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Woman of the Week: KATY THORBAHN

Senior Vice President, General Manager, Avenue A | Razorfish

This month marks the 11-year anniversary for Avenue A | Razorfish's Philadelphia office. The Philly office was founded in May 1996 as i-FRONTIER, which quickly grew into one of the largest Philadelphia-based interactive agencies. In November 2002, i-FRONTIER was acquired by aQuantive (NASDAQ: AQNT), the parent company of Avenue A l Razorfish. Avenue A | Razorfish is a digital agency that offers clients a full range of services related to digital marketing. Clients can work with them on overall digital strategy, digital media planning and buying, creative development, web site implementation, analytics and search engine marketing. If it's digital, they do it.
Seven years ago, the firm had the vision to hire Katy Thorbahn, nominated this week as Woman of the Week. Katy, a lifetime resident of Philadelphia, started at an entry level position at Avenue A, and in only seven years, rose to GM of the agency's 4th largest office in '06. Katy is also the mother of two young children and struggles to successfully balance her career with a busy family life. Under her leadership, the Philadelphia office of Avenue A | Razorfish has more than tripled its revenues and grown to more than 135 employees, making it one of the largest interactive agencies in Philadelphia.

WOTW: Katy, how did you get your start with Avenue A?
Katy: I originally joined the agency as the Director of Client Services when we had 35 employees in the Philadelphia office. I have been with the company for about 7 ½ years. We now have more than 135 employees and I am responsible for running the office -- the fourth largest office in our 19-office global network.

WOTW: How/when did you choose this career path?
Katy: I have spent my entire career in advertising in Philadelphia. My uncle directed that famous Samsonite commercial when a gorilla puts the luggage's durability to the test, so I guess you could say that advertising is in the genes. My first job after college was as an Assistant Account Manager at The Weightman Group, which at the time was one of the largest agencies in the US. I stayed with Weightman for over five years working on a variety of packaged good and retail accounts. It was a wonderful place to work and I learned a huge amount about what it means to be effective at client service. After Weightman I went to Marchese & Barone (now VirTu, Inc). Over the four years I was with them I got deeper into digital marketing via both website development and digital media. When I left them to join what was then i-FRONTIER (now Avenue A | Razorfish), I was VP, Account Supervisor.

WOTW: What would you say is the best thing about your position?
Katy: The amazing people I have the opportunity to work with everyday. I have always been energized by an advertising agency's atmosphere, where you have very left-brain and right-brain people working side by side to achieve a shared goal. At Avenue A | Razorfish it is even more pronounced in that we have an incredibly smart group of people in our office and across all of our offices all working in an area that continues to evolve and grow on a daily basis, and we all need to work together to help not just our clients, but also to shape digital marketing overall.

WOTW: What is the hardest thing for you to accomplish?
Katy: Balance between my work life and my home life. As someone who is both responsible for a significant business and the mother of two young children, I often find myself at a crossroads, which requires me to make a decision that places one over the other. Feeling confident that I'm making the right priority is something that I grapple with often.

WOTW: Of what are you most proud?
Katy: I am proud that at a relatively young age – 37 to be exact – I earned the opportunity to run an important office of a publicly held company, and to be one of the few women within our organization to be in a similar role.

WOTW: Describe your overall philosophy and how you utilize it with your responsibilities at work.
Katy: I believe that to succeed we need smart ideas. Who those ideas come from is completely unimportant. As a result, I am a big believer in hiring the smartest people you can possibly find, that are passionate about what we are trying to achieve, and then look for ways to empower them to move our business forward. As I tell new employees, the best ideas for our business come from the people who are actively involved with our clients' business on a day-to-day basis, and that if we wait for business evolving ideas to come from me or other senior members of our management team, we will miss far too many great ideas. So I attempt to make everyone feel invested in our business, and confident that we need – and expect – their ideas to come forward in order for us to continue to succeed.

WOTW: If you could change one thing in our world, what would it be?
Katy: I would eliminate the urge for people to be afraid of, and therefore disdainful of, people who are different than they are. I see this for example in religious extremity, racism, sexism; you name it – anything that makes people seem like "other" versus just another human being. The reason I would focus on this is that it seems to me to be such a driver for things that are just a horrible waste of time, talent and resources.

WOTW: What (if any) is your guilty pleasure?
Katy: I have a host of guilty pleasures. Perhaps one of the most perverse is my absolute love for truly awful movies, whether made for TV or by Hollywood. I enjoy nothing more than really badly written, poorly directed and acted films. Made-for-TV does seem to have an edge on movie studios for putting this type of entertainment out, and I think back fondly to the years of the Meredith Baxter-Birney TV movies as examples of the inadvertent comedy I like the best.

WOTW: What CD or book would you want to have with you on the deserted island?
Katy: May I have both? In that case I'd probably choose the book A Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving and the CD Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie. The novel I'd choose because John Irving is one of the authors I most enjoy reading when he is at the top of this game, and in my humble opinion, Owen Meaney is an example of him at his best. In terms of the CD, I am a huge fan of David Bowie so choosing one would be tough, though going with one of his standard-bearer albums such as Ziggy would ensure I'd have hours upon hours of listening pleasure.

WOTW: What advice would you share to someone starting out in your business?
Katy: Recognize that advertising is a fickle business and one that you go into because you love it, not because you're trying to build up your retirement portfolio. That being the case, open yourself up to working hard, seeking out new projects or opportunities and following the advice one of my first bosses gave me, "Keep taking things on until someone tells you to stop." In my experience, you can get a lot of learning and experience before someone tells you to stop and then can parlay that into your next role within the company (or at your next job.)

WOTW: What's next for you and Avenue A | Razorfish?
Katy: As we celebrate our 11th anniversary, we are going to continue to innovate and play an important role in defining what it means to do digital marketing. As a result you will see us continue to grow here in Philadelphia, constantly looking for people passionate about the interactive space who want to play a role in taking us to the next level. At the same time we will leverage that in-house talent to partner with our clients to take their businesses deeper into digital, and come up with new ways through which our clients can gain a competitive advantage through the smart, effective leveraging of all things digital.

Katy is a member of the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies) Philadelphia council and she participates in a variety of community work, including helping with the economic development of the Swarthmore Town Center. In addition to her full time position, she has two children, age 8 and 10, and, as a hobby, she enjoys gourmet cooking. We are thrilled her friend took the time to nominate her as Woman of the Week and say congrats to her firm on reaching this impressive 11th year anniversary milestone. If you'd like to submit a nominee, please email me –