THE BLOG

Women in Business Q&A: Sarah DaVanzo, Chief Cultural Strategy Officer, Sparks & Honey

02/08/2015 05:51 am ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

Sarah DaVanzo is a cultural strategist, trendspotter and futurist to the world's leading brands and advertising agencies.

She is trail-blazing the development of a new marketing specialty called "cultural strategy", where she is researching, designing and piloting cultural insights and cultural strategy methodologies. She has three patents.

Sarah became interested in cultural strategy during her international marketing career -working for over 20 years in over a dozen countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America.
Today, she leads an international team of cultural strategists at Sparks & Honey, a new Omnicom agency dedicated to this space, which is Ad Age's "2014 Agency to Watch".

An experienced start-up business builder, she has spawned agencies, practices within agencies, e-commerce businesses and even a museum: she founded the Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Since she joined Sparks & Honey, the business has quadrupled in revenue, doubled in size and expanded internationally.

She and her team of signal-seers/trend-telepaths/pattern-perceivers/data-diviners track and score trends and cultural shifts that impact brand marketing. To do this she employs "cultural listening", which is a mix of memetics, ethnography, life-logging, social listening, cultural anthropology, heuristics, semiotics, data science and "cultural forensics". Her passion for emerging technologies and research/experimentation is infectious.

Sarah is an educator (master's thesis: "culture of curiosity"), lecturer, published writer and award-winning public speaker. 2014 tally: 5 keynotes, 4 speeches, 3 panels.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My leadership style continues to be tethered to my life choices. Curious about different perspectives, I circumnavigated the world on a ship as a teen and then as an adult lived/worked internationally for nearly 20 years (Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, India, China, France and South Africa). My irreverence and appetite for risk is fanned by extreme activities like snowboarding the Alps, sandboarding dunes in Namibia and water skiing between tankers in the Straits of Malacca. Self aware and reflective, I attempted living as a silent contemplative Benedictine Monk for 40-days and nights. My empathy-muscles were exercised serving food to Untouchables in India and living in the jungle of Mali to do ethnographic research of gold miners. I either have vision or I'm a vision-magnet because I've been involved in a number of groundbreaking ventures in the vein of sparks & honey. And I lead by "just doing it", which is why and how I built the Gold of Africa Museum (from idea to business plan to venture capital to construction). I have a very untraditional life path peppered with extraordinary life experiences, good and bad, which no doubt impacts the way I lead, the paths I lead teams on, and the teams that choose to follow my lead.

How has your previous employment experience aided your time a sparks & honey?
Without a doubt my international work experience, especially in emerging markets, has made me more sensitive to human conditions and cultures, which is required in my role at sparks & honey. In previous jobs in emerging markets, especially in post-Apartheid South Africa, my inventiveness and resourcefulness were sharpened and I'm constantly needing these skills for sparks & honey. I feel I am better equipped to lead my team and empathize with our clients and agency partners as a result of my work experiences with start-ups and corporates, on the client and agency sides of the business. I have been both boss and subordinate, and I continue to be both boss and subordinate toggling daily between "vision" and "doing." My role at sparks & honey requires me to wear the hats of "specialist" and "generalist," so thankfully I have had various times in my life where I've donned both hats. Importantly, my work in countries and industries that were focused on future-visions of the world (imagining the future, shaping the future, hoping for a better future, etc.) prepared me for sparks & honey, which is 100% future-facing.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your time at sparks & honey?
My trifecta of sparks & honey highlights fall into three buckets: interpersonal, intellectual and impactful. First, I have witnessed human success stories, as I've seen the team rapidly mature and strengthen, from presentation skills to cognitive processes to confidence to business acumen. This has been rewarding beyond words. Second, we're trailblazing a new marketing discipline called "cultural strategy" so we're inventing the methodologies as we go along. Our work has been validated by stellar business growth and client satisfaction. Third, the tangible, measureable proof that what we do makes a meaningful, positive difference in the world is exhilarating. Since we advise some of the world's most powerful brands on where the world is headed, cultural shifts and the forces shaping life, we have the ability (and responsibility) to open their minds and create possibilities. This is what drives me to get up in the morning.

The main challenges I've faced at sparks & honey are analogous to many of the cultural tensions we all face today, such as juggling "fast culture" and "slow culture" and being "always on" while craving a "digital detox." With the nature of our business I struggle with the conflicting needs of routine/discipline versus serendipity/exploration. As a start-up in a new space, I'm challenged by the tug between taking risks and innovating versus maintaining control and the efficiency of consistency. Most of my work challenges are related to balancing opposing forces crucial to my ability to thrive personally and professionally. These kinds of tensions consume more brain bandwidth and emotional gigs than I'd like.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Three tips: First, design a website for your new business idea. The constraint and discipline of this forces thought-clarity, parsimony and organization. And putting your idea "out there" into the universe opens doors.

Second, fail fast. Take small bets and be prepared to iterate. Even with the website, get a draft up quickly to beta test the business concept, sales pitch and the website functionality. One of my biggest flaws is perfectionism, which holds me back from completion. Some of the best advice I ever got from a Fortune 500 CEO mentor was "Sarah, it doesn't need to be perfect, it needs to be good enough. It's easier to edit work, than to create it. Just get it done and out so people can react and momentum continues forward."

