Unscripted: behind-the-scenes with Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski

June 30, 2014

FAJO’s Power Series

 

The turning point was in 2000, but like every meaningful story, that is not when it began. In fact, it was years in the making.

Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski was born and raised in Toronto. She studied sociology at Concordia University in Montréal, until a friend of hers, who knew that she frequently wrote poetry and plays, suggested looking into the creative writing department. Sadowski applied and got in. She says today that she was surprised when that happened, because “it was a really intense program.” While enrolled, she published several small poetry books, produced a couple of plays and took a playwriting course alongside three other students, supervised by playwright, novelist and children’s author, Tomson Highway. One day, Highway looked at Sadowski and said: “You know, kid, you’re a pretty good writer. But I think you like shoes too much to go into this field.”

Unsure about her career, the aspiring writer came back to Toronto to be with her Mom who had cancer. Sadowski wanted to be close to her, so she moved back into her childhood home. She started looking for work, but was struggling and decided to do telemarketing in the interim.

Eventually, a childhood friend, Canadian actress and producer Jennifer Podemski, introduced Sadowski to her agent. Sadowski ended up doing a summer internship, where she was faxing headshots and setting up auditions for actors. “I really enjoyed working with creative people and being in that environment,” she remembers. “But I wasn’t so keen on working on contracts and negotiations. Ironically, it’s what I do quite a lot now but, at the time, it intimidated me.”

Later that year, she met publicist Jill Spitz at a mutual friend’s Christmas party. “I think we were all outside, and I kind of said to her: ‘What do you do, how do you do it?’ And she said: ‘Well, can you write?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, I have a degree in writing.’ And she said: ‘Can you sell?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I have [been doing] telemarketing, I can sell anything.’ And she said: ‘Well, I’m pretty sure you could be a publicist then.'”

Sadowski got curious. She did a short-term placement as an assistant at a PR agency, but before she knew it, one of her friends was putting on a play for a grad project at Ryerson University, and needed a publicist. She even sent Sadowski some information to prepare. “The front page of the document was literally How to Do PR, and it showed me how to write a press release, how to do a PSA, how to submit a listing,” says Sadowski. “Now, we are going back a long time here, Internet had just begun, so it was really about faxing. I got a program called Winfax and I got an e-mail address. I started, literally, flipping through the phone book, calling up newsrooms and introducing myself to people.” Thanks to her efforts, the play was featured on YTV and CBC.

After that, the number of clients started to grow quickly. There was another play, then a jewelry designer, followed by a CD promotion. And then the year 2000 kicked in. In January, Sadowski set up her company, printed some business cards and continued working out of the spare bedroom in her parents’ house.

“That was it: that was all I had — the drive. I wanted a career, you know. I didn’t want a job. I wanted something that would excite me and I wanted to be surrounded by creative people. There was a real gap in the Canadian art industry when I started 15 years ago, there was nobody doing that kind of thing. That’s how I started filling the niche.”

By 2005, she had a couple of staff members and the Drake Hotel as one of her accounts. She was also representing Sarah Polley.

“And so, all of a sudden, I was in the TIFF {Toronto International Film Festival} handbook, and people were like, ‘Who is representing Sarah Polley? Who is this person?'” remembers Sadowski. “I did a film and really jumped into everything quite blind, but with a lot of energy and excitement.”

Meanwhile, Sadowski also named her company, rock-it promotions. How did that happen? It was her middle sister, Karen, who came up with the name: “I started off with a totally different name and it was giving the wrong impression. We called it Hardcore Promotions. Obviously now, looking back at it, I’m like: what was I thinking? But I had an interest in music, so my sister said, ‘Why don’t you call it rock-it?'”

“Many agencies were named after the founders and I really like that it’s not named after me. It’s not about me, because the agency remains to be not about me. It really remains to be about my team and mentoring, you know? It really has been the women that I’ve mentored for 15 years, so I like that it’s kind of about all of us and it certainly has become a bit of a pun that people use all the time: ‘You guys rock-it!'”

As things progressed, Sadowski’s career expanded heavily into fashion. In 2006, she got a call from Robin Kay. “She called for a meeting. I think we met at the Four Seasons [Hotel]. I had a very fast lunch with her; I was quite flattered that I had gotten this call from her and I was excited. I think she sat down with me for maybe 20 minutes, had two spoons of her soup, and made a quick judgment call on who I was.”

Sadowski poses at fashion week earlier this year.

Sadowski poses at fashion week earlier this year.

Sadowski didn’t really know what she had been called for, but October 2006 ended up being her first season managing PR for Toronto Fashion Week. To this day, her company is still the agency of record for IMG Canada, and it continues to oversee PR activities at the event.

As her company grew, Sadowski had no problem rolling up the sleeves and getting the work done alongside her team that was doubling and tripling in size. She would be frequently seen looking glamorous at a VIP event one night, and modestly dressed in smart casual wear the next night, while supervising a massive VIP and media crowd at fashion week.

How does she manage it all? “It’s really about listening to what your staff need and what they want,” she says. “It gets harder and harder when you have five people, 10 people, 20 people. You need to really continue to get to know them and understand who they are, what’s going on in their personal lives. You have to be surrounded by people who love and respect you.

