Morpheus Media’s Shenan Reed: From Banner Ads to Storytelling

Shenan Reed started media agency Morpheus Media in the middle of the dot-com bust with two partners, landed the Neiman Marcus account early on, and in June sold to CREATETHE GROUP, the go-to digital agency and ecommerce platform provider for top-tier luxury fashion clients such as Marc Jacobs. Reed, along with her two partners, remains a large stakeholder in the business, and has no plans to go anywhere. Her passion for the business comes through even over the phone — just ask her what she thinks of the click-through rate as a measurement of advertising success – and her outgoing, can-do spirit was evident at a young age. She had a whole other career in musical theater before she was 21, and put herself through college by competing in the Miss America organization and winning Miss Manhattan and its $18,000 scholarship with her singing, dancing, and viewpoint on arts education. The number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies she has attended with former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani is high.

The Makegood: What was it like starting an online ad agency during the dot-com bust, and how did that come about?

SR: I always say there’s a difference between inspiration and desperation. The bust was a crazy time for all of us. I was young and eager and new to this industry. It was exciting and cool and I loved what I was doing. I didn’t want to stop. I wanted to continue planning and executing digital strategies. I didn’t think the Internet was going anywhere, despite some poor decisions by some people who led us into that bubble. My biggest account was AltaVista and they were spending about $1 million a week on online advertising. It was crazy. As that started to dry up, the partners started to lay people off. We thought we could go out and look for a job or we could build our own. We just continued to do what we love. We did it not really knowing where it was going to take us. When you have passion and you’re good at something, it gets to be a lot of fun, and it just snowballed. In March 2001 when we incorporated as Morpheus, we had two clients. Now we’re close to 100 employees and it’s ten years later, and we still love doing what we do. I don’t think any of us can imagine doing anything else.

The Makegood: What kind of advertising opportunities are Morpheus and its clients looking for? What would you tell publishers?

SR: We have luxury clients but also a great list of entertainment and media clients. They are not all luxury, but at least prestige; they are educated; bicoastal or in the major cities of the U.S.; and early adopters of technology – digital, social, and mobile. What that leads to is us looking for creative, different, and interesting solutions to bring to our clients. It’s not about the banner on the page any more; it’s now about storytelling. How do I become useful, entertaining, and water cooler-worthy to that consumer? How do I put something in front of them that is engaging and not just about the click-through rate or straight-out sale – not that our clients aren’t interested in selling things – what retailer isn’t? — but if there’s a way to create spreadable, shareable content, we are moving beyond the click-through rate as a measure of success to the other.

The Makegood: What are some examples of campaigns are you especially proud of this year?

SR: Some of our social media campaigns. Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf were both really fantastic. We did a project with Rachel Zoe for Neiman Marcus that used the Facebook Open Graph and previewed the Rachel Zoe collection on the Neiman Marcus Facebook page. Consumers could create a look out of different items and share that look with friends. We [made] a Mad Lib-type tool for them to play with and fill in an adjective, noun, and adverb [using typical Zoe expressions]. Anyone who created a look would be entered in a contest to meet Rachel Zoe in New York.

The Makegood: Can you share the results?

SR: I can talk about results for the one we did for Bergdorf Goodman. The Faces of 5F was a 360-degree competition where they were looking to get girls who were interested in being models but were not professional models. We always talk about the hurdles people have to jump through to enter a contest; if it’s too difficult they won’t enter. They had to submit their height, eye color, hair color, a statement about why they would be good, and two photographs. [The winners] are featured in Lucky magazine this month. Bergdorf received 1,500 entries, a 30 percent increase in Facebook fans over two weeks, and 45 million earned media impressions just by bloggers and media picking up story.

The Makegood: How is advertising changing and where it is headed?

SR: I hate to use the word integration because it starts to sound cliché, but there’s a sense of convergence. Have you read “Convergence Culture” by MIT professor Henry Jenkins? He talks about transmedia storytelling. God forbid you’re a brand that takes a print ad and puts it on a Web banner, mobile, an iPad, and then on a billboard. The customer is like, really? You could not have tried a little harder? The challenge for our industry is to be able to keep up with [the Millennials, the digital natives]. It’s an exciting challenge, and we have to continue to reinvent and keep on the cutting edge. It’s about what’s next and not about perfecting what’s here. A lot of people get stuck on one platform: We’re going to do Facebook really, really well, and we’re going to do it forever, and we’re going to make it really great. Great. But there are people who are done with Facebook, who have already moved on to Google +, and others who spend all their time on Tumblr. The people who you’re missing are the most vocal, the ones who are a brand’s best advocates, and who will get you the most earned media impressions.

*Editor’s note: Interview has been edited and condensed.