This year, SHADOW is celebrating 15 years as one of the industry’s most successful creative marketing and communications agencies. No small feat in an ever-changing landscape! The Daily caught up with Lisette Sand-Freedman, the agency’s first-ever chief visionary officer, Brad Zeifman, chief revenue officer, Michelle Sokoloff, chief operating officer, and Liza Suloti, chief communications officer, to reflect on how they began, how they’ve evolved, and what differentiates them from the other players in the field.
How did Shadow come about?
Lisette Sand-Freedman: While SHADOW’s origin story runs deep, 15 years in, I feel the most special story about us is our people and our constant reinvention. Am I speaking in cliches? I promise I am not. Three new partners, Brian Vaughan, Erica Larsen, and Jamie D’Attoma, each of whom have been with the agency for 12 years, is not a cliche. So, while that 2007 saga is one of my favorite stories to tell—thank you, Wyclef Jean!—I can’t help but get giddy telling the story of the new eras of SHADOW that continue to unfold. Perhaps most notably, our breakthrough into full service integrated marketing happened in 2016, when we officially launched new disciplines across influencer marketing, creative, and events. That was a rebirth of a new SHADOW. And even now, evolutions and expansions within those services, advancements in our people, the advent of new agency offerings, and belief that possibilities exist, even if we don’t know about them yet, has created iterations of SHADOW that shape who we are today. We’ve expanded the agency’s leadership, we get to innovate for some of the most recognizable brands in the world in ways we never dreamed since we last spoke, and while the past is deeply embedded in our DNA, our excitement for the future defines us equally as much.
How did this current era of SHADOW come about?
Sand-Freedman: It’s not entirely dissimilar from the story of when Brad and I first joined forces with our two co-founders Michelle Sokoloff and Liza Suloti: a shared vision, a belief in our potential to build and create beyond what we currently know, and a staff of now 75 SHADOWs that each have the space and opportunity to make their mark on the agency and their futures.
Why did you decide to name it Shadow?
Sand- Freedman If I told you that our name was going to be ZSF Media, do you think we would be where we are today? I certainly do not, and I am so thankful to our clients at Armani Exchange for telling me that it sounded like a sneeze and to go back to the drawing board! Had we named it after ourselves, it would be hard to think of the agency as anything other than us—when really, we have always thought and operated as an extension of our clients. It spoke to our philosophy as marketers: we never point the spotlight on ourselves, we always remain in our clients’ shadows. Never visible; always present and by your side. As we’ve matured as an agency, we can’t help but think of how the meaning itself has evolved, though. We’re less shy about stepping out of the shadows these days—albeit we do so very intentionally—because we believe that part of our purpose is to inspire people—our clients, our staff, a friend or a stranger—to believe in bigger possibilities, and perhaps the idea that whenever there is shadow, there is undoubtedly light. If we feel we have the opportunity to do that, we know we have the opportunity to shape the world, even if just a little bit.
What were you doing before you opened doors?
Brad Zeifman: Lisette was a partner at Alison Brod, working mostly in fashion and hospitality and connecting celebrities to brands, and Michelle worked with her. I was at Susan Blond, Inc. at the time, with Liza, representing a roster of music artists, TV personalities, authors, and business executives, as well as corporate brands and hospitality properties. Together, we really felt like we had a stacked deck and were ready to take on what life had in store for us. We are beyond thankful to Alison Brod, Susan Blond, and Richard Rubenstein, who we had worked with in the past, as they each believed in who we were as leaders and showed us what it meant to run and operate successful businesses.
Who were some of your first clients?
Zeifman: Some of our first clients in the early era of SHADOW—Armani Exchange, Chanel, Intermix, Tribeca Film Festival, Tenjune—believed in us when we were working out of Lisette’s apartment! It was a heavy hitting roster for a small upstart like ours. We may not have had any experience as founders and CEOs, but we had great relationships, and people knew that we would deliver. Those brand leaders believed in us and took a leap of faith with us, and we gave them everything we had.Some of our first clients who began to tap us as a full-service creative marketing agency (the second era of SHADOW!) include American Eagle, Aerie, Claire’s, Express, e.l.f. Cosmetics, Moroccanoil, and Sun Bum. Some of whom had been with us from the start and believed so much in our vision that they gave us the shot to show them.
How has PR evolved since you started?
Liza Suloti: How hasn’t it evolved! It used to be that there were a handful of outlets that mattered, and it was our job to know their content inside and out and have a direct line to their editors. Now, of course, there are thousands of traditional media outlets, and traditional media itself is only a small piece of a very rich and rapidly evolving communications landscape. These days, a TikTok video or one podcast appearance could do just as much, if not sometimes more, for a brand as a cover story in The New York Times’ Style section. It’s fascinating! It’s our job to know all the platforms and direct our campaign through the most impactful channels. With that said, the elements that live at the heart of old-school PR— storytelling, relationship building—continue to shape our “surround sound” work, and always will.
Who are some of your longest running clients?
Sand-Freedman: American Eagle and aerie are the longest. We have been in their shadows for 14 and 15 years, which is a lifetime in marketing years! We have also been working with the Pottery Barn brands for nine years and Janie and Jack for eight. We love that when our clients head to new roles, they take us with them! We play the long game with our clients. Most of the brands on our roster have been working with us for a matter of years, not months, and have grown in scope with us as a testament to our evolving capabilities. People tend to think that agency performance fizzles out over time, but that is not my experience. When you have years’ worth of context with a client, your work takes on a richer, more creative quality because you’ve truly inhabited their brand and connected with their audience. And when you have as inspired and driven a team as we do, knock on wood, we’re able to create what we call, internally at least, that distinct SHADOW magic.
