Trailblazing with Laura Mortensen – How Sharp’s New President Built Their Social Practice From a Single Assignment
It’s 2011. You have the opportunity to lead strategy for one of the earliest brands to embrace social at their AOR. They are #alreadywinning, and it’s sure to be heady and high-profile. Or, you can roll the dice on a social media newbie and their privately-held, 25-person PR agency. Maybe they’ll be convinced that social is something they should move on, though there’s doubt from the prospect that their target is even on social. Which role would you choose?
The second? Why? And are you prepared to present the first-ever social strategy to the client’s Executive Team in six weeks?
Laura Mortensen chose the privately-held firm called Sharp Communications, and its founder, Jim Brodsky. She was a rising star, part of Ogilvy’s inaugural social team, where they had worked to convince brands that social was more than just a fad. But as an art minor at Georgetown, there was a seductive draw to the agency that counted art fairs, interior design brands and auction houses as their clients. That and the promise of building something.
As Jim told her in the interview: “We have an immediate need with one client, but we think there might be a bigger opportunity here.” By immediate, he meant six weeks.
This is the story of how you build something, quietly, without ego, in a corner, and it consumes all the air in the room until one day it literally blasts off. From those tentative first weeks, Laura became the social trailblazer for the agency, soon heading up their social practice, then becoming the third agency Partner, and finally, in recent months: President.
But before you imagine she forfeited her personal life to lean into this dream, Laura got married and had a baby girl in the past two years. So there’s that story too — the one that hangs up so many: How to build something that people embrace, and how to achieve balance as a working parent.
JS: So what happened with that initial client pitch?
LM: They bought it! I have never been so confident about a presentation in my life, because I did every piece of it. I had been in all the tools, pulling all the analytics. I had spent time with all their competitors. I could talk to everything in a truly credible way because it was all coming from the work that I had done rather than somebody handing me a report.
We tried not to go in with [the critical lens] of “Here are the millions of things that you need to be doing.” It was more educational, like “This is where you are right now in this ecosystem. This is what your competitors are doing. This is what other brands in the luxury space are doing. This is what other brands in the art world are doing — like museums were doing really innovative things.” And grounded in that education, we started with solid, tenable steps.
From there, we worked with the client’s team: Organizing what their structure online was going to look like, doing trainings for their internal teams about best practices, protocol and process, plus thinking through specific scenarios like how to handle events and live content when pressure and scrutiny would be high. After that meeting was when the work really happened. And by the next time we met with their Executive Team, the conversation had completely shifted in terms of the people in the room being really bought into the process.
JS: So now you have a successful case study. How did you go about growing the social business with other clients?
LM: A lot of it started by listening to our clients and learning what they were interested in, what was important to them, what they thought was working or not working. And also, internally, meeting with our PR teams and understanding what was coming up: What’s the news that they’re sharing, what big events or activations are happening, what does their next six months look like. Then we could organically start to present builds on things that were already happening. For example, we know that this product launch is important; let’s show them how we can start to layer in digital extensions to work that’s already being done. That got us a seat at the table. And from there we could start to identify small pieces of opportunity.
JS: That integrated approach is important. Because it would be easy for you to say: “I was brought in to build the social practice” and treat it as a separate offering and conversation. But instead you tucked it into brand planning that was already happening.
LM: Right, we started from a place of “What is success for this client?” It’s not checking a box to say they’re on Instagram. It’s getting at what the client is trying to accomplish for their business and identifying the ways that digital channels or social programming can help them achieve that goal. So it was less about saying here’s this shiny new thing you should be doing, and more about how can we bring something substantial to the table.
And the media landscape has changed in the 6 years that I’ve been here. We’re no longer just pitching traditional media for business. We’re pitching our client’s digital teams… for social opportunities. Digital has expanded in terms of touching what everyone’s doing and Sharp’s strategy of being really integrated has been effective in that context.
One of the things that the Social team has taken on proactively is hosting Lunch & Learns for the whole agency — always laddering the topics to how could this impact the PR work we’re doing. For example, they did one on content creation: Short form video content, infographics and GIFs, and how these pieces are travelling online and how they can be utilized.
It’s a way for the Social team to 1) show off the things we’ve been doing for other clients, and 2) be really tactical about how we embed that in things [the PR team] is already doing. So as we’re creating a buzz reel from an event, then we should also be creating a :15-second version of it, and a vertically-aligned version for Instagram stories. We’ll see a clear ripple effect from those sessions, where we’ll have PR team members coming to us and saying “I was on the call with my client and they were talking about an event, so I started talking to them about how we could build out their content strategy. And they want us to put a proposal together.”
Giving people across the agency a little bit of knowledge has gotten them involved in the business development process. These sessions have provided internal exposure for our Social group. Plus, they’ve given junior team members the opportunity to practice presenting.
JS: The idea of making sure everyone, at every level, has a voice sounds like an important part of the Sharp culture.
LM: Yes, Jim [Brodsky] is incredibly good at recognizing people’s talents, their work, making sure they feel valued at whatever level they’re at. He has high standards, but he’s really thoughtful about recognizing people as people and not just workers. And the teams feel that and respond to it.
We’re determined to preserve this culture as we grow. Right now at Sharp is our most intense, busy period that we’ve ever had as an agency. We opened a new office in Florida earlier this year, so for the first time we have remote staff. There have been so many new clients come on board, and a lot of project-based work that’s also hitting right now.
