Mary Ellen Sokalski, MAS, began her acceptance speech for the 2018 PPAI Woman of Achievement award at the PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference in June by announcing, “THAT was worth wrangling into my Spanx for!” Renowned for her rollicking sense of humor and disarming warmth, Sokalski shocked no one and delighted everyone with her witty opening.

Sokalski has been spreading unabashed enthusiasm for promotional products for 37 years. Her career began as a copywriter at the Advertising Specialty Institute (ASI), where she first learned about the industry. Over the course of her tenure there, she was promoted to promotion manager and then to marketing director. 

Having previously earned her degree in communications and advertising at Temple University, Sokalski was thrilled to be immersed in the marketing field. “I learned what both suppliers and distributors needed to run their businesses and market their products, and I was like a sponge, loving all the creativity and vibrant personalities,” she says. “I also learned that I was in an industry marketing to companies who sold marketing tools, but they weren’t necessarily trained marketers themselves … they were salespeople or business owners.”

Supplier Bodek and Rhodes recruited her into the apparel world in 1997 where, as the director of marketing and communications, she helped grow the company 500 percent from a blanks wholesaler serving primarily decorators to the sixth largest promotional products supplier.

Sokalski is credited for several boundary-busting promotions for Bodek and Rhodes that resulted in amazing response rates, and in her own personal notoriety as a creative genius. One such promotion was for a new location “right in your backyard,” where she and her team mailed a watermelon—not in a box—to key prospects. The addresses were written directly on the watermelons with a Sharpie, with a message taped to each of them. The campaign had a virtually unheard-of 100 percent response rate.

Nominator Julie Heller says, “I remember Mary Ellen presenting ideas to upper management and they would think she was absolutely crazy. She insisted that they let her do her thing, and she was indeed correct.” 

For example, when she had the team mail small bags of dirt to advertise their “dirt cheap” basis pricing policy, call volume jumped 27 percent. 

After 16 years with Bodek and Rhodes, Sokalski decided to pursue her dream of starting her own marketing business: The Scarlet Marketeer, a multi-line marketing firm for promotional products suppliers and distributors. The company name is a nod to her mother, who loved the color red and especially her “Mad about Red” signature lipstick.

Being an entrepreneur allows Sokalski to make the most of her marketing, communications and speaking talents while helping colleagues in the industry she adores. “With just a few emails, aggressive social media and networking, I had 13 clients in three months,” she says. “It’s been four years now, and I love the freedom and creativity. Every day is a new adventure.”

Starting The Scarlet Marketeer was a lifetime in the making. Raised alongside two sisters in South Philadelphia, Sokalski says that marketing was in her DNA. “I learned how to be the center of attention and work the room early on,” she remembers. “I was the first in my family to go to college, because I was determined to study how to get attention; i.e., advertising. I was a natural storyteller and promoter from a young age.”

Sokalski’s father taught her about work ethic, kindness and helping others. In high school she received a summer scholarship job at the oil refinery where he worked, which turned out to be a custodial position. At the end of the summer, he told her, “Never forget that you had the lowest job at the refinery, and everyone was kind to you. Learn people’s names. Get to know them. Take an interest in them. Always be kind. It goes a long way in life.”

Sokalski has built an illustrious career on her father’s advice. She has received the PPAI Distinguished Service Award, the PPAI Lifetime Achievement Award in Education, the PPAI Facilitator Excellence Award, the PPAI Supplier Achievement Award and two PPAI Pyramid Awards, along with myriad other awards from the Specialty Advertising Counselors of the Delaware Valley (SACDV). 

She has been an avid volunteer for SACDV for 33 years, serving on the board, as president and in other leadership positions. She has also been on the board of the Promotional Products Mentoring Network, YESSA and PPAI, and has served on countless PPAI committees. 

Nominator Barbara Dail, MAS, adds, “Mary Ellen continually saw additional niches for connections unfulfilled, and she was a founding muse of the Promotional Apparel Advisory Council, the Young Executives Promotional Products Association and PPAI’s ADvocates speakers’ group. She is especially passionate about teaching women and empowering them, with eight years of service on the PPAI Women’s Leadership Conference planning committee and speaking at 10 of them.”

In fact, Sokalski has delivered over 200 education sessions to industry professionals. “Her seminars have resulted in seismic shifts in how imprinted merchandise can and should be incorporated into strategic marketing plans,” says nominator Sherri C. Lennarson, MAS. “She has a knack for presenting information in a way that is not only fun and memorable, but also ensures the information is internalized and becomes a part of standard operating procedure.”

As daunting as her long list of achievement is, what stands out about Sokalski is her fun-loving nature and ability to connect with others. From the long line of people waiting to hug her at industry trade shows to stories of pillow fights and all-nighters at conferences, Sokalski is revered for her contagious joy, friendships and willingness to serve.

Wrapping up her acceptance speech for the 2018 Woman of Achievement award, Sokalski encouraged the audience to examine how they can best get involved and give back. She said, “If you’re giving, you’re truly living. And you’ll have more fun than everyone else in your lifetime, as I have.” 

Terry Ramsay is associate editor of PPB.