'To women climbing that ladder now, you'd better make it to the top': Independent Insights featuring Barker's Sandi Harari

Sandi Harari, executive vice president, creative director of Barker, says to women

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Sandi Harari, EVP and creative director at Barker.

Sandi Harari has been with "fiercely independent" shop Barker in New York as a creative director for 13 years. At the time of her hire, she was part of the 3% of advertising agencies with women in the lead creative role.

The creative teams she's been in charge of in that time have helped Barker win business from Slim-Fast, Parx Casino, and luxury mattress brand Hastens, raking in over 35 industry awards.

Harari, a colleague of founder and chief idea officer John Barker back when they both worked at Grey Entertainment, has carved out a lane for herself as a vocal advocate for women's progression in the workplace, most recently earning the title of She Runs It's (formerly known as AWNY) Working Mother of the Year.

The Drum asked Harari what she looks for in hiring creatives, keeping the mental states of her employees afloat in an eventful 2017, and the elephant on Madison Avenue: sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The year’s ending very soon: what have you been most proud to see from your creative teams in 2017?

I am proudest of going four for five in new business wins this year. Not just because it’s new business, but because every one of those pitches demanded late nights, long weekends and never dropping the ball on existing client work.

We don’t have a creative team devoted to new business. It rests on the same people who are killing themselves day in and day out to be great for all our existing commitments. And somehow, magically, we pull it off.

I am kidding, of course, because it’s not magic — it’s everyone genuinely wanting to pitch in, to get knee-deep in a new client, to help their fellow colleagues and of course a very healthy dose of competition.

We do like to win and I couldn’t be prouder.

What do you predict will be a major factor for creatives in 2018?

2018 will be the year of the “Holistic Thinker" — the ones that can synthesize so much, go across virtually any medium and look at everything they do through the lens of the consumer.

Clients are demanding smart work that moves the needle, which requires agencies that are nimble and wicked smart. In my opinion, the siloed shops with specialists are dwindling, and having it all is becoming a client expectation. They want genius solutions, for sometimes less money and as always, they need to cut through what is a forever increasing level of noise and reach people. There is so much flux right now with how agencies outfit themselves in this new climate. I think it’s such a fun time to be a creative and allow all your interests and passions come to bear in your work.

When hiring someone at Barker, what do you look for?

Three things. One: the solid ability to own a big idea (so you’re never just chasing an execution). Two, razor sharp strategic skills: we have a high bar for the level of strategic thinking we expect across both account and creative. And three: emotional intelligence — it's a skill that allows you to insert into any culture, situation, client.

We’ve had so many societal issues intersect and get addressed this year. How have you kept your colleagues afloat through all the madness?

It’s a combo of keeping the day fun, interesting and positive. In typical Barker tradition, we let our personalities hang out and we feel whatever feelings we have with each other and it’s all good.

I also try my best to stay legitimately calm and breathe, so my team, by osmosis, does as well. And even more importantly, I make a concerted effort to display positivity in every situation, assume the best in someone and help others look at every client and inter-office situation through a positive lens. I do this because despite the madness, there is also amazing. I feel that through and through, I am not faking it. I do not let crazy bring me down. I feel like there is always something to appreciate and celebrate in life, even if it is something small.

Additionally, this year we launched an internal programed named “Creative Friday Mornings” whereby we have a visiting artist inspire us. It’s just the creative department, some morning treats and our visitor, which can range from a music house, a photographer, a painter, we even hosted a water color session. We’ve all come to look forward to it, it gets us smart about what’s going on in our industry in technology and gets us inspired via art mediums we don’t get to practice in advertising. This is a tough business and lightening it up is an essential ingredient to be successful over the long haul. I have been at Barker 13 years - I never thought I would be anywhere longer than 4 — but somehow, I still walk in with the excitement usually reserved for a new job. So, whatever we’ve built – it’s working.

You wrote an amazing letter to men in the ad industry earlier this year. With a recent explosion of allegations of men in power in the workplace, what (if anything) would you add to that letter?

Great question. I think the letter is more valid than ever, but I do think recent events would merit an additional piece of advice:

Be aware how what you say makes others feel. A quick litmus test that I call “the sister test." Treat the women around you as you’d want other men to treat your sister or mom or wife. Imagine that for real. You will have a new lens with which to evaluate if the culture you are creating is hospitable and inviting for women. It’s way too easy to imagine that the women in this industry are tough, or cool, and one of the guys (the “oh she can take it” mentality). But that’s a defensive excuse at best. And lastly, I would urge men to come to the rescue and speak up if something isn’t sitting right with you. F*ck this boys club-protective-mentality-bullsh*t that has persisted until now. It's just not going to fly anymore, so be part of the movement to fix that.

In a world (and industry) where a lot of young women have understandable concerns about their safety in the workplace, what should give them hope that they can build a great career for themselves?

I think it’s really happening. I think this could be the watershed moment. People are speaking up en masse and that’s different. The fact that large corporate entities are firing major figureheads and knowingly losing a shit ton of money should tell us something: that it’s not ok and that it doesn’t matter what the shareholders think. It’s just plain wrong.

It ends here. Not later. Now. End of discussion.

At this point, all of the decision-making happening around us, is on our side for a change, this is our time. And to you women climbing that ladder now: you'd better make it to the top. Having you in leadership positions is more important than ever because you are going to be the ones to cement this new world order forever. You will make it gospel.

Indie Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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