LBB - How HERO Collective Unearths Clients’ “Cultural Superpower,” with Sara Hashim

Sara Hashim’s job title includes an amalgamation of two things most often kept quite separate within ad agencies; she is EVP creative and client services at HERO Collective, a 100% Black-owned, digital first agency based out of New York. As part of HERO’s core leadership team, Sara manages key client relationships – ensuring that both creative and account teams at the agency are delivering projects that are strategically on point, creatively executed, quality assured and meeting all internal and external benchmarks.

Coming to her work with a background in design and strategy, Sara is an award-winning creative director and educator who loves to connect dots in unexpected ways. Sara also teaches an ‘Innovations in Marketing’ class at NYU, has taught Design at Hofstra University, and serves as a visiting critic at Pratt.

LBB’s Addison Capper wanted to know more about how her role works in practice, and how her duties as an educator inform the way she approaches her job. So, he spoke with Sara to find out. 

LBB> Your job title – EVP creative and client services – is an intriguing one. What does it entail?

Sara> It’s true, it’s an unusual title for a very particular situation. HERO was born out of a sense of purpose and a challenge to enter conversations in a way that adds value to people’s lives. Our work is about disrupting archaic modes of thinking and that entails challenging brands to be different. To do this, we must also be willing to hold ourselves to the same standards and methods internally. As we scaled, we saw the value of having a leadership position that operated across our design and account verticals to ensure that there was clear communication and cohesion – both internally and externally. In my role, I manage key client relationships, ensuring that both creative and account teams at the agency are delivering projects that are strategically on point, creatively executed, quality assured and meeting all the necessary benchmarks. There is a new business component as well, where I represent HERO Collective leadership during the pitch process and help new client partners settle in with their working teams.

LBB> How do you balance both sides of the role and why does it make sense to have creative and client relationships together? 

Sara> I find the output of our work is a balance between the way our creative work is done internally and how we communicate and partner with our clients in service to it, so it made perfect sense to have a role that bridges those two areas. From an internal perspective, it keeps our account and creative teams in close communication with each other, working in lockstep. Simultaneously, it signals to our partners that we’re an integrated studio. It is because our leadership team is structured in this way that we can ensure vision, strategy, creative and execution, and have a cohesive thread throughout a project.

LBB> You’re an award-winning creative director, have a background in strategy, and are a graphic designer by training. How do you find the challenge of also working more closely with clients and how does all of this experience feed into that? 

Sara> Working with clients is one of my favourite parts of this role. When we interact with our clients, the discussion is centred around making a difference in a meaningful way. That process is not always easy but it’s important. It requires everyone involved to move out of their comfort zone to have some hard conversations. Through this, we determine where we are, where we’d like to be, and how to bridge that gap in order to create real change. We begin by taking a deep look at where the brand operates and build a strategic foundation. That includes finding their cultural ‘superpower’, how they add value to consumer’s lives in a way that goes beyond the transactional benefits that their product or service provides. Every action we recommend from that point onwards – key messages, communications strategy, creative – ties back to this and aims to meet audiences where they are in a way that feels sincere, valuable, intentional and culturally relevant. This combination of human relationships, trust building and the rigour of the process that follows feels like a strong extension of both my personality and my background. 

LBB> How does your design thinking and experience inform your leadership style? 

Sara> The reason I’ve always gravitated towards design thinking is because, at its very simplest, it is a human centred approach to problem solving. It’s the way my mind wants to think about any kind of problem. Helping to solve for the complexities of an organisation like ours, scaling, taking on projects that have multiple phases, scopes and facets, galvanising a team towards a milestone and gathering together when we experience setbacks; these are all parts of our business that require a deep sense of empathy, a high bar for excellence, rigour and a flexibility of approach. But most importantly, it’s about being human. Design thinking is baked into every aspect of my day. It’s an exciting time to be a leader in this space, and we are fortunate to be working with some of the most talented, spirited, passionate and diverse people in the industry. 

LBB> You’re also an adjunct professor, teaching an Innovations in Marketing class at NYU. What kind of philosophies inform the types of lessons you teach and how do they also influence your work at HERO? 

