sHeroes: “Acknowledge contributions, be generous with your time and treat people with respect” With Bonnie Rothman of Company B
Share. Acknowledge contributions, be generous with your time and treat people with respect. In today’s world, where the opposite seems to be what gets you ahead, you’ll be remembered and rewarded for being the person in the room who understands that work doesn’t get done with excellence without the contributions of many people, all individuals with their own values, visions, ideas and goals.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Rothman, Founder & President of Company B, a storytelling agency for consumer brands. Prior to her career in communications, Bonnie was a screenwriter and journalist who was a frequent contributor to The New York Times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was working as a freelance journalist, writing for The New York Times, where I explained how technology was changing the way we live. A favorite was a story about online dating, when finding the love of your life online seemed improbable and impossible. I eventually used those insights when I ran the eBay account at a NYC PR agency. We set out to change the perception of the brand from an online flea market to a style destination. When our team became the keeper of the eBay fashion closet, filled with vintage couture, and our wonderful style director became a regular fashion contributor on the TODAY show, I knew we’d succeeded. I started my communications company, Company B, and made storytelling from the perspective of a journalist the cornerstone of our approach.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
That’s tough! There have been so many interesting moments in the 10 years since I’ve been in business. We’ve nurtured clients to help them reach their big business goals, like being acquired, or securing significant funding, or getting a regular gig contributing to MSNBC, for example. It takes a lot of work to get to those outcomes. For me as a counselor to C-suite executives and entrepreneurs, I know we’re on our way when we turn their gazes from the inside out. Our clients are furiously focused on the details of their business. When they come to us, they want to promote its features. That’s what they’ve been working so hard to get right. But features aren’t good fodder for story-based marketing. Emotional connection is. It’s amazing in our workshops when we help our clients articulate what emotions they touch and how, and then bring those stories to light.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I was a green PR agency executive assigned to publicize the 25th anniversary of Pampers. Before we could execute the plan — a big birthday party for the brand in a mall in its first test market, Peoria — I had to find the party guests: some moms who were brave enough to choose paper diapers over cloth. This was pre-internet, so I placed a classified ad in the Peoria newspaper and crossed my fingers that someone would respond. I was astounded when I received calls from reporters in Peoria asking me to comment about the ad, which had jump started our PR plan. I wasn’t trained to be a spokesperson, and I said: “I can’t believe you’re calling me,” on air! Not the epitome of grace. I learned that it’s critical to think through the consequences of every piece of a campaign before launch, and to be prepared. The party turned out great. We had a binder of clips the width of a telephone book to share with the client and I still have the heart-shaped silver engraved box my boss gave me as a thank you for “playing in Peoria.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We know what makes stories resonate, and we excel at ferreting out authentic voices to tell them. We are trusted to do this because we are culture-loving, method-mixing, quick-adopting, smart, and connected. We’re great at inserting our clients into unexpected places to drive awareness in a fresh new way. For our client, a home chef subscription service in New York City, we hosted “Kitchen-sides” in influencer’s kitchens, and partnered with a high-end wine company. We worked with 30 bloggers to make one small change to jump-start their health goals for a supplement client, and they got their fans to do the same. We had an industrial design client go shopping for laundry room gear for a feature in the living section of The New York Times, which was thinking way outside of his box.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re expanding! We’re opening a new office in Washington DC to bring our storytelling expertise to effect social change. We’ve long worked with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and Common Voices, a fire safety advocacy organization. I’m thrilled about the next stage of Company B. It’s an important time to help tell stories that will make a difference.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen carefully, collaborate constantly and make sure your team is diversified. If your team looks like you, you’ll be working in an echo chamber, stalling innovation. We’re in a creative industry, and it’s likely that someone in the room has a passion or insight that can be the springboard to a great idea. They are experiencing, seeing and doing things that you aren’t. Their values and life experiences are different than yours. Find out what they are and embrace differences. Your team will be richly rewarded.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I like hiring people who have taken an atypical path into our business, and maybe even have started a side hustle of their own. They’re do-ers and strivers and will be motivated to learn, contribute and grow. Listen to the people on your team who know more than you, and don’t be afraid to ask them questions. I know you’ll look like you don’t know everything — and you don’t. That’s what makes you human and humble. And, stay connected in any way you can. If you’re in one location, walk the halls to say hello. If your team is virtual, plan an off-site. Or, keep it intimate. Make it a practice to gather talent such as a standing monthly breakfast for new hires, or those who have just received a promotion. Host regular salons with diversified teams.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I interviewed Norah Ephron, and afterwards she helped shepherd a screenplay I’d written through the Hollywood maze. It was called “The Bookclub,” about six women in their twenties figuring out how to be grownups in Manhattan. When I told her about my script, she asked if I had written “the Chinese restaurant scene.” My characters met for sushi, but what Ephron meant was that when you tell stories about people, you need to figure out how to bring them together to share. Today, when brainstorming campaigns we always imagine the very best ways to get our clients’ customers sharing and connecting emotionally.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I often mentor communications students and teach storytelling workshops to women entrepreneurs to help them get attention for their brands. Presenting ideas clearly can make or break a brand.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
My company values are born from that experience. Here they are:
o Be insatiably curious. The very best stories come from the small details that we observe, what we read, watch, see and take in. The more open to the world and to others’ points of view, the more authentic your story will be.
o Get excited every day. Even on the days that are challenging or downright boring, it’s important to hold dear to your passion and purpose. That capacity is in and of itself exciting.
o Data is important to help drive decisions. So is gut instinct. Numbers help identify facts and show trends, and that’s critical to building stories, bit by bit. But don’t ignore your gut. I know, acting on a feeling can be terrifying, but I’ve learned that if I don’t lean into intuition, I can go off course.
o Make decisions that make you uncomfortable. Taking risks, trekking into the unknown and pushing boundaries are the building blocks to growth. Step into them boldly.
o Share. Acknowledge contributions, be generous with your time and treat people with respect. In today’s world, where the opposite seems to be what gets you ahead, you’ll be remembered and rewarded for being the person in the room who understands that work doesn’t get done with excellence without the contributions of many people, all individuals with their own values, visions, ideas and goals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d love to build an international pen pal program for middle schoolers that requires each to write letters, sent by snail mail. Learning to tell stories about yourself early is a good primer for writing well later, and connecting with someone completely different than you so intimately is mind-expanding. When I was 12, I had a pen pal who lived on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, Israel, named Tzipi. After we had traded letters for two years, I visited her at her kibbutz. She had my photo pinned over her bed in a communal room she shared with other girls, which was so different from my big pink plaid bedroom in suburban Philadelphia. I realized that I had made as big of an impression on her as she had on me and we stayed in touch for years.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Brene Brown. She’s so wise about what makes us tick and believes that when we fearlessly embrace every part of ourselves, even the parts we’d rather hide away, we are more powerful and real. I’d also love to spend time with Mika Brzezinski, who makes me think every morning when I watch her duke it out on “Morning Joe.” Brown and Brzezinski both focus on people knowing their value. It’s the crux of every person’s story.