Our June guest is Sara Moorthy, Managing Partner and co-founder at Leavened. As a founding team member at Leavened, Sara focuses on product development and helping her clients develop strategic marketing plans, design marketing infrastructures, and establish tools for campaign measurement. Sara has won many awards for her past work, including an Addy from the American Advertising Federation, a “ONE Show” Interactive Award from the ONE Club which champions excellence in advertising and design, an NCDM Database Excellence Award, and several ECHO awards from the International Direct Marketing Association. Prior to Leavened, Sara gained over 20 years of experience in performance marketing, media, and data analytics. 

Listen to this episode to learn about Sara’s career journey, how she’s seen marketing analytics drive value for businesses across various industries, her leadership and communication philosophy, advice for navigating corporate environments, and more! 


Interview Transcript

Introductions and Sara’s background in performance marketing, media, and data analytics 

[Anna]: Thank you for tuning in to the Real Intelligence podcast. You’re on today with Jason Harper, CEO and Founder of RXA and Anna Schultz, Marketing Coordinator at RXA.  

Our guest today is Sara Moorthy, Managing Partner and Co-founder at Leavened. As a founding team member at Leavened, Sara focuses on product development and helping her clients develop strategic marketing plans, design marketing infrastructures, and establish tools for campaign measurement. 

Prior to Leavened, Sara gained over twenty years of experience in performance marketing, media, and data analytics. She has worked as a strategic planning and analytics lead at several companies, including Draft Worldwide and Publicis. In 2006, she co-founded a digital and CRM agency in San Francisco, which was later purchased. Her clients have included Google, GoPro, Sprint, Microsoft, Intuit, Hewlett Packard, Adobe, Electronic Arts and Toyota. 

Sara has won many awards for her past work including an Addy from the American Advertising Federation, a “ONE Show” Interactive award from the ONE club, which champions excellence in advertising and design. An NCDM Database Excellence award and several ECHO awards from the International Direct Marketing Association. 

Sara holds a Bachelor of Science from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and an MBA and Masters in International Business from Pepperdine University. Welcome to the show, Sara. 

[Sara]: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.  

[Anna]: Absolutely. We’re so excited to have you here with us today. We like to start off the podcast by getting to know the real you. So, I have a few questions that we might not find the answers to in your professional bio.  

In our conversations prior to this, you mentioned that you started working on the web in 1994 with a company website. Do you have any fun memories or anything you want to share from working in the early days of the Internet? 

[Sara]: Yeah. I think… so I worked for a software reseller, and they really focused on targeting engineers and scientists. So, it’s the perfect target audience for people that were early on the web. And so, what I was in charge of was doing a lot of marketing for them, and I remembered working on my first banner ad, which I didn’t even really know what it was.  

And I was working with the engineers at the University of Illinois, and we’re going back and forth designing a banner ad that would then later be placed on Windows Magazine’s website. And so that initial process of, like, doing this whole thing manually, and negotiating the pricing, and putting anything on the websites, and going back and forth was fascinating. Because five years later, that was my career, and it was amazing to see how it completely changed and how automated it became over time. 

[Anna]: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, seeing that change from, you know, doing everything manually to, you know, everyone just doing their own kind of ads on Google Analytics today is probably pretty crazy.  

My second question for you, so you’ve, you know, been working in marketing or data analytics, you know, for a very long time now. And is there anything that you’ve seen in the industry that you consider maybe to be underrated, or not taken as seriously as, you know, you would like? 

[Sara]: Yeah. It’s interesting because I’ve had this conversation with a couple of clients recently. And, you know, I ended up finding this quote about, from Mark Twain that said, “data is like garbage, you better know what you’re going to be doing with it before you collect it. And I think what I see is, a lot of times, people collecting a lot of data and then producing these reports that have absolutely have no meaning.  

So, I think, you know, I always go back to clients. Why are we collecting the data and what are we going to do with it? And how are we going to really, in the marketing space at least, which I work in, is how are you going to use it to optimize? And the other piece of it is, people get into the minute stuff and forget about the bigger business trends. So how do you kind of couple those things together to be able to get the real insights that would actually grow your business? 

[Anna]: Yeah. Absolutely. That’s all very true. So, in your own words, I know I kind of gave you a bit of an introduction, but can you walk us through your career journey? What got you interested in marketing and analytics in the first place and how you learned some of those insights?  

