Sandra Fathi, Chief Strategy Officer at Affect, Acquired by Gregory FCA (New York, NY)
Sandra Fathi is Chief Strategy Officer at Affect, a public relations, marketing, and social media agency that focuses on B2B technology, healthcare, and professional services. The agency clients range from “startups to large multinational publicly traded companies.” B2B tech includes such things as “cryptocurrency, data, cybersecurity, supply chain and logistics, mobile application development, and cloud computing.” Healthcare includes healthcare IT, devices, MedTech. and services but stops short of highly FDA-regulated areas. Clients’ products tend to be complex but further challenges for the agency include multiple decision-makers and multiple considerations.
Sandra says people seek out her agency because they appreciate the agency’s focus on business outcomes and want an agency with “deep technical expertise.” To meet this technical challenge, the agency selects its team members based on three criteria.
- The ability to communicate verbally . . . to explain complex ideas to others, to translate expert or technical information so that non-technical layman can understand
- The ability to write in a compelling fashion, to mirror the voice of the client
- The passion to excel at customer service and have the self-driven motivation, curiosity, and interest to “dig deep” into its clients’ products and services
Sandra graduated early from high school and, after her first year of college at NYU, went to Israel for “a year abroad.” She stayed 11 years, spent 2 years in the Israeli army, and completed her degree before working for technology publishers IDG and Ziff Davis, where she produced the first internet world event in the Middle East. A job with a videoconferencing company brought her back to the US and she spent a number of years in “the agency life.”
9/11 proved pivotal for many people. Six months-of-thinking later, Sandra realized that she loved her work . . . but she didn’t love the company she was working for. On impulse, she quit to start her own agency, one where both she and her employees “would love to work” because it was “just time.” Her former employer became her first client. Her agency grew by word of mouth, the application of her marketing expertise, and “farming out work to friends and colleagues.” Within six months, she added two employees.
Today, Affect tries to keep most of the work “in house,” unless it is something they don’t do, like coding or graphic design. Over the past year, even in the face of Covid, and unlike many other businesses, the agency grew. Sandra says the agency had “terrific year from a financial perspective, even though it was such a difficult year from a personal and global perspective.”
Sandra says it is important, when faced with challenges, that organizational leaders know how to make tough decisions quickly – to “do the right thing for your team in the long run.” Otherwise, it’s like “death by a thousand cuts.” Affect employees found they could be more efficient working remotely – but are gradually working their way back to the office — there are just some things that cannot be replicated in a virtual environment.
Sandra credits the advice of “a community of trusted advisors” for helping her avoid and navigate the numerous challenges the agency has faced. She can be reached on her agency’s website at: Affect.com or by email at: email@example.com.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Sandra Fathi, President and Founder at Affect, based in New York, New York. Welcome to the podcast, Sandra.
SANDRA: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start off and tell us about the specialization of Affect and where you are most effective?
SANDRA: Thank you. We are a public relations, marketing, and social media agency. Our focus is really B2B tech and healthcare. That can run the gamut. Almost every company, every organization today has a technology piece to it, and it can be everything from any type of tech or electronic gadget that you have. But we tend to go deeper and it tends to be everything from AI, cryptocurrency, data, cybersecurity, supply chain and logistics, mobile application development, cloud computing. We like to get really nerdy, is basically where we like to spend our time. [laughs]
Then on the healthcare side, it’s a lot of healthcare IT, healthcare devices, MedTech as well as services. We don’t get involved in things that are very highly FDA regulated like drug development. That’s a little bit of a specialty that we don’t fall into. But we love working with everything from startups to large multinational publicly traded companies.
Most of them, why they come to us, there’s two reasons. One, they want that deep technical expertise – somebody who’s really going to get in there, get under the hood, and try to understand the product, the market, the competitors, the value proposition, so we can then go out and evangelize the company and their products and services. You can’t really do that well if you don’t truly understand the products themselves and the pain points for the customers. Most of the products that we represent are pretty complex and have multiple decision-makers and multiple considerations, so we really have to dig in deep.
The other thing that we really specialize in is focusing on the outcomes from a business perspective. A lot of firms will talk about, “These are the activities we’re going to do for you. We’re going to do media relations, we’re going to talk to the press, we’re going to help you key messages,” and they might have outputs, like “We’re going to issue four press releases a month” or “We’re going to write 10 articles.” But the outcomes are really where you’re moving the needle for the business.
