In 1999, Shannon Morris joined the Sigma Group advertising agency as director of client services after holding several leadership roles at HBO, Prudential and Fuji Electric. Now with 18 years of marketing experience, Morris has since led Sigma Group through 500 percent growth in billings and size while also finding the time to act as vice president for the Answer to Cancer nonprofit organization.
After purchasing the agency in 2012, Morris relocated Sigma Group from Oradell to Upper Saddle River in February and expanded its staff by 60 members. Known for its award-winning and highly successful campaigns for brands including Panasonic, Famous Footwear, Pert Plus and Rita’s Italian Ice, Sigma Group is now focused on long-term expansion and growth within the state of New Jersey.
Sigma Group, the No. 1 ranked advertising agency in New Jersey by AdWeek magazine, also recently was named the top small agency in the Northeast by the news source AdAge, listed as one of Inc. Magazine’s Fastest Growing 5,000 companies for five years straight and nominated by B2B magazine for the Top Creative Campaign of the Decade.
Morris’ team reached out to NJBIZ because they wanted Sigma Group’s president and owner to finally accept the credit and recognition she deserves for being a model business leader while raising four children.
Where did you receive your education, and what was your focus?
I attended Seton Hall University for my undergrad and majored in communications and graphic design. I also went immediately to grad school there and received an M.A. in communications with a focus on marketing and PR.
What was the most important thing you learned during your education?
As a student-athlete, it was always about balance, goal setting, teamwork and time management. I also gained a lot of great experience interning during my college years.
What advice would you give to a woman in college now?
Have the time of your life but don’t forget that you have your whole life in front of you — great decisions now will lead you in the right direction tomorrow.
What were the attitudes toward women in your industry when you first started?
I think there were certainly stereotypes about the way you should dress or the way you should look in order to get ahead.
How have they changed since?
Today it’s more about work ethic and intellect and a lot more women in senior level positions. It’s more about accomplishments and impact and less about trying to fit a mold.
What was it like to be inducted into the N.J. Advertising Hall of Fame in 2011?
It was a real honor. Our agency has been a cornerstone of the business here in N.J. for years. I felt like it was a moment for Sigma. All of the other fellow nominees were men — so it was even more special that one of the top agencies in N.J. was female-led.
This past year I was also inducted into the Seton Hall University Stillman School of Business Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame — the first woman ever. It was a very nice honor and a moment I was proud to share with my daughters.
What has been your worst experience as a woman at work?
Any time you deal with men who carry the “old boys’ club” mentality, it’s annoying. It’s happened many times in the past. A senior member or owner of a company that is a man can’t accept that a younger woman might have some ideas that could improve the way they go to market. They don’t want to be told there is a better way — especially by me.
Your best experience?
Anytime a woman tells me that they look at me as a role model for work-life balance, I think it’s rewarding.
What mistakes do women often make at the workplace?
Trying to solve problems emotionally instead of objectively or thinking they have more on their plate than anyone else and therefore should be treated differently. The truth is we all have obstacles in front of us. The key is knowing you have the power to overcome them. Relying on anyone else to solve your problems reduces your value as a leader in the organization.
What would you say are the top five things that successful women always do well?
Communicate well with others; give clear direction; see the big picture in problem solving; bring humanity and empathy to management; and multitasking.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
If you are going to fail, fail at the highest level.
The worst advice?
You need to wear more makeup.
What advice would you give to young working women?
Work harder than anyone else in the room.
What did you like most about working on the “client side” of marketing?
I think I have always approached my work as a learning experience. I learned from my bosses and mentors about management, teaching and leadership. I learned about creativity and communication. Each (job) had something unique that gave me a tangible skill set I have since built upon. Moving from one job to the next was simply an opportunity to take on a new challenge. One position after the other involved more responsibility and opportunity. Each position was a stepping stone to get me to where I am today.
When and why did you make the decision to buy out Sigma Group?
It was a gradual decision. I worked with my partner for years growing the company. The decision to buy the agency came over a three-year period — and at one point, it just felt right. I thought, “I can do this.” I needed to gain the confidence and once I did, we were lucky enough to work through a gradual buyout over several months. I believed in what we had done here — and I believed in myself enough to take the leap.
Break up your average 24 hour weekday into a pie chart — what percentage do you devote to work?
Seventy percent of my weekday is devoted to work. As a business owner with a mobile device and especially being connected to the new business pipeline, I look at work with an “always on” mentality. The other 30 percent of my brain goes into planning for my home and family. Agreeing on what my children want to wear to school in the morning can be more challenging than a demanding project deadline.
What is the best advice you can give regarding work/life balance?
Do your best. Finding the perfect balance isn’t the same for everyone. Figure out what your balance looks like and work hard to achieve it. It doesn’t come to you — you need to create it.
How do you inspire and motivate your team?
By setting a good example for attitude and effort, and by finding moments for recognition and cultivating a “team” mentality.
What do you offer to your employees to help them healthy and productive?
We encourage flex time, fit in fitness during the workday with programs like yoga and boot camp, reward bonus days for great effort, and encourage directors to be in tune with their teams to offer rewards that are meaningful and that help them achieve work life balance.
We also do unique team-builders that nearly always involve some sort of lighthearted competitive play, and provide ample opportunity to give back to communities, which really helps our employees feel productive in life. Our feeling is that when employees are healthy and productive in life, they are motivated to do great work and are inspired to contribute to our success as a company.
What's one thing about you that most of your co-workers would be surprised to hear?
I am an open book and live a very transparent life. I don't think anything I do or think is a surprise to my co-workers.
Why do you do what you do?
I have always loved solving problems and meeting a challenge. In my work I get to look at different circumstances that all require a unique solution. I am never bored, I learn something new every single day and I get to fulfill my childhood dream of teaching by sharing what I have learned.
What's one item you can't live without, and why?
My phone — it easily connects friends, family and work all in one place.
What is your family life like?
Crazy fun and chaos — four kids, an iron man for a husband and an abundance of activities keep me going constantly.
What are the top three most important things to you in your life?
Gratitude, happiness and achievement.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of work?
I am an avid supporter of my children’s sporting activities and also enjoy running and anything that keeps me active.
Do aspects of your job carry into your personal interests and hobbies?
My competitive nature keeps me buzzing on all sidelines and I find that time running or biking allows me time to reflect and compose a lot of great, creative ideas for our company and clients.
What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not working?
I love a great meal with friends or my husband. It doesn't matter where it is as long as it’s good, has great drinks, has an amazing ambiance and goes on for a long time.
Unwinding is hard for me, so even if it’s just a barbeque in my back yard — I love making the plans, thinking about what to eat, enjoying company and talking. Life is short, so enjoy the little things.
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