots of talented failures in the world. But a person with talent and discipline will always be taken seriously and given room to thrive.
What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I understood the need for political savvy. It’s a skill that I avoided early on, because of the mistaken belief that honest creative disagreement required an adversarial relationship. I am much happier now finding ways to work toward common goals with my clients and co-workers, rather than feeling like I’m fighting them; happily, the result is consistent, largely unmolested creative. Learning that early on would have saved me years of heartache and frustration.
I also wish I knew that men and women are still trained differently as children and that their expectations for performance and compensation are radically disparate when they enter the workforce. I observe this most often when negotiating deals, hiring staff and running the business side of my business. Although sometimes subtle, I am still surprised by the differences in expectations between the genders—and thats true for my youngest juniors to my most seasoned clients. This is perhaps the most disappointing and frustrating element that I continue to face in my career. We must stop pretending that sexism is gone and adjust our actions accordingly so that we can truly gain equality. I still have to remind myself not to be complacent as I advance my own career and nurture young talent because I too have grown accustomed to simply doing more just to be equal.