I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Napier, the CEO and co-founder of Partners + Napier, a national ad agency with global reach based in Rochester, New York. Named by Ad Age as one of the 100 most influential women in the ad business, Sharon has been honored as an International Athena Award winner, a Trailblazing Working Mom, and an Entrepreneur of the Year. Partners + Napier was just ranked as North America’s 15th most effective agency by Effie Worldwide, and Sharon herself was just named the co-vice chair of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a leading trade organization.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m a born entrepreneur, the daughter of first-generation, Italian immigrant parents who worked day and night to achieve the American dream. In my dad’s case, he founded a successful hair care products company.
My original plan was to pursue a career in social work, but in my early 20s, I was offered the opportunity to work on a political campaign for local district attorney. He won, and so did I.
In learning all about marketing a candidate, I shifted my sights on the ad business. By my mid-30s I was named the president and CEO of the Wolf Group, a mid-sized agency based in Toronto. I was running two of the Group’s six offices, but I wanted more.
So with a supportive husband and two young daughters at home, I went back to school and got my Master’s at 43 (while keeping my day job). We then mortgaged our lives and I was fortunate to inspire 40 brave souls to take the plunge with me. Partners + Napier was founded in 2004.
Why did you found your company?
I had big dreams. I truly believed we could create a national agency that was Rochester-based, but not Rochester-bound, and in the process leave a mark on people, business, and culture.
From the get-go, I also harbored a big desire to establish a global footprint. That’s why I negotiated the sale of our agency to Project Worldwide in 2011, which is now a network of 14 independent yet interdependent agencies with 2,200+ people spanning 146 locations united in service of creativity. I’m especially proud to be part of Project’s Global Strategic Leadership Council.
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
When most people think about advertising, they think Madison Avenue. They think New York City. L.A. San Francisco. That was the prevailing mindset we had to buck when Rochester fell on hard times back in the early 2000’s, and big-name agencies started shuttering their local operations in favor of the major markets. Not us.
We took a gamble and bet that our deep understanding of real and resourceful people living real and resourceful lives away from the glitter of the big city would enable us to leave a mark — on people, business and culture. It’s our pursuit of what we call “Effectivity” — a.k.a. highly effective creative — that has a lasting impact on everyday Americans and delivers a strong return for our clients, earning us a ranking as the 15th most effective agency in North America.
The fact that we’ve been able to do this for a mix of major clients and challenger brands including BMW Financial Services, Friendship Dairies, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, BurgerFi, Highmark, Schuman Cheese, Delta Vacations and Constellation Brands primarily from a mid-size market like Rochester is a testament to the hugely talented team we’ve assembled.
Another enormous point of pride: the amount of time and creativity the agency pours into making a difference on a wide range of pro bono activities — from combating teen homelessness to dramatically reversing absentee trends in the Rochester school system to spearheading this year’s “Go Red For Women” campaign for the American Heart Association.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
It starts with family. My dad taught me that my word is my bond. So is a handshake. My two older sisters helped cultivate a fierce competitive streak in me on the basketball court when I was a kid. That’s where I learned the critical importance of teamwork when it comes to working toward a larger goal — and winning. I still use some of the lessons learned when I played shooting guard at St. John Fisher College in business today.
I also continue to be inspired by Courtney Cotrupe, who’s now my #2 and president at Partners + Napier. Call it a reverse-mentor relationship. We are two strong women from two different generations who learn from and challenge each other every day. I’ve always made a point of being a good mentor to other women — and men — and it’s nothing short of amazing to reflect on how people like Courtney continue to make me a better, smarter leader.
How are you going to shake things up next?
I’ve spent a dozen years on the board of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s), long serving as secretary/treasurer. I was recently named vice-co-chair, and that’s a big responsibility I take seriously.
The ad business is going through seismic changes, and I want to continue helping our agency and the industry overall adapt to a world where the customer is in complete control. Connecting with them on their terms is more critical than ever. Advertising is meant to shape opinions and influence behavior, therefore we as advertisers have an immense responsibility to ensure that the language, imagery and messaging we use in our ads is representative and inclusive of the people seeing them.
To really do this effectively, we need to have diverse and inclusive teams. This includes people of different genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, points of view, etc. We’ve come a long way since I was starting out in the industry. Too often in my career I wasn’t taken seriously as a woman. And while we’ve come a long way, there is a long way to go. I want to continue making room for more — more people with differences to celebrate and involve. That’s how we’ll shake this industry up for the better.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
Be a lifelong learner. That’s a big reason why I went back to graduate school in my early 40s. I have also stayed very involved with the Rochester Institute of Technology, one of my alma maters. I was proud to be named Alumnus of the Year in 2016, and to be named a Trustee earlier this year. I sincerely enjoy visiting campus to share life and business lessons with students. Even better, I keep learning from them.
Say yes to new opportunities. Don’t whine about being “too busy.” I consider that the new lazy. If the CEO of the 4A’s hadn’t asked me to serve as the treasurer of the organization — something which I had no experience doing — I wouldn’t be the co-vice chair now.
Take care of yourself. Body and soul. The ad business demands physical and mental stamina. It’s highly intense with constant meetings, phone calls at all hours, endless email streams, and navigating airports and traffic jams. That’s why I make a point out of working out each morning. I also exercise my brain and do lots of reading. If you’re not mindful of it, this business can take a toll on you. I refuse to let it.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking?
I’m voracious when it comes to Girlboss Radio/Podcasts. It’s funny. Thanks to my parents always telling me I could achieve whatever I set my mind to, I never defined myself as a woman leader. But maybe I should have. I’d set my sights on being a leader period, and while that’s paid off for me, I’m incredibly inspired by the Girlboss community of strong and curious and ambitious women who are committed to giving women and girls the “tools and connections they need to own their future.” Hear us roar.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Not only would I like to have a private meal with her, I’d give anything to challenge Sarah Robb O’Hagan to a friendly/intense tennis match, spin class, or better yet go one-on-one with her on the basketball court. She’s the CEO of Flywheel Sports and the author of what may be one of my all-time favorite book titles: “Extreme YOU: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat.” Sarah defines “extremers” as people who live up to their personal potential, know what they love and shine in their careers. Count me in!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
My Twitter handle is @sharondnapier. I’m also active on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Originally published at medium.com