Sedef Onder has 20 years of extensive experience in full-service marketing communications, with emphasis on business development, public affairs and issues management, advertising, corporate public relations and positioning, and digital public relations. She’s developed strategic communications programs for companies that run the gamut from startups to global corporations, and is equally comfortable with business-to- business and consumer markets. Her areas of particular focus include social enterprise, education tech, healthcare, non-profit, fashion and retail, and technology.
As Managing Partner and founder of CLEAR inc. (formerly The Halo Project), Sedef oversees strategic direction and account management for all clients. The agency’s client roster has included Rice University, RYTARY, Frederick Goldman, Maidenform, Tethys Bioscience, Brooklyn Public Library, Medicines360, Institute for OneWorld Health, Global Coalition on HIV/AIDS, UN Women, Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS, Safilo Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others. Sedef previously served as SVP, Group Director in the New York office of WPP’s Cohn & Wolfe, a global PR firm owned by Young & Rubicam, where she built, led, and provided strategic direction for its Corporate/Technology practice. She has also held senior positions at Wilson McHenry Company and Technology Solutions (TSI Communications).
How did you get into the industry?
Entirely by accident.
I began my career in strategic positioning and communications while working for grassroots organizations and think tanks in Washington, D.C., where I collaborated with young, brilliant colleagues in a very fast-paced environment. During this first professional experience, I grew into a role with ever-expanding responsibilities, built and led a team, and saw the immediate impact of my work on policy initiatives and legislation.
I made the leap from public affairs and PR to advertising upon moving to NYC, working initially in boutique advertising agencies to hone my business development skills, and ultimately building and leading practices and teams in successively larger-scale, more corporate communications/PR firms.
I eventually realized my spirit was at odds with corporate life, and embarked on my own business with a former creative colleague from an advertising agency.
Any emerging industry trends?
The usual suspects…
Artificial intelligence and machine learning will have increasing impact our industry and lives, as we’re seeing with the advent of voice-commerce (Amazon Echo, Google Home).
We’ll see big growth in mobile content, mobile commerce, and ad spending on mobile devices.
We’re also seeing greater penetration of A/R content and devices, including adaption and receptiveness of consumer users… besides the strides made in business sectors such as healthcare, manufacturing, aviation, etc.
Data privacy and security issues loom large i.e., the recent Facebook scandal – but frankly it’s always been a widespread problem. Oversight and regulation are needed to protect individuals’ best interests.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Speaking of the need for regulation of data collection, big data is only as useful as our ability to make better business decisions from it. Gaining meaningful insights from data analytics is the key; all the rest is noise.
Currently, a big threat to content marketing is the proliferation of “fake news” on myriad platforms and media outlets. Social media channels and platforms today enable users to create and distribute content easily. Publishers, social channels, and platforms need to implement standards and policies to properly vet content before distribution, and have correlating codes of ethics to ensure enforcement.
The transparency and fraud-related issues in digital marketing have contributed to a trend of businesses bringing everything from programmatic/media buying to creation and production of content in-house.
Agencies need to constantly re-imagine and reinvent our services, compensation structures, and business model(s) to best serve our customers in a changing world. Real value, whether strategy and planning, or creative thinking and execution, will always be in demand and appropriately rewarded.
Customers will consistently seek partners whom they can trust to act in their best interests. Those agencies who operate with transparency, who are ethical, and who hold themselves accountable to maximizing ROI on client ad spends and budgets will be best positioned to win back clients’ confidence and trust. My business’ brand literally stands for these values, by the way (i.e., CLEAR inc.),
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
I’ve never looked to status quo to inform how I experience the world. I’m equally pioneering about business. We’ve operated using a collaborative business model for more than 15 years, often referred to as a “Hollywood” model in that talent is assembled on-demand based on client or campaign need. It’s a lean, agile approach to business, enabling us to pivot or redirect on a dime, while remaining free to dynamically recruit the best available resources that serve our clients’ needs.
More and more agencies have followed our lead over the past several years in taking this same approach.
I’ve always been inspired by social entrepreneurs and individuals who seek to make the world a better place, often on behalf of the most disenfranchised or voiceless in our global community. We take particular pride in working for businesses, social enterprises and non-profits, whose work has direct impact on improving and elevating the quality of individuals’ lives.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We always keep an eye on the emerging technology, industry and customer trends taking shape to ensure we evolve our thinking and capability in ways that meet the new demands of our marketplace.
Design thinking in business strategy matters more than ever before. Great design can be transformational for business, whether through intuitive interfaces on screens and devices, or via streamlined end-to-end customer experiences.
Good design is good business.
It’s essential that we continue to seek ways to reinvent and perform at our highest level.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
We rebranded after our first decade; it has been one of the most effective drivers in pushing our business forward to the next level. The world was changing and we needed to change along with it.
Our ethical, transparent, high-integrity approach to business has consistently been a boon for getting new customers via word of mouth and referrals. We often have clients who hire us sequentially, even as they move from job-to-job themselves.