[Sara]: Yeah. I definitely had an interest in marketing. I didn’t… You know, when I was going to school, there really wasn’t this kind of functional area of marketing analytics. So, I studied a lot of marketing and advertising and school. And then I ended up starting my career in Germany and I was doing more market research. And, you know, went to Germany to work for a pharmaceutical company that was looking to go into the Eastern bloc countries at that point, to be able to push their products through and to an audience. 

So, I did a lot of market research in that area, and then came back, and worked at some random different jobs in marketing for a spell, and in the healthcare industry. And then finally got into, what I would say is measurable marketing when I started working for the reseller that I mentioned in the software industry. Because they were a cataloger, and catalogers historically have done a lot with data – how do you manage data, and to be able to get the best ROI in marketing. So, I really was able to teach myself how to connect those dots early on. 

I was lucky, and then I was exposed to digital marketing as you had already asked me about. So, from there, I went and started working for agencies. And then started my own business with my business partner in 2006 that was sold in 2008. And then quickly, you know, I started in analytics and then went to a little bit more focused on marketing and strategy. And I think that would put me in a very good position to be able to actually connect those dots continuously through my career.  

And then most recently, I started Leavened a few years ago with a co-founder and, you know, basically Leavened is a cloud-based platform that executes marketing mix models at about a tenth of the time, at a much lower cost. And so, you know, we found this niche in the marketplace that we really want to take advantage of. 

[Jason]: Well, that’s incredible. And thank you again from me for joining Sara. It’s really exciting to talk to you. And I think, you know, it’s funny listening to some of your thoughts on the early web as someone who also got started in the late 90s. Like the concept of the 468×60. Is just so ingrained in my mind as that’s what an ad is. And then I do remember the massive innovation when site scrapers became available. And I remember thinking, oh, this is a game changer. It’s kind of funny to look back at that. So, thank you for sharing that.  

I think, you know, the work that you’re doing today at Leavened, that it’s really interesting. Like the speed with which you guys are able to do that stuff, and learning from yourself and, you know, from our friends in common, shout out to Baylen, things like that. And you guys really did… It’s really impressive, you know, what you guys have done there. So, appreciate you making time for us.  

Data applications in business 

I have a few questions for you as well. So, in some of our previous conversations, you said that you see data really as this agent for growth and change. I’m hoping maybe you could expand on that, perhaps share a few case studies on where you’ve seen data transform some businesses, customers that you’ve worked with?  

[Sara]: Sure. Yeah. So, I think just historically, I’ve worked in customer analytics first. And whether it was working at the catalog company or getting into direct marketing, and even the digital space, it was really about finding that customer-level data, at that individual piece of being able to increase their likelihood to purchase. Or if they were ready to churn, to stop that churn. Or if there was segmentation, to be able to find the right segments, to use that information to really focus in on the right spend levels to be able to maximize some client’s ROI. 

So historically, I’ve done a lot of lookalike models, whether it was offline or online, to be able to see, what are the key factors that would drive someone convert? And then prioritize those customers. So, I’ve done that for clients like Intuit and as well as at Electronic Arts and things like that.  

And then the second piece is, more recently, leveraging this idea of marketing mix modeling and using it quicker. Knowing the deprecation of cookies in the space, how do you even leverage it for digital marketers? I tend to work with a lot of direct-to-consumer clients. And so, they move fast. 

And so the ability to be able to take this data and then, say they tested it into some broad reach media, which they can’t measure even with the level of cookies that we’re getting right now. How do you make sure that the television is having an impact on your business? And that’s how this marketing mix has really been able to help us. So, clients like Chewy that I’ve worked with in the past, have leveraged our models to be able to really grow their business. We’re working with several other B2C companies recently that use MMM to prove out this broader reach media, to then reallocate their budgets to grow their business. 

[Jason]: Thank you. So, kind of along those lines. It’s very actionable, what you’re talking about here. Right? And one of the biggest gaps I’ve seen in the past twenty years of working in this field, actually more than twenty years now. This a long time. It is that folks do spend a lot of time on the data gathering and visualizing, and they spend a lot of effort coming up with dashboards and metrics and analytics that make people feel good. Like, oh, I know these numbers. However, that doesn’t necessarily change the way people do business. It doesn’t actually change decisions that are being made. It’s not necessarily used in a practical way.  

Some of the things you’re talking about are true practical applications of the data and, like, the real actual value that we’re trying to create is actually being achieved. So, I think a lot of that comes from, based on my conversations with you and what I’ve learned here… Your ability to take your media experience and this concept of combining data storytelling with the actual output of the analytics, output of tools like MMM and MTA to create real actionable recommendations, or even self-service actions that your clients can take with your products. 

