How One Exec Runs Busy Digital Agency While Staying True to Her Faith

360I Global CEO Sarah Hofstetter on Balancing Work and Orthodox Judaism

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Sarah Hofstetter and her family.
Sarah Hofstetter and her family. Credit: Photos provided by Sarah Hofstetter/360i

When 360i's global CEO Sarah Hofstetter is out of the office, she puts in her automated email response. The link has a dual purpose. It adds a little humor to what would otherwise be a dry out-of-office reply, and it convinces clients that she's not making up Jewish holidays.

This is just one of the ways Ms. Hofstetter, an Orthodox Jew from Long Island, N.Y., balances her professional life with her personal life and faith.

The 39-year-old CEO runs one of the most-buzzed-about digital agencies and has been promoted three times in two years. She's managed that success while taking care of two kids; keeping kosher despite the wining-and-dining demands of running an agency; and completely shutting down between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday to observe Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

After graduating from Yeshiva and then Queens College, Ms. Hofstetter worked as an editorial assistant for a New York Times syndicate. A year later, at 22, she got married and decided to go to what she humorously calls the "dark side," handling in-house PR and investor relations at telecommunications company IDT. "We were really young," she said of herself and her husband. "We just needed enough money to cover costs."

'The things you choose not to do are as important as things you choose to do,' Hofstetter says.
'The things you choose not to do are as important as things you choose to do,' Hofstetter says.

Eight years later, she decided to set up her own shop. IDT was her first client, and 360i soon followed. At IDT she hit a glass ceiling, she said, but working directly with a CEO for so long taught her about business and about how to make choices. "The things you choose not to do are as important as things you choose to do," she said. It's a motto of sorts that's guided her at 360i.

She persuaded Bryan Wiener, CEO at the time, to bring her in-house after proposing a business unit focused on social outreach to drive search-engine optimization. She hired a bunch of journalists, trademarked the acronym DWOM -- digital word of mouth -- and proceeded to double the group every six months to a year.

"When I see requests for proposals that say DWOM, I say 'You need to add a registration mark to that,'" Ms. Hofstetter said. She's not afraid of scaring off prospective clients with her trademark demands, and she doesn't need to be, if the shop's sexy roster -- which includes Redbox, Clinique, Subway and various Mattel brands -- is any indication.

In fact, Ms. Hofstetter, with her approachable demeanor, has built a loyal and understanding list of clients: Instead of going to the hot new spot in town, most are open to eating at kosher restaurants, she said.

Still, while her observance doesn't change her work or the way her clients feel about their relationship, it's not easy being different. "It can put some pressure on me from a social perspective," she said. "If I do go to a non-kosher restaurant, I'll bring my own food in and then there's aluminum foil all over. There becomes this separation and distance." Travel is also a challenge. Ms. Hofstetter carries around coolers of food. And during Shabbat, she needs to trust that teammates are on top of any client crises, issues or deadlines. "People make fun of the onslaught of emails they get on Saturday night," she said. "They know exactly when Shabbat is over. I need to be better about that."

Just as she's managed to weave her observance into her professional life, she's also put her social-media skills to use in her personal life. For example, when Ms. Hofstetter's kickboxing studio shut down, refused to refund money she had paid upfront and insisted that she go to another studio on Saturdays during Shabbat, she unleashed a successful social-media campaign to get her money back. She also helped her daughter with a social campaign that raised $15,000 for the only kosher soup kitchen in the tristate area.

It's this kind of work that both her children and clients appreciate. And it's not possible without some down time come Friday night. "I probably would have burnt out if not having that opportunity to shut down," she said.

Perhaps there's a lesson in that for the industry.

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