We knew this was coming so before it hit we did this all-agency off-site. We went up to Hudson, NY and did a lunch river cruise, walked around, met at a bar. People could just spend the day and relax. We had just made a bunch of new hires so it was a fun way for them to meet people in a more social setting and quickly feel part of the team. It served as a nice reminder for people that their contributions aren’t going unnoticed, especially now that we’re in the thick of it.
Another way I make sure people feel like they have a voice is to set up standing one-on-one meetings with a lot of different people — to have a dedicated time to talk about specific clients, but also to talk about bigger picture opportunities, challenges or new things they’re interested in. That was one thing one of my first managers [at Ogilvy] did for me. Every week we would actually leave the office and go get coffee or take a walk. It was a big commitment for her to do that, and it made me feel listened to, beyond just running through my client list. That’s stuck with me: Giving people the time to think bigger picture about what they’re trying to accomplish.
These conversations have led to us developing new capabilities based on what people are seeing as needs from our clients, or what they’re interested in doing themselves. For example, Karen [Trudeau, Social Media Account Supervisor] comes from a creative background, and she’s really creative herself, so she and I worked together to think through our team’s creative capabilities: What we want to own and bring in-house, and what are the things that we shouldn’t own and need to develop partnerships. That whole process was basically driven by Karen saying “I want to do more of this, and we need to be able to offer it to the client.”
We have the flexibility and the openness as an agency to say “If you’re interested in this and you’re willing to put the time and energy into it, we can move pretty fast in allowing people to create the things they want to create here. That’s something I’m excited about looking forward. There’s lots of opportunities for people to define where we go and the work we do.
JS: Your promotion to President happened six months after you became a new mom. Somehow you look well-rested and serene. How do you keep all the balls in the air? Have you changed the way you work?
LM: It’s funny, there’s another woman here that found out she was pregnant and she was talking to me about it. She really wanted to run through how you do all the things; how do you make it all work. And, on that particular day, I was like: “Talk to me tomorrow.” Because today is not the day to go through how it’s all working, because it’s not!
One of the biggest changes was being better with myself about setting boundaries, and putting a system in place that would be sustainable. I’ve never been somebody who was the first one to leave the office, and so for me it was a hard thing to say “OK, every day I’m leaving at 5:00.” When I was home with my baby it was an easy thing to imagine. “Of course, I’m going to leave and I’m going to get home, and that’s going to be my priority.” But once I was here, that was a harder thing to force myself into.
There are certain routines I used to do to close out the day that now I do to start the day, just because that’s where I have more time. Now I start the day by going through my inbox because it gives me that little gut check on ‘Was there anything that I needed to respond to yesterday?’ and I can get all those emails out first thing in the morning. It also helps me reset and prioritize the day.
It’s nice too that Jim and the team encourage me to prioritize my family. In general at Sharp, there’s support for that. I never feel like people are judging. It has been more of a mental leap for me. Everybody else was fine with it! When it came to returning to work and diving back into the routine, there was way more anxiety leading up to it than in actually doing it. I thought: “How is this going to work/Am I going to be able to get it done/Will I be able to focus?” Once I was in it and doing it, it fell into place much easier. And a lot of that is around process, and having a great team in place, and learning to let go.
What Sharpies Say About Laura
I can appreciate Laura’s co-workers desire to learn her secrets, because despite her humility, she is graceful, effortless, poised and prepared for anything. As one of her early Pre-Sharp mentors explains: “I put Laura on the (very) short list of the smartest, most capable people whom I have ever had the pleasure of having on my team. To people who have joined my team since, Laura’s like the ex-boyfriend that new boyfriends hate, knowing that they have to work like a dog to measure up.”
Jim tells a similar story: “Laura’s confidence is rooted in true understanding of what she’s talking about versus faking it. She’s a linear thinker. She’s very clear in where she’s going in her conversation and how to conclude. And then, also, importantly, how to get to a next step. She can lead a client or a team down a very clear and straight path, and that’s been essential in the pitching process, in building confidence with clients, and in motivating and keeping teams very focused and clear on what they need to do to be successful.”
Karen Trudeau, who was one of Laura’s early hires on the Social team, shares “I feel privileged to have joined Sharp at a time when I was able to have lots of one-on-one time with Laura. She gives you her full attention and remembers what you’ve said, what you care about and applies those things to giving you opportunities down the road. She’s made a tremendous effort to help me juggle all of the challenges of agency life. It seems sometimes that she executes a mountain of tasks in a day with next-to-no effort, but if you work with her you know it’s not luck. It’s an inspiring mix of discipline, talent, and above all, her dedication to giving her best to her teams and clients.”
Maggie Holmes, Sharp’s recently appointed VP, Social Media and Digital Director agrees: “I don’t know how she does it! She must have a fast and capable internal dialogue because if she’s ruffled, then she doesn’t convey it to world. People [on her team] are given clear direction about what they need to be successful. She has an innate sense of knowing when to step in and when to stand down and let the team respond, offering learning moments for people to figure it out on their own.”
As Jim sums it up: “As the business continues to become more integrated and more holistic, her role really evolved where it was no longer just about leading digital, but I was relying on her ability to see through the clutter and help everyone get to the next level. She’s been an amazing partner and someone we want to grow with.”