Results from applied marketing analytics 

[Jason]: I’m wondering if you could expand on how you’re actually seeing, through your career, your ability to actually deliver these actionable recommendations and seeing your clients actually do things differently? 

[Sara]: Yeah. You know, I think it’s interesting, to that question, I think the big thing… You have the data, and then you can say, the data is telling you this, let’s go change that. There is a function of, can the client take that risk to say yes, that’s right, and actually put it in a marketplace and test it? 

So, the way I typically approach it with clients is: here’s the data set. We’re running it through. We’re finding this insight, then combining that with a media metric. Right? There’s actual media knowledge and media metrics that need to be combined. I’ve seen… And I’ve actually worked with other data analytics teams. Where they’re just giving me the data and saying good luck, figure out what it means. And I think it’s really important to connect this front-end data, what I call media data, to cross reference what the actual results and back-end data is.  

And then the second step is okay, client. Here’s what it’s saying. Here’s how we need to then put it in the market and test it. Obviously, a lot of clients are going to be risk averse with their budget. So how do you get a test market that is minimizing their risk? And, you know, those are those things that marketing people know, that analytics people might not know. That 80-20 rule, can I take that twenty percent of that budget and test it, because I know 80 percent budget is working hard for me. I know that the revenue is gonna be coming in. And then so we’ll take…  

That’s our approach, basically, to be able to use that test budget, put it in market, make sure that there’s enough data points to be able to come back and validate it, then roll out with it as we go forward. 

[Jason]: Well, I think… So thinking about that, like, how you’re actually able to bring this together, right? And bring this together at scale too, so replicating that process for, not just your interactions with clients, but your team’s interactions with clients and your team’s ability to do that. I mean, you have extensive leadership experience. And I’m wondering, do you have any specific sort of like, philosophies? How have you been able to take the Sara version of this and actually help others replicate that and find that success in your company or with your clients? 

Leadership, mentorship, and communication 

[Sara]: Yeah. That’s for me, that’s really important, like, this idea of mentorship. But, you know, first and foremost, I always try to hire people that are way smarter than me and can really provide a different perspective. I think that’s really important. And I wanna hope that I lead with knowledge and innovation, and commitment to really hard work, and sprinkling in a little bit of nurturing. That’s where your question is really kind of triangulating to, which is, I’m not a perfect leader. But to be able to make sure that I’m teaching the team how to think about the business, and putting the client first, and making sure that we are able to provide those opportunities to really show the client how to grow their business.  

You know, advertising is full of opportunities to fail. I always say that to everybody. In my 25 years of being in it, I can’t remember doing work for a client where something didn’t fall apart. But it’s really about how quickly can you recover? And it becomes really, really stressful. So, what I’ve really focused on is that recovery process. And how quickly can we pick ourselves up as a team, and move forward, and make sense of everything that’s happening, and change quickly with some sense of grace around it? 

[Jason]: What are some of your tips for dealing with going through these with grace with customers? In my experience, there can be varying… It’s a very high stress position to be in because, you know, clients can… The bar for firing an agency is much lower than the other way. So, do you have any guidance or tips on navigating those gracefully? 

[Sara]: Yeah. I think it… It’s baked in honesty. Right? Like, I think if… And, you know, hopefully, both people on both sides of the business, the agency as well as the client, are reasonable people. Most of my clients have been. I’ve always known that there’s always gonna be some slip ups on either side. 

I think that it’s baked in trust and honesty. And I do, you’re right. I see in the industry that there are turnstile relationships that happen with agencies that didn’t exist before. And I think that that’s part of it, is there’s maybe some inherent lack of trust. And I think that you have to develop a baseline of a good relationship. And then as things happen, as we move quickly and things happen, everybody gives each other a little bit more of a grace period. 

[Jason]: Yeah. I think living in Zoom reality does sometimes make relationship building, it’s been a little bit of a challenge. We’re not able to be as in-person as much, but it does also allow for more frequent touch points, because it is easier to connect through these ways. And we’re used to it. Are you… I guess, how are you seeing the relationship side developing over the past couple of years? 

[Sara]: It’s been hard. You know, I think that there is nothing like face-to-face conversations and you… There’s the nuance to all the communication that you can see face-to-face. What we’ve done is try to touch base with clients more and more frequently in shorter time periods. I don’t need an hour call with you, 30 minutes is fine or 15 minutes, just to touch base. And sometimes I just reach out to clients, just to say hi and see how they’re doing. Because those are those things that happen face-to-face that you can’t do, you have to make a concerted effort when you’re working in the Zoom world. 