If someone comes to us, one of the first things we want to understand is, what are they trying to achieve from a business perspective? Are they entering a new market? Do they have a sales goal? Do they have a number they have to hit for lead generation? Are they pivoting their positioning? We try to match all of our activities to help drive those outcomes. The holy grail could be revenue, but for some of the clients we’re working with, their sales cycle might be 12 to 18 months depending on the size of purchase, so we might focus on a lot of the milestones that are leading to revenue – again, lead generation, traffic to the website, registration for product demos, registration for events, and of course, eventually contracts and actual dollar amounts.
We do spend a lot of time mapping to those business goals to make sure that everything that we do is really making a difference.
ROB: There’s a lot of richness in what you just said. You said it so casually that I think we missed 10 levels of detail we could probably dig into. You talk about the sales cycle and you’re talking about different points in the – I don’t know if you talk about the customer journey much, but you’ve implied it without even saying it. Maybe that’s the real magic of it: not even needing to name check it. But you’re talking about all these different points along that stream.
One thing that strikes me – you talked about technology being technical, of course, and healthcare, when you talk about some of these different types of products and solutions in that space, is also technical. I wonder a little bit, when you’re building your team, how do you find this magical unicorn of marketers who are going to understand cryptocurrency and get current on nonfungible tokens as that becomes a prominent thing? How do you filter for that talent?
SANDRA: We talk about looking for triple threats when we look for team members. [laughs] The first step starts with excellent communication overall. You’re looking for someone who, whether it’s verbal communications, written communications, any form, they are very good at expressing themselves and explaining complex concepts to others. A lot of what we’re doing is really translating, in many ways, from a technical audience to a non-technical audience, or from an expert to a layman. So we want to have great communicators.
The second thing we want is great writers. It’s one thing to be able to communicate, but also to write in compelling fashion, whether that’s mirroring the voice of the client or the company or writing marketing copy or a tweet or ghostwriting a book on behalf of a CEO – those are things that we definitely look for.
The third thing that we look for is people who are fantastic at client service. Ultimately, we are in the service industry and we are looking to serve our clients, and we have to know that we’ll do everything that it takes to make them happy so they’ll be satisfied with the work.
Those are the three core elements. Then layered on top of that, if you will, yes, we do look for people who have B2B tech and healthcare experience, and it’s great if we’re able to find them. Not everyone goes into college and says, “I’m going to major in B2B tech PR.” [laughs] That isn’t typically where their aspirations go. They want to work in the music industry or they want to work in fashion or sports marketing and all these other places that seem a lot shinier and flashier.
But for those that do, and especially for those that have what I would call an innate curiosity, people who are lifelong learners, who want to know – I’m not saying they have to do a degree – and I don’t think you can even get one yet – in cryptocurrency. But people who are interested and willing to spend the time, watch the videos, do the research, do the searches, go to events, listen to experts. And that’s more something that people come to the table with. It’s either you have that trait or you don’t.
I’m a person that every time I meet a new prospect or client, I’m fascinated by their business and understanding what the founder’s story was, how they came up with this product, how it was developed. Give me the background and what makes you different. I love that. That gets me excited. And I don’t want to be an expert just in one thing, but I want to constantly be learning and developing professionally.
That is more of what I look for. How can I find people who have that self-driven motivation, that curiosity, that interest so they’ll be willing – when they have an opportunity to work on an account that’s about artificial intelligence in the healthcare arena, they’re going to dive in, roll up their sleeves, and learn as much as they can so they can be that much more effective at their job.
It really is “every day something new.” A few weeks ago, we worked on a pitch for a prospect that was in the clean energy space. Clean energy is a big umbrella. It’s hydro power, it’s solar power, it’s wind power, it’s so many other aspects. So even when you have experience, there’s always something new and something interesting.
I think what we don’t look for, if I were to put the opposite, is folks who are comfortable. [laughs] What I mean by that is if you want to keep the status quo and you’re like, “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I just want to stick with what I know,” then this isn’t the right place for you. But if it’s someone who is always wanting to learn what’s next, what’s new, and how to pique their interest, then it’s a really good fit.
ROB: Right. There are plenty of firms out there. If you just want to do corporate communications press releases, there are plenty of places you can go for that, and it sounds like it’s not with you at Affect.
Sandra, when you think about the background of the company, what was the origin story? What led you to jump out there and decide that you were going to do your own thing instead of the potential convenience of someone else paying your paycheck and helping you find the business?
