THE BLOG

Women in Business: Sandra Howard, Assistant Vice President-Advertising, AT&T

03/19/2015 07:48 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

Sandra Howard is Assistant Vice President - Advertising for AT&T, the world's largest communications holding company. In this role, she leads the development of all Corporate and Advanced Business Solutions advertising initiatives to meet brand and business objectives.

Sandra is also charged with establishing and incorporating best practices for advertising across the entire AT&T enterprise and threads the AT&T brand platforms "Mobilizing Your World" and "Rethink Possible" throughout all of the company's advertising and marketing efforts, platforms and business units.

Sandra and her team ensure all marketing and advertising strategies leverage the best of AT&T's capabilities by demonstrating the value that technology provides to people in their everyday lives. When Sandra and her team launched the new campaign to highlight the importance of AT&T's new tagline - Mobilizing Your World - the effort marked a significant turning point for the AT&T brand, as it looked to communicate the specific value AT&T creates for consumers by driving the mobile revolution through innovation.

Sandra began her career on the agency side, where she worked in both media and account management before joining Burger King as Senior Director of Global Advertising and Global Consumer Insights in 2002. During her five years at Burger King, Sandra helped lead a revival of the brand's popularity through such campaigns as "the King" and "the Subservient Chicken." She also led market research across customer segments. She stayed at Burger King until 2007.

After spending two years at Edelman, Sandra returned to brand-side marketing, becoming Director of Advertising/Marketing Communications at Southwest Airlines in 2009. Her arrival at Southwest marked a turning point for the company. Tasked with leading the airline's advertising, Sandra developed the award-winning campaign, "Bags Fly Free." She left Southwest in early 2012 to join AT&T.

Sandra's creative vision, experience with Fortune 500 companies and ability to turn around struggling brands have led to much recognition in the advertising and marketing community. Between 2004 and 2007, her team at Burger King won a Cyber Lion at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival and a Grand Clio at the International Clio Awards. Burger King was also honored with a "Campaign of the Year" award from Creativity and a "Guerilla Marketer of the Year" award from Adweek. In 2010, Southwest was named Runner-Up Marketer of the Year by Advertising Age, and, in 2011, she won a North American Gold Effie for the "Bags Fly Free" campaign. While at AT&T Sandra's contribution to the "It Can Wait" no texting and driving campaign was awarded a One Show Gold Pencil Award for Branded Content Film, a One Show Silver Pencil Award for Online Long Form, a One Show Merit Award for the Documentary category, a Top 50 Global SABRE Award, a PR News' Digital PR Award, a PRSA Dallas Pegasus Award, and was credited as one of the 12 most memorable marketing campaigns of 2012 by Mashable as well one of the Top Ten Sustainably/Social Media Campaigns by The Guardian.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I come from a traditional Hispanic family, led by a strong patriarch. I am one of three daughters and our father raised us to be strong and well prepared for a world that might be challenging at times as women. He instilled core values, like independence, as well as the importance of having a point of view and voicing that opinion - all of which have given me confidence as a leader. In addition to inspiring confidence in us, my parents also emphasized the importance of academics so we read a lot in our household growing up. As a result, my sisters and I will never stop learning and will always strive to know more.

Family has always been a very important part of my life and I make an effort to stay connected and foster those relationships. I've transferred that approach to how I manage and work with others, including the professional relationships I have at AT&T. I consider my colleagues as people instead of just peers. That family-centric approach to fostering relationships has served me well both personally and professionally.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at AT&T?
What has helped me most is the diversity of experience I've had throughout my career. I've worked across various industries and have held different marketing roles within those industries. In my current position at AT&T, I am able to use that diverse experience to be a truly integrated marketer and someone who really understands the ways in which our brand touches the lives of consumers.

My background also allows me to understand the marketing ecosystem. I started my career on the ad agency side, so I understand what it is I'm asking for when working with agencies. I've led campaigns, I've held a consumer insights role, I've held a media role as a planner and I've also worked in a diversity role. In my current brand management capacity, I'm able to bring all of those experiences together.

AT&T is such a large organization, and the nature of the platforms we work on is so broad, it's imperative to understand all of the different elements of our business. And as AT&T continues to evolve, I can harness what I've learned working at other consumer brands to help tell this new AT&T brand story.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at AT&T?
As a marketer, I have a passion for communications that influence behavior. While an incredibly rewarding part of my job is to be able to do this through selling products and services, it's our work with our texting and driving initiative, "It Can Wait," which has given our team the opportunity to change attitudes and behavior in an effort to help save lives. "It Can Wait" is an ongoing public awareness campaign aimed directly at stopping the dangerous practice of texting while driving and focused on a simple, powerful message: No text is worth dying for. To draw awareness to the effort, we launched an aggressive social media campaign to encourage everyone to take the pledge to never text and drive and share their promises with their friends via social media. We also called on the public, law enforcement, educators, national retailers, consumer safety groups and legislators to join the movement and help raise awareness of the dangers of texting and driving. To date, we've received nearly 6 million pledges to never text and drive again.

