Shadow’s Founders Reflect on Agency’s Tenth Anniversary

by Ashley Baker

In 2007, Lisette Sand-Freedman and Brad Zeifman were talented publicists and best friends with the inclination to form their own agency. Ten years later, the couple has two children, a fruitful partnership that merits its own reality show (or at the very least, a book deal), and a thriving business. Shadow began with a handful of carefully selected clients like the Tribeca Film Festival, American Eagle Outfitters, Chanel, and Intermix, and has evolved into an integrated marketing and communications agency that handles public relations, content creation, influencer marketing, digital media services, and more for brands ranging from fashion and beauty to tech and spirits. (Moroccanoil, The Honest Company, Svedka Vodka, Vineyard Vines, Kim Crawford, and Shadow loyalists American Eagle Outfitters are only a few beneficiaries of their expertise.) As Shadow celebrates its tenth anniversary, Sand-Freedman and Zeifman stepped out from their you-know-whats to reflect on their journey.

How did you meet?
Lisette: Wyclef Jean brought us together. I was at Alison Brod, and Brad was at Rubenstein at the time. They had come to AB because Wyclef’s wife was launching her fashion line, Fuschia, and they hired a fashion agency. Brad and I hit it off, and from that moment on, we became best friends, and continued to talk every day.
Brad: I remember walking into the fashion show and thinking, ‘I can’t believe she got all of these people here.’ One night, we were talking about how we didn’t have the passion we once had, because we were working on things that were just paying bills, and not doing the things that really drove us. I tried to convince her then to start an agency, and she said no.
Lisette: I went to Australia for six weeks and had the best time of my life. Then I came back, and realized I had to pay bills.
Brad: She did an event in Vegas, and crazily enough, I was there, too. We sat down at a blackjack table, and when all was said and done, I looked at her and said, ‘Come on. This is your life. You’re not escaping it, so let’s just do this.’

What was your idea of the good life at that time? What were you looking to build?
Lisette: It’s funny—a lot of people ask, ‘Did you have a business plan? How much money did you put into it?’ Brad and I have always worked on our gut, and we continue to do so. At the moment, in 2007, we wanted to create a company that was built on passion that we could continue to pass on what we’ve learned to others. Little did we know that Shadow would become what it is.
Brad: And it sounds cliché, being passionate about everything you do. But we’ve made that our benchmark for deciding on who we work with.

Why the name?
Lisette:
Well, secret—we were going to be called ZSF Media. We had a great email group of editors, influencers, friends, and potential clients helping us with this name, and we went into a meeting with what was going to be our first client, Armani Exchange, and we sat down with the marketing team, and I said to them, ‘I’m so excited—I have our contract, our name is ZSF Media!’ And they said, ‘ That sounds like a sneeze. That is not going to be the name of your company. Come back with a new name.’ We went to our office, which was my apartment, and I walked around and around the apartment, thinking about what we’re really about. We’re not about ourselves—we’re always in the shadows of our clients. It’s always about them. I really do believe the name has defined us. This is really and truly our first interview about us ever—anytime we feel that we could get something for us, we would never want it, because at the end of the day, there’s a client who should benefit from this. It’s never about what we think—it’s about what’s best for the client. We use ‘shadow’ in the vernacular for everything—we call our staff ‘shadows,’ they refer to themselves as ‘shadows.’ Former employees will say, ‘Once a shadow, always a shadow.’ We would not be where we are today if we had called ourselves ZSF Media, for so many reasons [Laughs].

In which sectors of the market have you developed an expertise?
Brad:
Our sweet spot over the years has been fashion retail. That mass-market consumer? We get them. Hospitality, too, from hotels to restaurants to nightclubs.
Lisette: Fashion retail has always been 65 or 70 percent of our business, and that has evolved as the retail market has changed. Last summer, we dropped the ‘PR’ from our name. Over the last 9 years, that word, ‘PR,’ has continued to grow and change. We also offer event production, creative services like creating lookbooks and invitations, and influencer marketing, which has been a core part of our business since Day One. Five months into opening up our business, we opened a West Coast office. Everyone told us we were out of our minds.
Brad: I told her, ‘You’re out of your mind!’
Lisette: I wasn’t going to say that publicly. [Laughs]
Brad: For the first eight years of Shadow, celebrity was the most key component of driving traffic and getting national attention for brands. Yes, it’s still important, but the word ‘celebrity’ has evolved into ‘influencer.’ And that means something totally different than it did nine years ago.

Has your job become more complicated in the past 10 years?
Lisette:
I believe that it has become much more complicated, and complication can sometimes be exciting. Knowing that the media landscape continues to change, and every day, there’s somewhere new to communicate a brand message. There aren’t just 10 fashion books, four entertainment weeklies, and a few fashion sites to call anymore—now, the landscape is so exciting, and yet beyond complicated. Where do you launch a collection? Where do you tell a story now?