[Jason]: Yeah. I would say that you’re being very intentional with your client outreach and you’re doing it in a very focused and intentional way, in cultivating it specifically just for the relationships, not just to check in on status. 

[Sara]: Yeah. And I’m doing that with, you know, with staff too. Right? Like, with the team. I think that that’s also important. Just every once in a while, just like Slack them, just ask them how they are. Or right before we get on the, you know, team meeting, asking people random questions to see what’s going on. I think you’re right. It’s a very intentional effort. So, you have to be super conscientious of it. 

[Jason]: On a still fairly related topic, but thinking about a more general sort of mentorship and advice that you give to folks. So, with your experience, you faced some significant headwind in your career, being woman in a data and analytics field and then also in entrepreneurship. You’re facing challenges that I’m not even aware are out there, right, having been in the same field for roughly the same amount of time and doing similar work. And I would love to hear if you have any perspective or anything that you would like to share with folks in that regard, that you’ve found helpful, or advice. We’d appreciate that. 

Advice on navigating corporate environments 

[Sara]: Yeah… You know, and it’s interesting because I’m also a person of color. And so, when I started in the business, even in advertising, there just weren’t a lot of women persons of color, or even male persons of color. And so there was the female piece of it, and then there’s the minority piece of it. I think the advice that I have, and I’ve spoken on panels about this, and it’s to me the great thing about this, I worked in Germany, which was interesting. I remember distinctly when I was about to finish my job there, the women that were working there were like, go home. Because there is no room for someone like you here, because you’re really smart and there’s a glass ceiling, and you’re never going to be able to break that in this society. And so, I came back to California and started my career.  

And I think my advice to anybody is to take advantage of the opportunities. I can’t remember who said it, like Thomas Edison or something, but opportunity is always cloaked in what looks like hard work, and it’s true. And I was very, very lucky. I have a lot of mentors that were helping me along the way, but they also knew that I was committed to doing the work. And I think that the advice is don’t let… You know, if you can’t grow your career in a certain company or a certain field, what can you do to find the opportunities in other areas. Whether you want to switch your career and find something that’s a better fit, or do you go to a different company? I think having as many different experiences as possible is really, really important 

[Jason]: I love that. One more question for you. And I think somewhat related to looking at opportunities and things too. If you weren’t in a marketing analytics profession, so take that off the table, what would you be doing? 

Conclusion and final words of wisdom 

[Sara]: We were just having this conversation with some friends at a cocktail hour. And I was like, I would totally wanna be a private detective for the police department… Or a detective for the police department, I should say, like Olivia Benson on SVU. I think it’s my… We always say what’s your superpower at work? Like, what are you really good at? I think for me, I’m a good problem solver. I love looking and finding problems to be able to solve, and putting those pieces together. So, it would be really interesting to do that in a situation that could really help somebody. 

[Jason]: I love it. I think it’s great. And I will note that my father was a police detective. I’m very familiar with that line of work. I’m not quite sure it’s as glamorous as it’s been depicted on television. It’s definitely a lot of hard work. 

[Sara]: Yeah. And advertising is not glamorous like Mad Men shows it to be either. 

[Anna]: Well, as a total true crime junkie, I’m with you. I totally agree with that. 

[Sara]: We can exchange true crime TV shows that we watch! 

[Anna]: Oh, my gosh. I love it. Well, thank you, Sara, so much for your time today. I think your story is super inspiring, and we’re really grateful that you took the time to walk us through your career journey, lend some inspiration, lend some advice that you’ve learned along the way. Thank you again so much. Before we wrap things up, is there anything else you would like to share with our audience, any parting advice or thoughts? 

[Sara]: First of all, I wanted to thank you both for having me. I think as Jason knows, the data world is changing every single day. And I think if you’re working in it, be flexible and bob and weave with the industry. So, I think there’s just… I always look at things as endless opportunities as opposed to a roadblock. So hopefully that, you know, continue to see it that way. 

About RXA

RXA is a leading data science consulting company. RXA provides data engineers, data scientists, data strategists, business analysts, and project managers to help organizations at any stage of their data maturity. Our company accelerates analytics road maps, helping customers accomplish in months what would normally take years by providing project-based consulting, long term staff augmentation and direct hire placement staffing services. RXA’s customers also benefit from a suite of software solutions that have been developed in-house, which can be deployed immediately to further accelerate timelines. RXA is proud to be an award-winning partner with leading technology providers including Domo, DataRobot, Alteryx, Tableau and AWS.

Website: https://www.rxa.io

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