Sara> My course at NYU focuses on equipping students with a strong foundation of marketing strategy. We study the principles that power innovation to navigate a rapidly changing landscape. When I crafted this course I thought deeply about all the ways that strong theoretical knowledge could meet real world application. So whether it is a reading, the way an assignment is structured, or a discussion, I made it a point that it had to translate to working life in some way. The intention is for them to be creative thinkers that can operate within robust, flexible frameworks. We have a high bar for success in this class, it’s not an easy class. But it is deeply thoughtful, it pushes students to connect the dots across industries, it challenges them to be analytical and flexible thinkers and it invites them to create an environment where we build something together and show up for each other. These are the same principles behind what we do at HERO. Interacting with this younger generation, hearing their perspectives and paying attention to what is motivating them certainly strengthens my work with HERO

LBB> Speaking of HERO, what kind of work do you feel the business does best and what kind of unique place does it occupy in the market?

Sara> HERO is a full service creative digital studio. We can do a great number of things, but the core of everything we do is based on showing up with a sense of purpose in a way that adds value to the cultural conversation. We are 100% Black-owned, incredibly diverse and we operate at the intersection of commerce, community and culture. Starting from that place of difference and expertise allows us to occupy a unique space in the market. I’m proud to say that we have successfully helped brands like Mattel, HP, BAND-AID and Nike to have powerful conversations that translate into action within the communities they serve.

LBB> Which projects from your time with the business are you particularly proud of and why? Sara> Our work with BAND-AID is a project I feel deeply passionate about. In 2021, with the background of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, we partnered with BAND-AID to release their new multi-tone brand ‘OURTONE’ that was in service of the Black community. As we sat through early consumer research, our responsibility was to listen, acknowledge, absorb and respect the stories we were hearing and to weave the insights from them into the very fabric of the brand, from the name ‘OURTONE’, to the packaging and the campaign itself. We had strong brand partners in Johnson & Johnson and the BAND-AID client teams, who trusted us and championed the work internally. We worked with creatives who were diverse, our sets, production teams, writers all reflected the communities we were serving. The luminaries we worked with were pillars in the Black community, and as a result the work showed a depth through and through. Even now, it’s the project we get asked about most, outperforming all benchmarks on the campaign and transforming the way in which BAND-AID shows up in that space. 

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?

Sara> I grew up in Pakistan which has a rich cultural history that combines so many influences. I was raised with a curious mix of culture and art; from the fiery calligraphy of Ismail Gulgee, to the modern art of Imran Mir, to Shazia Sikander’s take on miniatures, there was a lot to absorb. In my young adulthood, I discovered the work of the American neo-conceptualist artist Jenny Holzer, who I really loved. Seeing her work for the first time switched on a part of my brain that has remained active ever since. 

When it came to television; it was really about what made it through the border at the time. It was a very curious mix of British television from the ‘70s, European MTV and a slew of sometimes obscure American TV shows that felt like they were coming to us 10 years after they went everywhere else. Manimal anyone?  

LBB> How did you wind up doing what you are doing? Was it a planned venture or did you fall into this business? 

Sara> I would say my beginnings were very far from where I have landed. I was studying to become a doctor and right before applying for the medical entrance exam, I realised medicine was not my calling. I put everything I had into applying to art school. I worked incredibly hard to build a portfolio and was accepted at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the top schools in Pakistan. From there, I tried to expose myself to as many different working and learning experiences as possible so I could grow my craft. I joined JWT as an art director and got some great advertising experience. I then moved to New York for my masters degree in Communication Design from Pratt. Following that, I did a fellowship with Milton Glaser, who I was incredibly fortunate to work under. From there, I joined a design studio and then eventually started my own practice, which led me to working with Joe Anthony, our CEO at HERO. He was about to embark on a large branding project for Pfizer and was looking for a creative to spearhead the project. We’ve been working together ever since!

LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you entertained and/or relaxed? 

Sara> Finding ways to be nourished, energised, and pacing yourself is so important – particularly with this kind of work. I love travelling when I’m able to; it provides space for contrast and perspective. Spending time with friends, preferably over a great meal or for a concert. Getting away from the city to walk in nature is a practice I’m nurturing more and more. For me, it’s contrast that keeps things interesting, when balanced properly.

Originally appeared in LBB here.