What a nice segue to my next topic. At what point did your relationship become more than merely professional?
Lisette: Five years ago.
Brad: We put our worlds together—I was married, and from day one, we all became really good friends. My marriage didn’t work out.
Lisette: About a year after that, we realized that maybe we really did love each other. And how did this happen? What did it mean? We didn’t tell anybody. We weren’t sure it was real, and if it wasn’t, our worlds could explode, so we kept it quiet for almost nine months.
Brad: I put my crisis PR hat on! [Laughs]
Lisette: We aren’t public people, so we didn’t want to be known for that, in any way whatsoever. Our business is our life. We realized [our love] was the real deal. And then we got pregnant, and luckily, we had Dylan, and then we had Chloe, and it’s nuts. Still today, I think, ‘When did this happen? How did this happen?’ I truly believe this was all meant to be. I’m thankful for my life previous to Shadow, in every personal and professional way, but without Shadow, I wouldn’t have all that matters to me right now.
Brad: We spent the first seven years sitting across from each other, and what fueled us was being involved in everything together. After we got into a relationship that was more than business partners and best friends, we separated. Having that balance has really helped us personally and professionally.
Lisette: We work on different parts of the business, and we use each other for what we’re good at.

Which of your key hires have helped shaped the business into what it is today?
Lisette: We wouldn’t be where we are today without Michelle Davidson and Liza Suloti. Michelle was my assistant 12 years ago; Liza was Brad’s assistant 13 or 14 years ago. Michelle came to Shadow at the beginning. She was our first employee. She was called Lloyd at the time, after Entourage.
Brad: I used to call Liza that, as well, although she didn’t let me get away with it.
Lisette: Michelle was working with us in my apartment. Her parents bought us our paper, our paper towels, our pens…She believed in us. Liza joined a year later, and brought with her a lot of beauty and fashion experience.
Brad: They’ve become our gut checks. They’re not gut decision-makers—they’re factual, and they take time to make realistic decisions. I don’t think we could have expanded the divisions and build our incredible executive team without the two of them. Erica Larsen runs fashion, Jamie D’Attoma runs spirits and special events, and Brian Vaughan is our creative director.
Lisette: Everyone on our eight-person executive team has been with us for at least six years. They’re young, they’re smart, and they get it. They’re constantly evolving, and that was the dream. They all bring different perspectives, and we really want their opinions. They make us better business owners, marketers, communicators—everything.
Brad: They came to us wanting a career, not a job. Some have continued growing in traditional PR; others have started to build other divisions. That’s what we wanted this company to be. We look at each person as a young entrepreneur who wants to build something in this environment.

What are some examples of things that Shadow does best?
Lisette: We never take a no.
Brad: It’s not in our vocabulary. Someone once said to me that ‘no’ is the best answer you can get, because it shows you what you’re doing wrong. Getting a ‘no’ can help you find your ‘yes.’
Lisette: PR people sometimes get a bad rap that they’re spinners, or lazy, or they stop once they get that one placement. We never stop. We’re always evolving the pitch, the story, and the idea to get the best result. Brad always says, ‘You’re only as good as your last hit.’ That doesn’t mean last month—the last hit was a minute ago.
Brad: Consumers are distracted quickly. If you don’t continue to evolve the way you’re talking to them, over and over and over again, your brand is going to be left behind.

Where do you see yourselves and the company in another 10 years?
Lisette:
We want to continue to grow the types of services we offer existing clients, as well as new clients. We want to grow Shadow’s footprint in the spaces we’re in now, as we expand our L.A. operation and open up offices in other markets.
Brad: I hope we still get excited by every brand we work with, and I hope that we continue to evolve into other silos. What I know will continue is that we’ll challenge ourselves in ways so we won’t be too comfortable. And I hope we find another eight of these amazing people we work with today, who really get us, and know this is a place to come if you want to enjoy what you’re doing. As Lisette always says, work isn’t called ‘fun,’ it’s called ‘work.’ But we try to have as much fun as we can.

THE PARTNERS WEIGH IN!
Liza Bychkov-Suloti on Brad Zeifman: “When I first met Brad in 2003 at Susan Blond Inc., I was in awe of how he delivered a line, told a story, made the simplest thing sound complex and brilliant. He was a master communicator unlike anyone I’d ever encountered. Whether he was pitching (or sometimes singing) on the phone, leading a client meeting or running a red carpet, I just wanted to absorb his talent in any way I could. He was a tough crowd back then—you needed to earn his respect, and he pushed you to your limits until you proved yourself worthy of that respect. But when you earned it, the world seemed brighter, bigger, full of opportunity. To this day, Brad has a delivery that’s unique to him, and that remains unchanged 14 years later. If anything, he’s only grown that talent to another level of mastery. He has definitely softened since I first met him, but he continues to push shadows to be their best selves and help them unlock strengths they didn’t know they had. The best thing I’ve learned from him? A good marketer can always find the story.”

Michelle Davidson on Lisette Sand-Freedman: “While a leader can also be a boss, not every boss is a leader. Lisette is most definitely a leader and while there are many qualities I could list, her natural tendency to be accountable and take ownership of whatever is in front of her continues to impress me. Even with a track record of success second to none, she continues to challenge herself and her team to think differently and do things differently as marketers. She takes responsibility for everyone’s performance, including her own, and holds herself to the highest standards. When there’s blame to be had, she takes it. When there’s a win, the credit goes to her team. Lisette makes everyone in her life, both personally and professionally, feel like they are her number one priority.”

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