Sharon Napier, CEO, Partners + Napier

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By Meghan Miranda

With offices in Rochester, New York, Atlanta and San Francisco and a list of notable clients – including Capital One and Constellation Brands (parent company of popular beverage brands like Corona and Arbor Mist) – Sharon Napier, CEO of Partners + Napier, has created quite the name for herself in the advertising world.

A Donna Draper of sorts.

When Napier and three partners took over the agency and its two offices in 2004, a purchase made from Wolf Group’s agency network, they successfully transferred not only a growing client base, but also a loyal team of employees.

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These “Brave 40” as Napier refers to them have been a part of the agency’s evolution into a nationally recognized brand.

More than half were women.

Today, Partners + Napier are 135 staff members deep and have been included on Ad Age’s list of top small agencies in the country – garnering media attention for six consecutive years of positive growth.

“I focused on doubling down on the basics and over-delivering for our clients,” Napier says of the agency’s ability to grow during challenging economic times.

In 2012, the agency was also named one of Ad Age’s 30 Best Places to Work in Marketing & Media.

In an exclusive interview with PINK, she reveals why it paid not to follow the best business advice she’s ever received and the benefits of taking the less-than-traditional route to success.


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Little PINK Book: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
Sharon Napier: It was more of a lesson that came from not following someone’s advice.

I went to school for my MBA at 45, and while I was there, I did a lot of work on my business plan – laying out strategies for growth, deciding what our core values should be, what our vision would be. My professor at the time, a businessman, told me that I shouldn’t make “family” one of my core values if I wanted to build a growth company.

When we rebranded and decided on our core values, family was one of them. And in the first few years, we experienced incredible growth. We doubled and then tripled in size. Thinking back to my professor’s “business advice” reminds me that advice is just that – advice. It’s up to you as the entrepreneur to stay true to your vision.

LPB: What about your background resulted in your choices and success today?
SN: I give immense credit to my parents. I grew up outside Buffalo, NY, in a traditional Italian family. My dad was an Italian immigrant with a ninth grade education, but he was an extremely hard worker. He put everything they had into building a successful family business so he could create opportunity for us. Working with him left me with invaluable lessons on leadership, perseverance and teamwork.

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Working alongside my father in the family business, my mother has always been a role model, too. Today, at 86, she still goes to work every day. She told my sisters and me that we could do anything. She made sure we were independent and could rely on ourselves. She taught us to sacrifice for the things you believe are important. So even though I graduated from college with $100,000 in loans and repaid them when I was 40, I built an accomplished career doing what I love. My two sisters are strong, successful women, too – a judge and a women’s psychology professor.

I’ve taken a non-traditional path to get to where I am today, and that contributed to my success. I never worked at a big agency. I got my master’s degree at 45. I moved to New York City and established a new agency office in my 50s. All of these things are antithetic to what you’re “supposed” to do in this business. But never doing things in the right order helped me make decisions for the agency based on wisdom and experience, not the expectations of others.

LPB: What’s the biggest career obstacle you’ve faced?
SN: As a woman, especially in the peak of my career as a young mother, people made judgments about who I was and what I could do. I heard things like, “She has two kids. She’ll never take that job.” And I always thought, “Yeah, I can do it. I’ll show you.” I loved the surprise that came when they realized how wrong they were about me.

Women have to maintain that confidence, and never buy into the misguided and unfair preconceptions others might have. Nobody knows what you’re capable of but you.

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LPB: What’s the secret to your professional success?
SN: The qualities and characteristics I bring with me into the boardroom are straight from the basketball court, because I played for many years. Basketball also taught me about mental toughness. It’s what allowed me to practice for three hours a day even when I was exhausted, and to manage all the pressure that comes from facing a strong competitor. Business is all about merging your personal strengths with the team and making something happen.

LPB: What do you think is the biggest issue for professional women right now?
SN: In thinking about what it takes to be a strong female leader, something gets left out of the conversation every time. We tell women to be assertive, and to negotiate and network religiously. But what we don’t always tell them is that it’s critical to cultivate a strong voice very early in their careers. When we’re first starting out, we believe that others, particularly our older peers, know much more than we do. So we hold back. We defer. It’s ridiculous, because in reality, we’re all in the same constant state of learning.

Women also need to understand that building a career in the C-Suite is hard work. The world isn’t going to make it easy for you, so maintaining hunger for the job is important. You have to be 100 percent engaged, because the higher up you go, the more your career becomes your life.

LPB: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken for your career?
SN: Nearly a decade ago, before we rebranded as Partners + Napier, we were part of a smaller holding company called The Wolf Group. When it became clear that the agency’s future was in jeopardy, I borrowed from my 401k, cashed in all my insurance policies and bought out the CEO – preventing the agency from closing its doors. The next thing I knew, our new name was on the door of our building. Our 40 employees chipped in themselves to buy the sign (I call them “The Brave 40”). Risking everything to stop the agency from going belly up was probably one of the scariest decisions I’ve ever made.


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LPB: What do you do to relax?
SN: I love spending time with my two girls, 21 and 23, my husband and our dog, Roxie. I was a walk-on basketball player at St. John Fisher College, so I’m also a lifelong athlete. When I’m not working or catching up with my family, I’m doing something active – like jogging, biking or playing tennis. I wish I could play basketball more, but I haven’t found any women’s over 50 leagues!

LPB: What are your best tips for balancing work and family life?
SN: I think the elusive work/life balance is a very subjective thing. You have to find the right balance that works for you. When I’m at work, I’m completely focused on work. I’ve organized my personal life to allow me to do that, bringing in a housekeeper or a nanny when I needed help – because we can’t do it all. When I’m with my family, I’m completely living in the moment. This gets much harder as technology advances. It’s always with you – your iPhone or your iPad or your laptop. On vacations, I take a “tech break” and turn off everything that beeps, buzzes or pings. On weekends, I check my email once in the morning then focus on other things.

Achieving a balance will keep you fresh, energized and passionate for your work. If we’re always responding and reacting, we’re not thinking. We have to not be afraid to say “time out” more often.

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