06/13/2014 08:20 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

Women in Business Q&A: Barbara Apple Sullivan, Founder and Managing Partner, Sullivan

Barbara Apple Sullivan founded Sullivan in 1990 after spending more than a dozen years on the client side in the financial services industry. Recognizing a gap in how she was being serviced, Barbara understood that there was a need for agencies dedicated to helping complex businesses reach customers and prospects through the sales funnel rather than simply focusing on high level brand and awareness building. With this in mind, she launched Sullivan & Company and has grown the agency into a highly strategic group of nearly 60 employees serving clients across the financial and professional services, technology, higher education, industrial and lifestyle industries. Current clients include American Express, Merrill Lynch, Cornell NYC Tech, Duke University, Crown Castle and WebMD, among others. Prior to founding Sullivan, Barbara held senior level marketing positions at Chemical Bank and American Express. Barbara received her MBA from Harvard Business School and is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School with a B.S. in Marketing and Management of Entrepreneurship.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I'm a third child, yet the unspoken matriarch of our family. I have always been able to make decisions and influence people to follow my path. I was always volunteering for organizational activities and held leadership roles in many of the organizations in which I was involved in high school and college. Even as a young child before I had my driver's license, my mother sent me on errands with my sister so I could show her the way! Leadership and decision-making come very naturally to me. In fact, working for a large organization and having limited span of control was very frustrating. I am much better suited to being the boss.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the Founder and Managing Partner of Sullivan?
I couldn't have started Sullivan without having worked in client organizations first, for two reasons:

1) It taught me the requisite marketing skills--and what to look for in an agency: the need to be as smart as (or smarter) about the business than my client; retain objectivity and not get mired in internal politics; and to be very client-service oriented.

2) It gave me the idea for Sullivan. I saw a gap in how I was being serviced and knew there was a market need. Our agencies were more interested in high level brand and awareness building than they were in getting customers and prospects through the sales funnel. That work may not be as glamorous, especially in complex businesses where there are many constituencies involved in decision-making, and where the products and services are complex. But at the end of the day, it's what makes the cash register ring, and it's the way companies get return on their brand equity.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
When you own a small company, there isn't a lot of separation between work and life. Work is life and vice versa. I love what I do and it's how I choose to spend my time, so it doesn't seem like a burden.

I have the additional complication that my office and company are based in New York, but my home is in DC. I have been commuting weekly for 20 years. This may have actually been an advantage because when I am in New York, I don't have the demands of kids, husband, household. My weekdays in New York are more centered around work; family and personal activities are mostly on weekends when I'm in DC.

I do love to golf and make time on summer weekends to get out on the course. And I love to travel and take time for that as well.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sullivan?
The highlight has been steering the company's growth and evolution. First and foremost, building a team of smart, competent professionals with whom I love to work. As a professional services firm, I'm very cognizant that our people are the assets of our firm. Five of seven people on our senior management team have been at the firm 10+ years. They have really helped me shape the company and make it what it is today. We have the smartest, most competent group of people I've ever worked with--anywhere.

Winning new business is also very gratifying, because companies hire us on the strength of our people and our work, not because we are a large, well-known brand in which they are placing institutional trust. We have a very high win rate, because I think we're somewhat unique in our industry. Few agencies have the channel expertise and industry depth to tackle our clients' complex business problems with non-traditional creative solutions - a trait for which both new and existing clients have come to really value us. We have a very loyal clientele, some of whom we have been working with for decades. Our first client in 1990 was our largest client in 2013.

Of course, there are challenges. Perhaps the biggest is staying focused on the big picture and not getting mired in the day-to-day demands. This is easier today, when I can leverage my time more easily with a larger staff. In the old days, when my role was chief mechanic and bottle washer, it was harder. Another challenge is the administrative paperwork involved in running a business--insurance, real estate, taxes, payroll and accounting, HR administration, etc. For a person who loves the client work, this seems like a huge distraction and takes a lot of time and resources.

What advice can you offer women seeking to start their own business in the marketing industry?
Don't think about it as a woman and don't spend too much time trying to build advantage because of your gender. Build a company that is competitive in the world, and that clients want to work with because you are the best, not because you are a woman. That just isn't relevant. Keep your soft edges and make sure people want to work with you.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Focusing too much on issues facing women in the workplace, and not on being the best they can be at what they are doing. And trying too much to be like a man and losing those soft edges and the people skills that are so important, especially in service businesses.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
People in academic circles have "poo-pooed" the book because it doesn't bring new insight. But to me, it is a practical reminder to women that they should actively participate in the workplace and not hold back because they are women. They're on equal footing. The amount of publicity that the book has received has in itself served as a reminder to women to put themselves out there.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I think mentorship is really important. Especially in the marketing world, which has turned topsy-turvy in the last 5-10 years. Agency demarcations have totally changed, and roles within agencies and client organizations have been completely redefined. Young people need help maneuvering within this evolving ecosystem. And they need honest, objective advice from more experienced people to help them assess opportunities and risks. None of us would be where we are today were it not for our mentors.

And mentorship can take many forms. It can be formal time--like I spend on college campuses with aspiring marketers. It can be in one-on-one conversations with people you know or with acquaintances. Or it can be in quick email exchanges with people you never meet face-to-face. It can be a relationship that spans decades--as I have with my boss from 30 years ago--or it can be a single exchange.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are lots of leaders I admire who work in many different capacities: Shelly Lazarus, whom I have had the privilege of working with when I was in marketing at American Express and when she was my Ogilvy management supervisor. Shelly demonstrated how to be the best agency partner, and as she rose through the ranks at Ogilvy, she managed the perfect balance of business acumen and power, with femininity.

On a totally different level, I admire Queen Elizabeth. She has held power and remained relevant longer than any other living leader. She has met the demands of her role--personally and professionally--to the best of her ability with absolutely NO work/life balance.

What are your hopes for the future of Sullivan?
I want Sullivan to be a world-class organization serving world-class clients. To achieve that, I think we need to attract and retain the best talent, deliver the best work product (staying focused on what we do best), and be disciplined about choosing the clients we go after and ultimately work for - all while continuing to grow and remain profitable. It's a tall order.

I'm also particularly excited to see our agency continue to evolve in this new era of convergence. Our approach to our clients' business problems has always been rooted in experimenting with different marketing channels and using design and content to create tailored experiences for a brand's audiences - and most importantly, treat them as humans. As platforms continue to overlap and the speed of technological innovation increases exponentially, this element of humanity and emotion will be even more crucial in connecting brands to their numerous constituents. I'm thrilled to see how it will shape the growth of our agency.