Mover of the Week: Sam Ong, SHADOW’s West Coast Director and Chief Inspiration Officer
This week’s mover doesn’t have the typical PR role. In addition to being SHADOW’s West Coast director, Sam Ong also serves as chief inspiration officer. Ong discusses past projects, from launching the LVMH tower to TAO’s L.A. sites, his nonprofit adventures, and breaks down his new gig!
What’s your background? Where are you from and what did you study?
I’m Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese. My parents met in the Philippines while my mother was in medical school. They were the first in their respective families to move to the U.S. I grew up in northern New Jersey. At Dickinson College, I majored in Art History and minored in Studio Art.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Wonder Woman. I just couldn’t resist the tiara, cuffs, lasso, boots, and the twirl! Later on, I wanted to be a designer.
When did you know you wanted to get into PR?
I fell into PR. Out of college I was working for ICI, a nonprofit art organization started by legendary art dealer Leo Castelli’s daughter, Nina. In addition to my duties as an executive assistant, I was put in charge of developing the junior committee. There I befriended Gerrity Lansing who insisted I would make a phenomenal publicist and facilitated a few introductions.
What was your very first gig in the biz?
The launch of the LVMH tower on 57th Street. It was three different events over the course of one week. The first was the Dior boutique launch with a party in the Magic Room…bolts of fabric were hand-carried by assistants on the Concord from France to be thrown from the rooftop and cascade to the street.
What was your first fashion account?
It was either the relaunch of Harper’s Bazaar with Kate Betts or IMG Models. It’s all a big blur.
You’ve worked with a variety of industries. Which do you prefer?
I have a soft spot for charities. My all-time fave was working on the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day. Each year on 9/11, Howard Lutnick and the entire brokerage firm team up with celebrities to raise millions to benefit select charities. I value acts of service, paying it forward, and giving back. My friend Ashlee Margolis of The A List always says, “The more we have, the more we give!”
Who were some of your memorable clients?
There were a lot. One was the launch of Gagosian Gallery’s 24th Street space with bad boy artist Damien Hirst as the inaugural exhibition. The after-party was at Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode’s The Park. It was epic. Another was Amy Sacco / Bungalow 8. Amy and I became fast friends for our mutual love of fashion, art, and anything fabulous, not to mention our Jersey roots. I remember sitting in meetings with the Vignellis and seeing the Lulu DK fabric selection for the banquettes. Amy hosted a pre-opening event for the Sykes sisters’ birthday. It was still a construction zone…uneven dirt floors, porta-potty, etc. Bill Cunningham was on hand to capture the festivities that included guests like Benicio del Toro, Ralph Fiennes, and a slew of New York notables. And Noah Tepperberg / Marquee NY is one for the books. A Harvard Business School case study, Marquee NY was the first in his and Jason Strauss’ ever-expanding international empire of nightlife and hospitality venues. It’s so special to be able to work with someone continually for 14 years.
What’s one of your favorite projects you worked on?
The launch of Trovata. I worked on their first presentation and introduction to the fashion world. Four straight, sexy, and stylish surfer dudes from SoCal became the darlings of the fashion world and went on to win a CFDA Award. It was incredible to be part of their journey.
Who was one of your mentors early on?
Nadine Johnson. I learned a lot from her and, she has had an enormous impact on my career. I am grateful for the experience, time, and memories we shared. Noah Tepperberg. He exemplifies true leadership – humble, extremely focused, and leads by example. His support and guidance has meant the world to me and I wouldn’t be here without him.
Cafe Gratitude was a shift from your previous roles. What did you do there?
I met Cafe Gratitude co-founders Matthew and Terces Engelhart at a retreat on their farm, Laulima, in Maui. I moved to LA four years ago with the goal of working at Cafe Gratitude for a year, learning the business, and returning to open Cafe Gratitude NYC. Throughout the year, I worked all positions (host, cashier, bartender, manager, etc) and learned about the trade. It’s so refreshing being a beginner and learning something new. While there I really was learning the art of team building and community. Creating a company culture that is contagious. Utilizing the book “Sacred Commerce: Business as a Path of Awakening” by Matthew & Terces Engelhart I was able to apply principles (transformational tools known as Sacred Commerce) to make a difference in a brand’s bottom line by cultivating love in the workplace.
Why did you decide to launch HELLOSAMO?