What differentiates SHADOW and other firms?
Zeifman: Internally, we stand behind ‘Our own SHADOW.’ We hire creative, smart, passionate people and allow them to run with their passions to carve out their own pathways. It’s how many of our partners and executive team started out with us as entry level employees over a decade ago and have come to fuel our specialties in influencer marketing, creative strategy, social media, and events, to name a few, and help lead our agency into the future. Creating opportunities for your team to pursue their dreams keeps teams, and the agency at large, inspired and optimistic for the future. It’s in those environments that the most special work happens. I’d say if you asked any client, they’ll tell you SHADOW brings this unique energy, joy, and grit to the work that hasn’t diluted as we’ve expanded. I’m really proud of that.
How do you keep your team engaged?
Michelle Sokoloff: We’ve tried to create a culture where people feel listened to and counseled, rather than spoken to and micro-managed. Our teams are given autonomy because people produce their best work when they’re given the most responsibility—it’s leadership’s job to provide the right tools and resources, stay present as a sounding board, and provide routine, constructive feedback. We also put a lot of thought into defining our core values—striving for better than great, using your voice, meaning what you say, being always in our client’s shadows—and then inhabiting and operationalizing them. The people who work here do so because they connect with those values and are motivated to bring them into their work.
Where do you see PR going?
Liza Suloti: PR is getting more intimate and truthful. Consumers today are so savvy, they know when they’re being targeted, they are suspicious of misinformation, and they’re developing a distaste for messages and campaigns that feel too crafted or “perfect.” PR today is about getting very specific and stripped down in your message, finding the best natural mouthpiece or voice for that message, and directing it towards an audience who is authentically invested. There is a thrilling challenge in channeling simplicity in a media landscape that’s been stripped of many of the rules and paradigms that governed it even just a few years ago. “PR” is really becoming shorthand for a holistic communications and marketing effort—influencer marketing, media strategy, experiential events, creative, content—and if you’re going to operate in this space you need to be an authority on the whole package. We’ve worked hard to establish all of these divisions under our roof.
Are you back in the office these days?
Sokoloff: Many of us are back, at least part time, but we’re giving people optionality, and so far we’ve seen great results and productivity. We’re really focused on the well-being of our teams, and that looks different for everyone. For us, at least, this hybrid model will be a permanent shift in our operations. We’ve worked hard to define new boundaries and expectations around remote work, like setting company-wide cutoff times around communication; being clear about how and when different communication channels are to be used; and implementing mental health days throughout the year. Having made these adjustments , and seeing great results from our team, we don’t see the need to return to 100% in-person.
How did the pandemic impact the business?
Sokoloff: In terms of our growth and the business side of things, it luckily did not have a long-term impact. We leaned out immediately in the ways that we could, and we doubled down on our client commitment to send the message that we were not going to disappear on them. We pivoted to virtual events right away, leaned into the platforms people were consuming most from their homes, and committed to being as playful as we could in this new reality. That shift not only led to some of our most creative moments as an agency, like the Webby Award we won for aerie, but perhaps encouraged us to creatively experiment more aggressively. In terms of operations and human resources, we knew everyone needed to feel extra supported, and it presented an opportunity to ditch any practices or behaviors that weren’t serving us. We’ve been very focused on everyone’s well-being and how we can meet the needs of our people—even at a distance. Our leaders feel an immense responsibility to nourish their teams and help steer the ship to a happier and healthier place. In that sense, the pandemic has demanded an earnest evolution out of us, and I think as a whole we’ve risen to the occasion.
What have been your proudest accomplishments in the past 10 years?
Sokoloff: Naming three new partners in 2021: Brian Vaughan, Erica Larsen, and Jamie D’Attoma, who have been with us for 12 years, rising from entry level positions all the way through the ranks. It felt so good to grant them this ownership over what they’ve helped build.
Sand-Freedman: Dropping the “PR” from SHADOW PR and rebranding/pivoting to a full scope creative marketing agency was a bold move and ahead of its time. I’m proud of our foresight and the initiative we took there. We are also proud of expanding our capabilities into influencer marketing, creative, experiential and social media to name a few. We expanded thoughtfully, but decisively, and appointed passionate, deserving people to lead these new verticals. Beyond just expanding our services, we have been able to apply those new services for some of the most incredible client partners we have.
Zeifman: Withstanding the pandemic, and emerging as a stronger and healthier business, counts as a very real point of pride. Credit goes to our COO, Michelle Davidson, for putting together a plan of action and steering us through with so much thought and care. I’m also proud of continuing to grow our agency and partner with incredible brands and businesses including Bentley, Sony Electronics, Moet Hennessy, Olly Health, Anastasia Beverly Hills, e.l.f. Beauty, BREAD, Sun Bum, Express, Herschel, Zero Bond, Park Lane, Welly First Aid, Betty Buzz, and so many more.
Suloti: Celebrating our 15th anniversary this past March. Looking around the room at our 75 employees, it was a milestone that we could’ve never imagined when we were just four people huddled in an apartment “office”. And perhaps one of the most humbling and motivating moments for us as leaders. We are so excited and proud of our team.