Step into the world of advertising veteran Jodi Sweetbaum, former managing director of Lloyd & Co.
Sweetbaum kicked off her career behind the scenes at MTV, and from those early days in the backroom, her journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. Sweetbaum's path led her to oversee advertising campaigns for global brands such as Gucci, Estee Lauder, and Adidas. We had the wonderful opportunity to have a conversation with her. Here are some highlights:
Can you tell us more about your journey? How did you get started in your career? What inspires you?
I didn't have a lot of money, so I went to a state school college and hated it. I wanted to be an animator. When I got to the University of Buffalo, they had no idea what to do with me. They just pigeonholed me straight away. [During college], I worked as an assistant to a bookkeeper. After a month, unfortunately, my boss fired me and told me to go work for a company called MTV. I dropped out of college and started working at a place that had maybe 40 employees. Everybody thought I was crazy. But I got to work on so many things and was the low man on the totem pole. People were very judgmental that I wasn't going to college.
I was now officially a college dropout, but it was better than any college training that I could ever have thought of. MTV was about risk-taking. They taught me that I had to work hard and take risks. So that's where it started, and I ended up producing music videos.
You mentioned facing harassment and shame for dropping out of college. How did you navigate those challenges, and what advice do you have for young people who might face similar criticism for their career choices?
I think that dropping out is hard. You can drop out because you don't feel fulfilled, don't think that it's serving you, or because it's very expensive to go to college.That's one reason why you drop out. The other reason is that you find an opportunity that you want to take. Either way, you have to work hard; you can't drop out and expect everything to just come your way. It doesn't work that way. Dropping out for the sake of dropping out isn't enough. You have to have a plan. You have to be prepared.
You ran a successful agency called Lloyd&Co. What led you to start your own agency, and what were the key factors in its success?
I had done many things between MTV and the agency. The agency had started about a year before me, and it was just my partner at the time, Doug Lloyd. Throughout the journey, I realized that I loved being in a creative atmosphere. I love being around creativity. But I was really the person who was good at business, strategy, and thinking. Again, I wasn't creative. I understood creativity, but I wasn't creative.
So I used my analytical and writing skills and was able to deal with finances and budgets. I partnered with the creative geniuses to give them the tools they needed to succeed. When I was working for another company, Doug started his own company. I started helping him, and after a year, I just joined the company with him. It was hard because neither of us had ever worked in advertising before. We did a lot of it by instinct and of course there were failures. But there were also a lot of successes because of it. The successes came from the fact that we really loved what we did.
You have four children and a busy career. How do you manage to balance your professional and personal life effectively? Any tips for young adults who aspire to have both a thriving career and a family?
A couple of things. I was very lucky that it was my own company. When I had two kids, I met Doug, and he knew that I was not a working mother. I was a mother who worked. And there's a big difference. When you’re a mother who works, you're doing it for yourself. I am a mother first, but I also want to work. I was able to do so because it was my own way to integrate my needs with the needs of my family. Sometimes I was wildly successful, and sometimes I was a huge failure. But I had a great partner, and that was really important. My husband was as involved in raising my children as I was. Knowing that I was just fulfilled in my home life made me better at my job.
I think that when I first started being a parent, there was not as much support for it in the world as now. There are corporations offering more understanding and support for families. You have to remember that that's not a gift. It's what you need, deserve, and earn to be successful. You're not just being successful yourself; you are a contributing member of the company. If you don't feel that you're getting what you need, you need to say so.
Given your unconventional career path, what advice do you have for young adults who are unsure about following a traditional career path? How can they discover their own path and pursue their passions?
First thing I would say is that I didn't know either. I had this crazy dream. I wanted to be an animator. I ended up not being an animator, because you just don't know what's out there. So you do need to be prepared to take risks and not think that because you do one thing, everything's gonna fall apart and you're gonna end up homeless.
You take risks and learn what you don't want to do. It's hard to be brave when things are expensive and you don't know where you're going to live. But when you're young, it's the best time to be brave. School is always going to be there; it's not going anywhere. So if you have something that's interesting and somebody's interested in you and wants to help, then take that risk before it goes away.
Throughout your career and life journey, what have been some of the most significant challenges you've faced, and what important lessons have you learned from them?
I would say from a business standpoint, we hit a certain size in our company. We were 20 people, and we were making a certain amount of money. Then we kept growing exponentially and were making more money. But I wasn't making more money. I was actually getting tired and was working on things that I didn't like because we were taking on more work that wasn't right for us. One day I woke up and I said, this is a huge mistake.
It's really important for you to make sure that whatever it is you're doing, you are going to make it self fulfilling, not fulfilling for anybody else. Ultimately, the end goal isn't about money; it's about being happy, whole, and content.
Self-doubt is common among young adults. How can we overcome self-limiting beliefs and gain confidence?
That's hard because I didn't, and I still don't know that I've overcome them completely. I am always looking back; I am always thinking, challenging, and questioning myself. For me, I would say that I put risk-taking ahead of self-limiting thoughts. I thought [in the face of a crisis] it can't get worse than this. It will just change, and will that be terrible? Maybe, but it'll be worse if it doesn’t change.
What are three books or podcasts you’d recommend and why?
‘This American Life’ is a podcast that is investigative reporting, but in a way that everybody could process. I love and will continue to love ‘This American Life’.
I've never read any business development books because, for me, reading is the time when I can escape. It really depends on what you're interested in. A lot of the McKinsey reports I often find are a little self serving. If you're interested in business that way, I would read the Harvard reports. I find university studies to be incredibly compelling. I read The New York Times cover to cover every day because I'm a New Yorker and I was raised with it.
In our exciting chat with Jodi Sweetbaum, we learned about her amazing journey from being a dropout to becoming a CEO. Her story not only enlightened us but also inspired us. It showed that there are many possibilities in the professional world.
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