“If you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in the nitty-gritty, you can’t possibly sit down and go head-to-head with a client. I’ve had to take a little bit of time off to have children. But, you know, I pitched some new businesses when I was a day away from having a baby, and I was back on the phone five months later. I think for female entrepreneurs the hardest part was not the early days. For me, it actually came when I had my [first child], my daughter.”

Mila is now 5 and was born when the first recession hit. Sadowski says it was very difficult because all of a sudden she had somebody who was dependent on her. “It wasn’t just about me and my husband anymore. I wanted to make sure that I could continue breastfeeding and still manage the business, because at the time I still had the business out of my house and those things are very expensive. Kids are very expensive, and good care is expensive, and daycare, and childcare. It was hard.

“I remember, at one point, my eldest sister Linda played a very pivotal role in my life when she said, ‘You can’t keep on beating yourself up on not being with her {Mila} all the time, because with you it’s going to be quality over quantity. There are lots of Moms who are with their kids all the time but maybe they’re on their phones, maybe they’re only paying half the attention with their TVs on. When you’re with her, be there with her.’ It was such good advice, and I always take it with me. With Jaxon {Sadowski’s one-year-old son}, it’s the same kind of thing. Sometimes I wonder, does he think the nanny is his Mom? You know, who is he identifying with more? I wasn’t able to breastfeed with him as long because he had a lactose intolerance.

“I think in this day and age women are always being pushed to wait, there is this mentality of I can wait, I can wait, I can wait. I had a miscarriage between kids and that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had in my life. It was very close to three months and I had already gotten used to the idea. I was really sick in the first trimester, and Matt {Sadowski’s husband} was travelling to Cannes so I missed him, and it was terrible. It was a terrible thing. It was before I got pregnant with Jaxon, so about three years ago. And my team was so incredible about it. I wasn’t drinking, they kind of figured it out, so by the time I was supposed to tell them I was expecting I actually had to tell them that I had lost the baby and it was probably the toughest thing I’ve had to do as an employer: kind of hold it together and go in front of a group of young women who haven’t had that experience yet, and haven’t tried to get pregnant yet. And not that it’s not okay for them to see me be humanized, but it was gut-wrenching for me, and for Matt.

“And then another hard part is that you can’t take a full year of maternity leave if you want to be an entrepreneur. There are a lot of clients who are understanding and there are a lot of clients who aren’t forgiving; you can’t kind of say, ‘I’m 38 weeks pregnant, maybe we could do this meeting in a month?’ I remember before Mila was born, I had gone out and pitched a bunch of businesses in the middle of winter, and people didn’t come through with the contracts. I just wanted to throttle some people, like why are you making me come out when I’m so pregnant, it’s so not nice. I’m due in a minute, you know? But that’s life, that’s being a woman and balancing plates. My husband has been a great partner though, he’s really incredible that way.”

Business-driven and always well-dressed, Sadowski poses before another show at Toronto Fashion Week.

Sadowski says she has a supportive team at rock-it, which includes her husband.

Sadowski’s husband is both her life and business partner. Her agency is now one of the largest and most successful in the city, so she says she is happy they work together. He runs his own filmmaking company, and helps rock-it with creative direction and accounts receivable. He’s had quite a successful film career, and one of the fun highlights includes playing the Green Power Ranger and the Red Power Ranger.

Do people bother them with questions about it? “We do get asked all the time,” laughs Sadowski. “Kids now think that my daughter is lying when she says, ‘Daddy is a Power Ranger.’ They’re like, ‘No, he’s not.’ She’s like, ‘No, really, he is a Power Ranger.'”

They met through work, but in a very serendipitous way. He wanted Sadowski to represent him but she kept declining. “I kept on saying, ‘You’re not quite ready, keep in touch, keep in touch.’ He’s five years younger than me, so I just looked at him as this really cute younger guy.”

One day, Sadowski’s old assistant went to see the reading of the actor’s play and brought the show’s VHS to work the following morning. When Sadowski put the two-and-two together, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, this guy has been emailing me for a couple of years!”

She invited him to a club opening and they met very quickly. She ended up taking on his play. It was called Mind the Gap, and focused on different stories that happened on Toronto’s subway. Sadowski spent a lot of time with Matt and his team. “They were a very tight, really energetic and wonderful group of actors. We’re still very close with most of them.”

Sadly, one of the actors died very suddenly that summer. When that happened, Sadowski’s future husband got the call and he didn’t know what to do. She went over to his apartment, they called the other nine people on the team and delivered the news to them. She helped them mourn and get through it. Very shortly afterwards, the Power Rangers opportunity came along, and Sadowski says her heart sank.

“I thought: I don’t know what’s going on here, what is happening. He was dating a girl, I was dating a guy and he said, ‘I’m leaving so soon, you know? Who should I be spending time with?’ And I said, ‘Me.’ And he broke up with that girl and asked me out on a date. This was the end of July and that next May we were engaged when we were both in New Zealand, while he was shooting. I fell head over heels in love with him.”

A warm smile spreads over Sadowski’s face as she remembers it all, while sitting in her sun-lit, loft-style office on Richmond Street in Toronto. A glass section in one of the walls separates it from the other room, where her team is having a brainstorming session. Next door to them, her husband is making business calls. Sadowski says she is looking forward to spending time with her kids that night.

It’s the end to another good day.

By Hannah Yakobi
Art Direction by Marcus Kan
Photography by Tara West
Stylist: Amalia Bentivoglio

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