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Commercial Success

Shannon Morris ’92/M.A. ’94 runs Sigma Group, New Jersey’s top ad agency, with an emphasis on fostering creativity and finding balance.

commercialsuccess300x141Shannon Morris displays an enviable ability to orchestrate a whirlwind of activity into formidable success. A day’s work includes running New Jersey’s top-ranked ad agency, raising four children and finding time for reflection.

Proof of Morris’ mastery has come in the form of a number of accolades. In 2014, AdWeek magazine proclaimed her agency — Sigma Group — No. 1 in New Jersey. AdAge named it the top small agency in the Northeast. Inc. magazine placed it among its Fastest Growing 5,000 companies.

BtoB magazine nominated Sigma for the Top Creative Campaign of the Decade. And in 2013, the Stillman School of Business picked Morris as the first woman to be inducted into its Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.

Obviously, Morris doesn’t handle everything alone. More than 60 Sigma employees produce the company’s award-winning, results-driven marketing campaigns.

And her husband, Jeff ’93, whom she met at Seton Hall, gave up a career as a high-school math teacher to take on the role of stay-at-home parent. What also helps is that Morris recently relocated Sigma — where she has worked since 1999 before purchasing the firm in 2012 — within a mile of her home in Upper Saddle River, N.J.

“I’m a very good multitasker,” she says. “I have to be, because I juggle a lot. Thank God for technology.”

Time management was no doubt just as critical to creating her outstanding record at Seton Hall. After arriving from a small town in Oregon somewhat intimidated by the thought of living in the Greater New York area, Morris proceeded to complete a bachelor’s degree in communications, as well as a master’s degree in communications with a focus on marketing and public relations.

All the while, as an undergraduate, she competed on the swim team as a Division I athlete and was named a BIG EAST Academic All-Star for three years. “I was very influenced by the athletic side of my experience at Seton Hall,” she says. Competitive swimming, she points out, combines personal and team goals to win. This is particularly true in relay races, where Morris swam both a key leg and was the team’s captain. That helped build “a great sense of confidence.”

Such experience, where “you have to hit those goals to carry a team,” directly translated to managing creative types in advertising and public relations, she says. The same principles apply: “vision, goal-setting, hard work and a great deal of commitment.” The net effect is to “create a sense of your own destiny.”

Like the black lane lines on the bottom of a pool, these guidelines keep Morris on course in a business that is not only traditionally frenzied, but is also widely varied and constantly evolving. Indeed, she manages campaigns for “everything from Pert Plus Shampoo to Panasonic Toughbooks.”

Beyond hard work and juggling tasks effectively, Morris’ business success depends “very much on relationships,” she says. These only thrive in an atmosphere of “honesty, integrity, transparency and partnership.” New ways may emerge to get messages out to the public, but the heart of a marketing firm remains the same: “People are people; that never changes.”

As a female business owner, she offers the insight that “the biggest challenge for women is finding peace for themselves.” To recharge, Morris uses meditation. Her time for reflection, she says, “is not as perfect as when I was in the pool, taking all those laps,” but it makes her more productive.

The same is true for her firm, where she schedules one-hour “boot camps” in the middle of the workday for her employees. A personal trainer helps them increase fitness and decrease tension. She also hires a masseuse and conducts yoga lessons for team-building.

Beyond altruism, she says there are sound financial reasons for relaxing, de-stressing and de-cluttering the minds of her people. “Everything in marketing is ideas: How can you be more creative? How can you out-think someone in a big pitch? How can you be creative in retaining talent?”

Morris’ advice to people starting careers is to “be a student of the business and be willing to work hard.”

She calls that “real authenticity,” as opposed to “trying to impress people.”

As to Sigma’s future — and her own — she quotes a line used by both poet Robert Browning and singer Frank Sinatra, saying, “The best is yet to come.”

Bob Gilbert is a writer based in Connecticut.

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