I chose to launch HELLOSAMO at the suggestion of Noah Tepperberg when I moved to LA. The premise was to be as streamlined as possible and handle select clients in the entertainment, fashion, hospitality, and lifestyle industries while also offering services pro bono to brands in the conscious consumer space. I refocused HELLOSAMO services from public relations, marketing, and branding to coaching, training, and development prior to joining SHADOW. I have become much more focused on the transformation and team building piece than ever before. We are committed to empowering individuals and corporations to mindfully fulfill their mission and increase operational capacity. We provide transformational tools to aide our clients in being their best selves – balanced in life and more efficient/clear at work. We make a difference in their lives and, by extension, their client/customers and the world. We primarily focus on the fashion, hospitality, and lifestyle agencies while being open to others. We are all about impact and making a difference. We tailor programs to fulfill an individual and/or company’s mission whether it be a day retreat or ongoing relationship. HELLOSAMO core values are serving others, authenticity, mindfulness and openness.
What appealed to you about SHADOW?
I go way, way back with SHADOW co-founders Brad Zeifman and Lisette Sand-Freedman. We are cut from the same cloth and complement each other. We started working in the days of fax machines, dial-up modems and Rolodexes. We are masters in planning campaigns, positioning brands and producing extraordinary results. We created this role of Chief Inspiration Officer together. It is necessary, yet doesn’t exist in our industry – to have a dedicated person accountable and focused on fulfilling a company’s mission through staff empowerment and well-being. It’s about putting employees first so that clients’ expectations aren’t only met, but well exceed what anyone could imagine is possible. This new role is about creating healthy employees from a mental/spiritual perspective, and allowing them to be fully present for clients and their lives. We recognized this would be incredible for the SHADOWs as well as the Partners. Given the inspirational objectives, we worked together to structure a role for me to be CIO, run operations for the LA office, lead West Coast new business and also offer some of these inspirational services to other brands.
What was your first intro with the team like?
Before joining SHADOW, I met with the co-founders, then the partners Michelle Davidson and Liza Bychkov-Suloti, and VPs Erica Larsen and Jamie D’Attoma separately. It was exhilarating to be with a group of people who were passionate about their work and the brands they represent. I was impressed by the company they created and their high retention rate — a large number of employees have been there for six or more years, a precedent my role will only strengthen. This position was a natural progression for SHADOW since they dropped the “PR” to reflect the ever-changing marketing landscape and created separate silos of services, which clients could hire SHADOW for (influencer, creative, etc). While the agency was doing all of this since day one, it was the first time these services could be offered irrespective of traditional PR. It’s about progress and moving forward. That’s what being inspirational is all about. With SHADOW now in its tenth year, aka SHADOW chapter 7.0 (7 being the agency’s lucky number), this was a natural position. SHADOW truly believes in building careers and giving people opportunities. They all were excited at the thought of having someone lead the Los Angeles office and even more ecstatic about having an in-house coach. My first week was in the NYC office. I met each of the team members in NYC one-on-one throughout the week to have a conversation about their role and workflow, and then all together at a staff meeting where we started with a group meditation. A mindfulness meditation practice is the first step in making teams effective. It brings self-awareness, self-regulation and compassion. The response has been incredible.
What entails being the chief inspiration officer?
I joke that I’m the result if Wendy from Billions and Oprah had a child. As Chief Inspiration Officer, I’m committed to well-being and to providing tools that help all SHADOWs be their best selves personally and professionally. I facilitate transformational conversations helping unearth what isn’t said, which is usually more important than what is actually said.
Was that a role you approached SHADOW with? Whose idea was it?
Conversations started in October at The Plaza during the wedding reception of friend and longtime client Noah Tepperberg and Melissa Wood. Brad suggested that I run Shadow’s LA office to which I was an immediate no. I was dating at the time and living on a 34′ sailboat in Ventura West Marina preparing to sail around the world. I shared more with Lisette that I was looking to do performance coaching exclusively with C-level execs. She insisted that I needed to do it in the marketing world. A few months later my circumstances changed (i.e. broke up with partner, postponed sail around the world), and I realized how much I missed working with a team. After working together on the launch of TAO Group’s LA properties (The Highlight Room, Luchini Pizzeria & Bar, Avenue, Beauty & Essex, and TAO LA), Brad said, “Don’t you see how well we work together?!” I loved seeing how hard and dedicated they were and from that point, the conversation about running the LA office came up again…and now I’m here.
What can we expect to see from you at SHADOW down the road?
We are developing this as we go along, and the exciting part is there are endless possibilities. Perhaps a book, offering this service to our clients, creating the next disruptor, etc. I’d invite you to check out and pay attention to our clients and innovation. I envision something similar to Steve Jobs’ “Think Different” campaign, kind of next level.
Who inspires you?
People who are fully self-expressed, doing what they love while being authentic, and helping as many people along the way. While at Cafe Gratitude, I learned how what one is being is just as important as what one is doing – outside is a reflection of the inner world and that clear, concise, transparent communication is the spark from which endless possibilities abound.