Another inspirational project was launching our "Mobilizing Your World" brand campaign in April 2014. It's designed to help people understand that we do what no one else can. We're working to create a world where everything works together seamlessly, and life is better as a result. It was no small undertaking to capture the brand vision of such a large company. The result was a campaign that takes a very complex idea and synthesizes it in a way that shows people how our products, network and services enhance their lives in ways they might not even know. Over the course of my career, I've worked on a lot of fun and challenging ad campaigns, but to help transform the vision of a brand as large as this one is an unbelievably rewarding task.

Lastly, another interesting initiative was strategically repositioning Cricket Wireless and stretching the brand from where it was in the marketplace before AT&T acquired it. This is a successful example of the kind of challenges we face every day at AT&T ─ to be nimble and flexible and execute with excellence.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in advertising?
I don't think there's one distinct path or point of view for women seeking a career in advertising. Generally speaking, there are as many women in advertising as there are men, if not more.

My advice for those considering a career in advertising is to pay attention to the shifts in consumer behavior that are happening in the marketing landscape. Everyone in our industry needs to keep up with these changes, which are rapidly evolving. It's easy to become a dinosaur in our industry. There's so much happening in our field and it's our job is to find ways in which we can consistently be meaningful and relevant to consumers while these shifts are happening. And you still need to be able to provide thought leadership even when you're playing catch up yourself. That constantly updated wisdom and expertise is where you will add the most value to your role and your team.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It took me a long time to figure this out. I think every individual must decide the things that are non-negotiable in their life versus what's flexible. And that's a skill I had to learn.

When you first start out in your career, you work a tremendous amount to prove yourself. Personally, as I gained experience and sought more balance I understood that I wasn't able to be in all of the places I needed to be 100 percent of the time. I had to learn to get over the guilt trip of not being there. I may have wanted to be there, but it's important to realize when it's not essential.

For example, when my 17-year-old daughter calls me at work during the day, I pick up the phone. It doesn't matter what meeting I'm in. I am accessible to her calls because I understand that if she's calling, it's important. She understands the trade-offs I make and knows that when she needs me, I'm going to be there for her. So accepting a call from her is non-negotiable and my peers know and understand this. It's okay for me to step out of a meeting to speak with her and I have to be confident in that. Making something that important a non-negotiable helps with finding balance. It's also important to figure out that not everything is "Level 1" importance and you can feel good about the trade-offs that you inevitably have to make as a leader. For me, realizing the distinction has made a huge difference.

In my world, there's no line where work stops and life starts anymore. Work and life, for me, are not relegated to certain times of day. But I had to learn how to draw boundaries for the people in your personal life so they feel you're totally present for them.

It takes confidence to draw that line in the workplace. But guess what? Everybody is okay with it. It's so often our own fear of being judged rather than letting the work and your competence speak for itself. My work will get done. My timelines will be met. I know I've got it handled. That confidence may take time for some people ─ it did for me. And every woman is different in how they do this, but I do think a big part of what makes the life/work balance difficult is the guilt. Once you figure out what is flexible and what isn't, you can take steps to reduce the guilt.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
In my experience, I've been fortunate to work for companies that all highly value female leadership. However, it is clear once you progress up the career ladder, there are very few female leaders at the VP level and above in corporate America.

What's worked well for me in terms of reaching my career goals is a combination of factors. A strong support network, a father who expected me to succeed in a man's world, and working for companies that have balanced and stretched me have all played important roles in my career growth. Those factors, combined with a personal aspiration for certain career goals, have come together to result in a fulfilling leadership position.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Working with incredibly strong peers on a daily basis is one of the best ways you can push yourself to grow as a professional. Marketing is all about breaking through the clutter, being innovative, influencing behavior, and it's important to surround yourself with people who can challenge, inspire and encourage you to evolve. You want to work with people who are sharp, have a vision and add unique perspectives. That's why AT&T is such a great place to work ─ you're surrounded by really, really smart people.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Sonia Sotomayor. Her biography does so much to inspire us all, but women and girls in particular can really learn from her in terms of how to break down barriers. Also because of my Hispanic heritage, it's great to have role models in my community like Justice Sotomayor who exemplify perseverance and success. Her inspiring story sheds light on what's possible for our next generation of leaders.

I also admire my mother who demonstrates such strong will. Nobody becomes a leader without having had that kind of support and encouragement along the way. Growing up, my mother wanted us to focus solely on academics, so she lightened up on our list of chores to do. My mom took up so much of the slack so that my sisters and I could just focus on school. I always tease her that this is why I don't even know how to cook an egg!

What do you want AT&T to accomplish in the next year?
Four years ago, we launched our Brand Idea, "Rethink Possible." While it was a new idea for AT&T, it was based on a timeless truth about AT&T. I want to explore with AT&T, beyond what's possible today to envision the future. It's an aspiration that defines AT&T today, but also who we were yesterday and who we'll be tomorrow.

While "Rethink Possible" will always define AT&T - its character and its broader aspirations we needed to tell a new story about who we are and what we do. So, last April, AT&T launched the "Mobilizing Your World" tagline and brand campaign to help people understand that AT&T has the unique ability to connect everyone and everything. Mobilizing Your World explains our role in galvanizing technology, partners, industries, capabilities and bringing it all together making it all work together, making a complicated world seamless and interoperable.

I'd like us to continue to make major strides on telling the next chapter of our brand's journey. I'm really excited to start telling that phase of who we are as a company as we continue to learn and grow.