Can Digital Superstar Sarah Fay Succeed in an Offline World?

Meet Sarah Fay in person and you can begin to understand her steady and stellar ascent in marketing. She’s friendly and approachable, treating long-time friends and new acquaintances with the same warmth.

Listen to her speak to an audience, and you’ll hear a pragmatic, level-headed executive with a sense of humor. “I have never asked for a promotion,” she confessed, while speaking at a meet-up for digital media professionals in Boston hosted by ClickZ and sponsored by Brafton.

At the event, Fay discussed her career trajectory, including her promotion to Aegis Media North America CEO, talked about some challenges she encountered along the way, and laid out her expectations for advertising’s future.

Though her digital roots run deep — helping to build Carat by identifying complementary companies to acquire — Fay’s success hinges on integrating offline and online media and convincing others she gets other media.

“I’m too old to have done only digital,” said the 46 year old. “I’ve always believed in all mediums and how they play together. The whole is greater than the sum of [its] parts. I have never said digital is here…to overtake TV and print.” In fact, one of her first jobs was in ad sales in Boston’s Route 128 high-tech corridor, then home to Digital Equipment Corp. and Lotus Software, for a high-tech publisher.

Fay’s digital “aha” moment came more than a decade ago when she first met CMGI CEO David Wetherell, who was developing a Web browser, Booklink, he reportedly sold to AOL for $30 million in 1994.

When traditional media agency Carat USA merged with digital agency Carat Fusion last year, Fay understood why it was an unsettling change for some. “It was an unorthodox move and it probably upset — not upset, jarred — some people on the traditional side,” said Fay, who was named CEO of the combined organization.

Little did she know a year ago, Fay was auditioning for an even a bigger role. She was promoted again two months ago to replace her boss, David Verklin, who stepped aside to take on a new challenge.

Successful media integration, she acknowledged, requires educating people and businesses so they work across different media. “It’s hard to find people [with offline and online expertise.] It’s like looking for a unicorn,” she said. “As long as people are coming into this saying, ‘I know what I don’t know and I want to learn,’ that’s fertile ground for making the right kinds of things happen.”

Fay is jazzed about her agency’s work for Reebok’s “Run Easy” campaign. After all, Carat and Reebok were awarded a Silver Lion at the Cannes international ad festival this month for the campaign’s media plan, which included television, outdoor, print, and online advertising and marketing.

The campaign, which took place last year, was aimed at the everyday runner, not marathon men. The initiative started with unbranded messages, such as “Go Easy” traffic signs along running paths and other outdoor media. Online, a community was established and is still going strong. There, runners can post personalized profiles that include preferred running routes and music.

“It’s not just advertising, it’s content,” Fay explained. “It’s something that consumers can have an experience with.” She anticipates brands will be expected to provide customers with these experiences, providing useful cause-related, educational, or entertaining information.

Looking ahead, Fay said digital will change how reach and frequency are measured in television and elsewhere. “I came in fresh to the TV category and met with our measurement people at Nielsen, which is a venerable research company. And I have a lot of respect for what they do. But I also think a sample size of 4,000 is not going to cut it anymore.”

Fay will be keeping a close eye on Verklin’s work in his new position as chief executive at Canoe Ventures, a joint initiative funded by six large cable-system operators, including Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The goal is to help cable operators develop a platform to deliver interactive and targeted ads. Google TV Ads, heralded by Google as a “digital system for buying more accountable and measurable TV advertising,” is also on her radar.

From her position, Fay sees mobile making inroads — finally. She pointed to attendance at the recent Mobile Marketing Association conference. Of 800 or so attendees in the audience, about one third said they represented mobile marketing agencies — not just software or hardware vendors.

Fay talked up a mobile campaign that Carat and Isobar, Aegis’s digital network, worked on for Adidas that integrated TV and SMS (define) mobile text messaging.

The “Basketball is a Brotherhood” SMS campaign gave mobile phone users the ability to create and send personalized voice messages recorded by Kevin Garnett and other basketball pros. “We never said the word ‘Adidas’ in Kevin’s message. We wanted it to feel more real. It was up to the consumer to make the connection that it was ‘brotherhood’ and ‘Adidas,'” she said.

So what’s Fay’s key to success?

“She’s young enough, people-minded enough, has enough energy and guts,” says Effective Marketing President Gwyn Thakur, who worked with Fay from 1996 through 2000 at Carat, then known as Carat Freeman.

Will her greater responsibilities mean a move from Boston to New York’s Mad Avenue? “We’re a global organization. And we’re all going everywhere all of the time,” she said. While it’s important for her to have a presence in New York City, she would like to stay in Boston.

Why should she abandon her New England roots? After all, Yankee ingenuity and sensibilities have served her well.

Meet Anna Maria at ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising on July 22, at Millennium Broadway in New York City.

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