SANDRA: I’ve always had an independent streak. That didn’t always make my parents happy as a child. [laughs] You want to have kids who are independent, but it’s not easy to parent them – which I know because I’m getting the payback now from my own children.
ROB: Right. [laughs]
SANDRA: But if I were to go way, way back, I didn’t have a traditional path, so to speak. I grew up in New York and Long Island. I graduated a little early from high school because I just couldn’t wait to get started with life, and I did my first year of college at NYU. My second year was meant to be a year abroad in Israel, and I actually wound up staying for 11.
So I did go to Israel for what was supposed to be a 1-year program and I had an incredible roommate who turned into my best friend, and we’re still very close today. One of the biggest gifts she gave me was convincing me that we needed to drop out of college and join the army. She was right. We both did. I was 2 years in the army in Israel, and when I graduated, although I did come back for a short period of time to the U.S., I wound up deciding to go back to Israel and finish my degree there.
My first job once I graduated was a reporter for a division of IDG and Ziff Davis, which, if you’re not familiar with them, are large technology publishers. That kind of started me on the path, if you will, to this interest in tech. It was very early days. I laugh about it now, but one of the first projects I worked on was a book – a printed book – of email addresses for CEOs of tech companies. Now it’s laughable, but at the time it was very cutting edge. [laughs]
I worked for that publisher for some time, and it was very interesting because not only did they publish books and magazines, but they also produced events. I produced the first internet world event in the Middle East at the time. It was really when Israel as a country was just starting to develop that startup nation mentality and reputation.
I did wind up going in-house and working for a company in the videoconferencing industry. That moved me back to the U.S., and I was there for some time. Then I wound up going to Nokia and later to one of the largest global PR agencies, in their tech division. I loved agency life in terms of the pace and working on multiple clients and getting to talk to the C-suite and really being able to see the ROI of the work that we were doing and how it impacted everything from their ability to make their quarter to their stock price to outcomes for employees or hiring. That was really exciting for me.
What was not suitable for me was the bureaucracy, the politics, occasional compromising of principles for process. [laughs] There were a lot of things about that particular experience that taught me what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. When people say, “What have you learned from your managers or great bosses?”, I feel like I’ve had both, and I have learned just as much from those that I would never wish on my worst enemy as I have from those that I absolutely adored and loved.
That definitely sparked the desire to continue this path in PR specifically, and also to build my own agency, but it also shaped very much the focus on being an employee-centric, team-centric organization, and one that puts culture ahead of the almighty profit or clients at times as well.
ROB: I know people who’ve been very much in that similar sort of organization and possibly that same organization, and 15 years after you left, I hear some pretty similar stories. You probably know some folks that are still in there. You can rest well in that decision.
Tell me about the story arc – you started the firm, and what’s the initial trajectory of going from a client to a few clients and you versus the learning process of building a team?
SANDRA: What I can say is for me, the final straw in my corporate job was actually 9/11. It was a pretty pivotal moment for me, and for anyone, really, who was impacted by that day or living in the Tri-State Area. Although, thank God, nothing happened to my immediate family, it couldn’t help but be a watershed moment where you reevaluated your life in so many ways.
As I mentioned previously, I was clear on “I love what I’m doing; I don’t necessarily love the company I’m doing it for.” [laughs] I needed to reevaluate. It took me a few months to crystallize that I wanted to leave. I had gone on vacation with my husband, and I came back to work on a Monday and I think I called him at noon and was like, “I have to quit today.” He was like, “Please come home and let’s have a discussion.” And I quit the next day.
It was somewhat impetuous. I think I had just reached that level of like “I have to jump,” and there was never going to be the best time to do it. It was 6 months after 9/11, so I do remember my boss at the time – he kind of took my hand, like a dad, and was like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” [laughs] I was like, “Yeah.”
I became very fortunate in that my former employer became my first client. I was very lucky that I was able to basically turn that into my first client. Then I slowly started getting enough work from word-of-mouth and from using my own marketing skills to promote the company that I was farming out work to friends and to colleagues. I think it didn’t take more than about 4 or 5 months before I hired my first two employees.
It was very organic. I wouldn’t say that I had a grand plan when I made the leap. I think in many ways that helped me because the pressure was not to build a grand agency, but to provide for my family and build a career for myself – but the person I was really trying to meet the standards of was my own rather than some sort of third party.
I did have a daughter at the time who was only a year and a half old. Not long after, I also had my son. So I had two young kids at home not long after starting the agency, which is always challenging. But if you want something done, as they say, give it to a busy person. Somehow you make it work.
