“It’s Not Lonely At The Top If You Have A Great Team” 5 Leadership Lessons With Sara Mitzner VP At Swimsuits For All
I had the pleasure to interview Sara Mitzner. Sara is the VP of Creative & Branding for leading swimwear brand Swimsuits for All which led trailblazing campaigns and collections with supermodel Ashley Graham and plus blogger Gabi Gregg. Sara is also a veteran fashion editor and content strategy expert with more than a decade of experience in the print and e-commerce arenas. She was named to PRWeek’s 2017 40 Under 40 list.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
I have always been obsessed with magazines since I was a kid and knew I wanted to work in the fashion industry in some capacity. I was lucky enough to land an internship at Oprah Magazine after college where I spent years under Oprah’s “live your best life” mantra and working on fashion stories for real women. I love making fashion accessible and wearable instead of presenting it as art for the sake of it. When I was looking to move away from publishing I knew I needed to be at in-house at a brand with Oprah-like values. My passion for brand marketing and creative direction come equally from what I do as to who I do it for. Swimsuits For All was a natural fit because what they were looking to do and have done for women everywhere is a page out of Oprah’s playbook.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began at Swimsuits For All?
A little background — I spent seven years at Oprah Magazine, which is part of the Hearst Corporation, and in a lovely building in Midtown, NYC with a cafeteria that has a customized sushi bar, among other high-end amenities. When I first went to work at Swimsuits For All, we had an office an hour and a half from the city in New Jersey in a warehouse space where some people were using cardboard boxes as a desk. I was the eleventh hire with only a few other women. On my first week of work, our VP of Operations called me and explained we had run out of toilet paper. They weren’t used to having so many women in the office and hadn’t ordered enough so “could I bring some in on my way in? Feel free to use the company credit card”. I was half in shock, still very much adjusting to the startup mentality, but quickly came to realize this was a family and we’d all be pitching in. Times have changed — we now have a very nice office in the Financial District in NYC, but the “no job too small” culture remains. Swimsuits For All is still very much a family (although I’m happy I no longer have to buy the toilet paper).
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
You can’t be a successful brand today without having a point of view and standing behind that point of view with everything you do. The public is informed, discerning, and critical — and if you are inauthentic, they will recognize that and take their money elsewhere. Swimsuits For All is the swimwear destination for women of all ages, races, and body types. We highlight actual real women and our customers on social media, our website, and campaigns. Essentially we put our money where our mouth is. I’ve seen a lot of other brands feature customer photos on social here and there, or on their website for fit purposes. Swimsuits For All takes it a step beyond that and because we do that, we create brand loyalists. We hear often from our customers how they were inspired to get into a bathing suit for the first time or back into a bathing suit after a long time.
We were once doing a photoshoot on a tiny island off the coast of Curacao known as Little Curacao with Ashley Graham. A couple walked by and the woman was clearly wearing the famous black bikini that was featured in the #CurvesInBikinis advertisement in Sports Illustrated — our game changing ad with Ashley Graham, the first ever curvy model to be featured in the swimwear issue. We did a quick double take before deciding to chase her down the beach and hear her story. We brought her back to set to meet Ashley Graham. She told us how she hadn’t been in a bikini in years, but was inspired by Ashley Graham, the ad, and corresponding brand video to wear a bikini on her honeymoon. She was a curvy woman in her early 50’s. Her new husband couldn’t stop thanking us and Ashley for inspiring his new bride and telling us how sexy he thought she looked.
What advice would you give to other branding and marketing executives to help their employees thrive?
Keep it real. Our culture is professional, but not at the sacrifice of authenticity. I know about my employee’s lives and they know about mine. We talk about real issues in the world today, women’s issues, and frequently share ideas in all formats. I’m actually on a group text chain with my team. There’s a lot of focus on work/life balance, but I don’t think that means segmenting your time so strictly. We’re talking because we’re passionate about what we do. The work rarely feels like work, and it’s those conversations that often spark the ideas for the best campaigns.
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?
Adam Glassman, Creative Director at Oprah Magazine, gave me my first job and whose taste level I admire to this day. I learned so much about fashion in general, creative direction at photoshoots, styling, casting, and everything in between — basically most of my professional skill set and training was because I was lucky enough that he took me under his wing. He’s a bit of a perfectionist, which taught me to always be prepared and how much presentation matters. Working for him became the source of my ambition. I also saw him working at our real women photoshoots and how wonderful he made those women feel being apart of something in Oprah Magazine, have their hair/makeup done, and find fashion that they truly loved. He really made those shoot days red carpet moments for those women, and it was incredibly inspiring to see how it sparked their personal confidence. Also Moshe Laniado who took a chance on me as I didn’t have any in-house experience at a business, but hired under the philosophy that smart and talented people do smart and amazing things. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. While Moshe always acted from a data point of view, he never let that affect his gut feelings as a businessman. I saw him be confident that something would work when the data and even the staff felt otherwise, and 9 out of 10 times it did. My “go there, you can always pull back” way of thinking and fearlessness when it comes to something you truly believe in comes from years of working under him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve seen our company grow. Our customer file, our social media following, our engagement, and our revenue. We are no doubt reaching millions of more women than we were on my first day. The ultimate goal is to get every women in a swimsuit looking and feeling amazing. No more t-shirts at the beach, no more turning down invitations to pool parties. I know our product offering, just the existence of our company, is helping to achieve that goal. The work we do — the imagery and videos we put out there, our content on social media, our messaging on our website — is all contributing to the body positivity movement — even leading it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became VP of Creative & Brand Marketing” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
A lot of being a manager is being a therapist.
It’s not lonely at the top if you have a great team. Everything is better from collaboration.
One day you’re going to have a dream that’s going to spark a great idea. That’s only going to happen once. Most of the time it comes from the most random moments of thought. Let it come when it comes and how it comes. You can’t force it.
Everything really comes down to the power of persuasion. At the end of the day, we’re all really sales people.
Even creative types have to do reporting. The Excel spreadsheet escapes no one.
Can you please give us your favorite “life lesson” quote?
“Get the yes”. This is my team’s mantra — we often work on tight budgets with very little resources and very little time. If there’s a will, there’s a way and we find new and different ways every day to make it happen. We’re all highly motivated to “get the yes”.
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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this ;)
Phil Knight. I just finished his book Shoe Dog — I laughed, I cried, I was entertained. I think I learned more about business and marketing than I would if I had a Harvard MBA. No offense to Harvard.