Third, start a blog-like-object (blog, Pinterest board, chat room, tumblr, etc.) on a topic that is pertinent to the success of your business. If the business is catering, then blog about entertaining trends. If the business is coding, then blog about influences shaping the eSports industry. Pick a future-forward topic to demonstrate that you are a thought leader that has insights into the industry in which you plan to build a business. And regularly express your views. At sparks & honey we share free trend reports monthly. It's amazing how sharing leads to getting paid in karma, which eventually leads to being paid.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
One sage mentor advised me in my youth, "Give good value, Sarah. Make an effort in a meeting or party to add to the conversation, up the thinking, improve the energy... and look smashing! Dressing well is a gift to others and shows respect for others. Make an impact when you are present, and leave a void when you are absent." So I make the effort to look put-together, erring on over-dressing and accessorizing. I am outspoken and I work at having opinions about a plethora of topics. I am conscious of my energy: I have a lot of it (which is also an Achilles Heel). I do feel that it is important to pay attention to one's personal brand and what one projects to others. There have been many times when I've felt sick, tired, defeated and incompetent and I've gone through the motions, which then helped me get out of the funk. It's much like the way forcing a smile can actually make one happier because the smile muscles trigger happy brain responses. Adopting the behavior, dress and energy of a leader can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't see them as separate entities. I have only one life, and work is an integral part of my life. The story of my life is like a barcode: some years' work is represented by thicker lines, and others thinner lines or white spaces. Work and life need to coexist, and there are times when they are not equally balanced and I've learned to stop feeling guilty about that. I have found it helpful to forewarn my friends and family when work needs to take more focus, and likewise tell my colleagues when I need the scale to tip more in the "personal" direction. Since we are a 24-7 business, which in today's world means always on in 24-time zones and +7 languages, I need to have a functioning, cozy and dedicated home work space. I have a Peleton bike at home so I have the flexibility do live spinning classes at odd times of the day or night. I always set the table with candles for dinner, even if I'm eating takeout after a late night of work. And, Skyping instead of calling enables me to see the faces of the ones I love to remain connected. I try to make work fun, such as having walk-around-the-block-meetings with the team. Everyone has his or her coping mechanisms. Mine tend to be visceral and experiential.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The world is flattening and gender roles are flattening. Men are adopting female traits and roles, and vice versa as women are starting ventures, climbing the corporate ladder, living independently and even conceiving children independently. Perpetuating the gender divide or a gender conspiracy isn't constructive. I'm sensitive to growing misandry as a backlash to misogyny. Women (Feminists) need strategies to effect change and female empowerment that do not pit "us" against "them." We've entered the era of the Collaborative Economy (a.k.a. sharing economy) so "we-ness" is key to future success. Think: Uber, AirBnB, Kicktarter and TaskRabbit. Women are innate team players so they should excel in a sharing economy. Yet, the Collaborative Economy is a very male-dominated, silicon-valley topic and industry, so men are shaping its future. Women need to learn more about this movement, which is impacting every aspect of business, so they can leverage their gender skills and get ahead of this trend. Unfortunately, because women are just catching up in STEM, there aren't many women in the futurism space today. I'm often the only female in a room or conference of futurists. This means that our futures are being shaped by only 50% of the world with a one-sided perspective. We need more women in futurism and participating in the Collaborative Economy. If women aren't participating in these spaces they will be left behind. To paraphrase Malcolm X, "the (wo)man who sees the future, shapes the future."

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Being a mentor and protégé has been catalytic. I have been very fortunate to have male and female bosses and mentors that took the time and had the passion to teach, admonish and proselytize. None of these were formal mentorships, but rather we crossed paths and they touched me. They imparted ideals, behaviors and lessons. I asked a lot of questions and was honest with them. I hope that I can make this kind of difference to the lives of people. I try to be generous with my time for the betterment of my industry through public speaking and writing. Last year I took six sparks & honey interns under my wing and offered career advice to young executives at New York Women in Communications (NYWICI) mentoring events. Recently I flew to Winston-Salem on a weekend to give a keynote address on Jobs of the Future and offer one-on-one career advice to Salem College students. I may not make a lasting impact, but I know I poke.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Robin Koval. Robin was CEO of Publicis Kaplan Thaler when I was Director of Trends & Culture and we worked closely on new business pitches, client projects and agency initiatives. She now leads the American Legacy Foundation. I used to study Robin in meetings: her mannerisms, tone, behaviors, questions, word choices, etc. I took mental notes on her polish and persuasion. She is opinionated, decisive and outcome oriented. She is a tough cookie, but she also has disarming warmth. She is a curious person who will take vacations in surprising destinations like Burma. People followed her through the trenches because she is genuinely a nice person and cares about people's health and families. I would ponder why teams of people would work late hours or through holidays for a Robin project, and think it was because they bought into her mindset: she is crazy competitive. She got everyone to want to win as bad as she did. By the way, Robin must have also had similar mentoring to me because she adds to the conversation, ups the thinking, is high energy... and always looks smashing!

What do you want sparks & honey to accomplish in the next year?
We are expanding our business internationally in 2015, which means we need to hone our processes and methodologies so we can train new staff and maintain quality. We will spend a lot of effort refining our cultural intelligence system, crafting playbooks and creating on-line education modules. In addition, we are incubating a handful of new products right now, which we plan to launch in beta to quickly test, fail or iterate. The combination of the new markets and new products will ensure that we have steep learning curves in 2015. So, against this backdrop, we must maintain the high quality of our work for clients. Success to me in 2015 is maintaining, if not improving, outputs for clients while concurrently exploring some new frontiers. As I said earlier, most of my challenges are related to balancing opposing forces. I guess that's the physics of productivity!