Those first few years were definitely – I worked harder than I ever had, but at least I was doing it for myself and not for someone else. That to me was very rewarding, and knowing that I was building something that I believed in and building an environment where not only did I think other people would love to come to work, but I enjoyed, and I would love to come to work and be proud of our team and our agency and the work that we produce.
That gives you a little bit of the generation story, if you will, the inception.
ROB: That certainly makes sense and adds some color to the conversation. One thing you mentioned is I think an interesting thing to reflect on: all throughout the agency world – you mentioned farming out work, and I think that’s an ongoing dynamic for most firms that we talk to. How do you think about the balance between how much work you farm out versus when you bring a role in-house and that juggle of the full-timers, the contractors, etc.?
SANDRA: Today we don’t farm out work. We try to keep everything in-house as much as possible unless it’s a skill we don’t have, a specialty area. Like we don’t code and we don’t do graphic design, but we also don’t have enough projects per se to supply an individual like that with a 40-hour work week’s worth of work. Sometimes it is better to go to a specialist who can swoop in and work on something and provide their expertise and then hand it back to the internal team.
But overall, we really only work having full-time team members in-house. There have been years where we have used freelancers on occasion. I think with the difficulty of COVID, the entire year of 2020, we really wanted to keep everyone in the lifeboat, if you will. We wanted to take care of our people and take care of in-house – and, knock on wood, we did not have to take any negative steps. Our team actually grew. We had a terrific year from a financial perspective, even though it was such a difficult year from a personal and global perspective.
But we’ve really tried to keep full-time team members to ensure that we’re also consistently delivering the quality of work and the type of work that our clients come to expect from us.
ROB: Yeah, that step function of adding team members versus contractors. I think the biggest the team is, the more flexibility you have where you’re not trying to decide whether you’re going to overload somebody by 50% to avoid farming it out. It certainly makes sense.
A topic of the moment you touched on there: how are you thinking about reopening of business and the return to in-person versus remote work over the year ahead?
SANDRA: It’s interesting because we obviously just passed the 1-year anniversary of when the world shut down, the apocalypse. We were just talking about it as a team the other day. We literally sat as a team together on a Thursday morning in the office and we’re like, “Okay, looks like we’re going to take our laptops and go remote. Make sure you download your files, take any technology you need. We’ll probably be back in two weeks or so.” [laughs] That’s what we naively thought at the time. Everyone went home and turned on their laptops on Friday and we just kept working.
We’ve been very, very fortunate that in our business it really has not presented any obstacles in terms of being able to work and be productive from a full-time perspective in a remote environment. We luckily were also set up technologically that everyone had access. We didn’t have any issues in setting anyone up to work. As long as you had your laptop and a good internet connection, you were ready to go. So our clients did not experience any service interruption, so to speak.
We did also implement a number of initiatives to try to replicate as best we could the in-office environment, if you will. In the first few months of the pandemic, we had daily 10-minute stand up meetings. Those meetings were often more about checking in on everyone’s physical and mental health and families than they were about the work. I think we all needed that just to stay motivated and positive and focused. When we reduced it – over the summer, we reduced it to only three days a week – I missed my team. I’d wake up on the days we didn’t have them and be like, “Is this the way we start the day? I need to see everyone.”
We moved a lot of our social experiences into the online realm. For Pride Month, we had a drag queen do a performance for everyone and we did bingo with her, which was a lot of fun. For the holidays, we did some holiday baking with a professional chef from South Carolina. We’ve done trivia, we’ve done escape the room. Again, all in a virtual environment to try to replicate that feeling of camaraderie and fun.
But I think if anything, our clients have actually gained from our remote work. Everyone is no longer commuting; they’re actually probably working in some ways longer hours and more productively because they’re much more flexible in their ability to choose when they’re working and balance their responsibilities at home or just do the things they need to for self-care, whether that’s going to the gym or meditating. I think our team has actually become more productive during this time.
In terms of going back to an office environment, we have been opening our office one day a week I think since July. We’ve only had a handful of people come in. It’s all on a voluntary basis. We are definitely planning to go back to an office environment, but it will never be the same. We don’t expect to be a five day a week company. Maybe it’s going to be two days a week in the office, three days a week.
