Life After Advertising: From Deutsch CEO to cleaning supplies startup founder

In our new series “Life After Advertising,” we share the stories of past advertisers who endured the long hours in the industry and have emerged in a new career, perhaps a little worn, but mostly unscathed and living new dreams.

Linda Sawyer, 56, spent 27 years working for Deutsch, including 10 years as its CEO and the last two as chairman. Sawyer left Deutsch at the end of 2016 to scratch an entrepreneurial itch.

Last October, Sawyer and her best friend from second grade, Alison Adler Matz, launched Skura Style, an e-commerce company that sells home cleaning supplies. The first product, a sponge made of antimicrobial agents, is sold in a set of four for $12 a month or every other month. 

Digiday spoke to Sawyer about why she set out to be an entrepreneur and what she doesn’t miss about advertising. Answers have been condensed for clarity.

What spurred you to start a cleaning-product brand?
I am a complete cleaning fanatic. One day, I was just chatting with Alison, and I had been bothered by the fact that, if you really think about the kitchen, there are so many aspects of it that are innovative, but then you have the kitchen sponge. I couldn’t understand how the kitchen sponge seemed to be trapped in time. Sponges are really bacteria magnets. Every time you’re using a sponge, you’re wiping bacteria on your countertops, but people are complacent about replacing them. We went on a crusade to figure out how to create a sponge that you could actually love, that is beautiful and highly clean.

Why did you start a company later in your career?
I always had an entrepreneurial bug that was nesting within, and it’s fun to unleash that. Having decades of experience provides a tremendous advantage in terms of wealth of knowledge, perspective, having a vast and diverse network and possessing a strong point of view with declarative confidence in decision-making.

What’s the biggest difference of being a CEO of a company you own versus a big ad agency that’s part of a bigger holding company?
There are more similarities than differences, but being the CEO of an e-commerce company is like owning a store that is open seven days a week, 24/7.

What part of entrepreneurship has surprised you? 
Everything eventually lands on your desk. You can get really distracted by all the details since you have to wear a million hats. It is important to be disciplined and focused on the big picture.

Why choose an e-commerce monthly subscription model over retail?
Part of the reason we’re very committed to that is we’re really trying to change behavior, and that’s frequent replacement. There is an ease of convenience to online shopping. People don’t have to think about it; it just arrives at their door. We wanted an e-commerce brand because we wanted total control over the branding experience, everything from how the brand is encountered to the unboxing experience.

How are you using your past experience in advertising to power your brand?
One of the most important skills in advertising is the ability to leverage deep consumer insights. You can understand what [people’s] practical but also emotional needs are, and then optimize that within a relevant cultural context. When we did our research, consumers admitted their complacency about sponge replacement. If you use your sponge pretty much every day, it will fade within a week. So, our sponge’s surface fades with use and acts as a visual indicator for when it’s time to replace. They also wanted to know how long they should keep their sponges. We send a weekly email with a cleaning tip and a reminder that it’s time to change.

What don’t you miss about advertising?
I was tired of inheriting other people’s business decisions. A lot of times, the creativity, in terms of the strategy that you would develop, was about overcoming certain business decisions that were made way before you even started working with the client. With Skura Style, we’re not in any way mired by any internal politics. We can just do everything with a purity of focus and agenda.

How connected do you feel to the world of advertising?
In many respects, I’m dealing with a lot of the stuff that any marketer is dealing with, in terms of we’re currently relying a lot on PR and social media. Last week, we were on “The View,” and I thought our email was going to blow up. I feel like I’m still experiencing it, but more from a client perspective.

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