We recognize that there are things we cannot replicate in a virtual environment, and especially for junior team members, that ability to learn from your colleagues, the casual conversations, the creation of friendships at work, learning by osmosis by hearing the person sitting next to you pitch a member of the media or being called in spontaneously to a brainstorm – it’s very hard to replicate that effectively in a virtual environment. We feel that we need that, and when it’s safe and folks are vaccinated, we’ll be working towards getting back to that type of setup.
But I think if you asked anyone on our team, especially those who knew each other prior to this pandemic and worked together, I think they feel closer now than they did before. In the collective trauma we’ve all been through this year, I think we’ve gotten a lot of comfort and support from our team members, and that’s really made a difference to the unity of the team.
ROB: Sure, and it’ll be even better when those relationships can also break bread together. That’s going to be a good, good moment.
ROB: Sandra, if you think back on the life of the firm, what are some things you would go back and tell yourself, the first day of the company self? What advice would you give to that person about the journey ahead?
SANDRA: I wouldn’t want to scare her. [laughs] There were a lot of things – you don’t know what you don’t know. I think when you are a founder of any company or you’re a risk-taker, you have to be an optimist. You wouldn’t do it if you thought you were going to fail. You wouldn’t jump off that cliff, you wouldn’t quit the job, you wouldn’t take out that loan, you wouldn’t find that partner if you thought it was doomed. So when you’re an entrepreneur or a business owner, you definitely have that optimist bent in your head.
I think that sometimes can lead you to think things are rosier than they are, or to not read the signs, so to speak. If there were things that I regretted, it was not making decisions faster, especially when they were hard decisions. Maybe there was an employee that I had a gut feeling about or wasn’t working, and letting that languish for 4 or 6 months and trying to turn things around until I finally was like, “Okay, it really is them, it’s not me.” [laughs] I was usually right, right up front.
Or COVID is a great example. The companies, especially agencies, that were hit hard, many of them were hit very hard because they did not make the tough decisions quickly enough. Then it was like death by a thousand cuts.
So I think if anything, I would say trust your gut, act quickly, and you do sometimes need to make the very hard decisions in order to do the right thing for your team in the long term.
I’ll also say that you need a community of business advisors that you can trust. You need to learn from their lessons. It can be very lonely. As the senior executive, you can’t necessarily share with your team that you’re afraid you won’t make payroll this month or that you’re watching the bank account dwindle and you’re scrambling to get a loan or a line of credit. You have to keep up that brave face, but you need supporters to help you navigate that, and navigate so many different things that come up when you’re owning a business that you don’t expect. It could be labor laws, it could be insurance issues, dealing with a landlord on your office space.
I really feel that building that community of trusted advisors and taking their advice is very important.
ROB: How have you found that community?
SANDRA: I have had a number of vendors over the course of building my business that have really been instrumental in helping me navigate crises, but also avoid crises with their good advice. It could be as simple as a lawyer who’s looking at your contracts or a great accountant who’s watching out for you from a tax perspective. Or it’s another business owner that I meet with and we share stories of the difficulty we’re having with an employee or on the hiring front and hearing their advice. Or tools and technology.
I’ll give you a really good example. We were actually a founding member of something called the With Global Alliance, and we founded it in January of 2020. Fantastic timing. It’s an international group of B2B tech agencies around the globe who all offer similar services, and the intention, of course, was to help us offer our clients access to international markets.
We started out at one of the most difficult times, and we were five firms covering 10 countries. But during the last year, we’ve grown to – I think we are now 12 firms offering services in 26 countries. But being able to get on calls with agency leaders from all over the globe and find out what’s happening in India, what’s happening in Singapore, what’s happening in China – they’ve gone back to work fully. COVID is over in Asia. Or how is the agency in Australia handling it, or what’s happening in the UK, where they might be a little behind us or the regulatory systems call for different types of actions.
It’s been so rewarding to hear from other agency owners what they’re doing, how they’re grappling with the situation, how they’re helping their teams, what ideas they have, what technology they’re using. That’s been really beneficial. More than what we initially thought the original business purpose would be, since there was less international activity for everyone across the globe, but that’s been incredibly rewarding and comforting to have those opportunities and to have those peers to be able to go to and discuss those tough issues and ask those tough questions.
ROB: All good stuff, Sandra. When people want to get in touch with you and get in touch with Affect, how should they find you?
ROB: That’s fantastic. Sandra, thank you so much for joining us today. I wish you the best as we all have an eye on emerging from our homes and seeing some people. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing.
SANDRA: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
ROB: Be well. Thank you.
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