We are extremely flexible and responsive to client needs in offering the best available talent and thinking, from wherever we need recruit it, for each specific client challenge. Having a dynamic, revolving pool of talent and resources enables us to accommodate changing market conditions and demands for services.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
I don’t view professional challenges as anything more than a temporary hurdle to navigate on that day. My tendency is to rise to meet challenges -and crises even- and refine or redirect to steer the ship to its best outcome. I move past obstacles – or allow them to pass through me, as it were -- by being open and present to new opportunities as they present themselves. I’ve done this for clients, as well as for my own business. Oftentimes, the learning is that one needs to strategically evolve in some manner to ultimately reach a higher ground.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
The best way in which we may serve our clients is to have a direct impact on the growth and expansion of their business, and their ability to secure new customers. Whether we do this through building awareness and visibility of our clients’ brands, products, and services; via driving customer traffic, views, and/or sales on screens and devices; or through other revenue-generating strategies and tactics.
If our work serves to grow our clients and their businesses, we will grow alongside them.
How do you motivate others?
Everyone must feel a connection to their work, and understand how their work is connected to whatever higher purpose is served – whether it’s solving a problem or meeting an objective for a client or business, or contributing to and having a more significant impact on the world.
I have the spirit of a warrior. I can be indefatigable about causes near to my heart. There may be an element of contagion to this, like sparking a fire.
But, as often, I seek to be the match to another’s flame. Everyone has quite distinct motivations, and any leader must work to understand, support and serve the unique traits and talents offered by each individual. Put the right people in the right seats on the bus, so to speak.
Career advice to those in your industry?
Be unabashedly yourself. And when in doubt, be even more so.
Always act and make decisions in the best interests of those whom you serve. This starts with your own teams, and ends with your customers and their businesses. Anything that builds up and lifts others will lift you in return. This applies to business, as much as individual.
Don’t be afraid to enter uncharted territory. Or disrupt the status quo. It’s quite often the best thing to happen, and always the quickest route to progress.
It’s never too late to find your reason for being. Be willing to stand for something with conviction –publicly and loudly -- besides profit and making money. Now that would be disruptive.
What do I do best?
I think clearly. I discern signal from noise.
I synthesize disparate pieces of information into a cohesive whole in finding essential truths.
I thrive and perform at my best when under pressure and in ambiguous, uncertain conditions. I weather storms and crises well; I am the storm, as someone once said.
I solve problems, often before they take root. I reframe problems when solutions are less obvious, virtually hidden to others. I’ll find a way; there is always a way.
I’m claircognizant, among other things. Helps in business, life, and poker ..
What makes me the best version of myself?
I’m purpose-driven. I stand for something much bigger than myself. When you do, it gives your life meaning, so it will never matter what happens on an individual/professional level. You simply look inward and grow, and move on to higher ground.
I have integrity, or actions that align with my values or belief system. Consistently. I walk my talk.
I’m a non-conformist; I don’t care what others think, so to speak. In keeping with this, I’ve been known to call out BS when I see it.
I’m an ethical humanist, and it guides my every decision. I view the world from a human lens, not a gendered, ethnic, racial, etc. one, and thus am open to all possibility. It is all within one’s reach.
I’m curious. Which in turn makes me creative, and a lifetime student. I’m okay with not knowing, not having all the answers… and “not knowing” means I’m always open to the possibility of knowing more – so I’m always growing. I embrace change (i.e., thrive in ambiguity) and thus am highly adaptive. Open mind + critical thinking. Essential to the times in which we live.
I’m self-aware, at a meta level. I don’t take myself too seriously. But I take my “work” contribution and how it serves the world very seriously.
What are my aspirations?
I own my home and business in NYC. Beyond that, I have very few material aspirations, and am a minimalist.
I am an activist in wishing for a more just, equal, compassionate and humane world. As the daughter of a child bride, my focus is on anything I can contribute to making the world a place of opportunity for everyone, regardless of where they are born, their race or gender, or other constructs imbued from birth.
At its best… My work serves as a tool to find people, organizations and businesses that improve our world, and to amplify their voices. I seek out clients and colleagues, whether pro-bono or other, with missions and causes that elevate the quality of all human and sentient life on our planet. I hope to continue to connect with more of the same.
My Biggest Success?
Living life entirely on my own terms, which is no small thing. I’m fortunate to have created a self-sustaining existence where my values drive my choices in life and business. I am grateful for it every day.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I don’t view professional challenges as others do. My identity is not attached to my profession, which grounds me and enables my navigation of life and workplace challenges more easily… I move past obstacles – or allow them to pass through me, as it were, by steering myself to a better outcome(s). The key is to remain very present to new doors opening, opportunities, and possibilities as they present themselves daily.
The most meaningful impacts on my life have come from my realization that I can’t possibly know what I do or do not wish to experience. By not presuming I know myself “fully,” I’ve allowed myself to be moved by, and changed by, individuals and life experiences that I may not have chosen, yet have lead me to my greatest individual and spiritual growth by my willingness to open up to it and to them.
I hope to continue to evolve.
For evil to flourish, it only requires good men and women to do nothing – (assorted sources of attribution)
You’re not always to know where your journey will lead, or end. Just make sure you are on the right path.
Approach life from a bold, gutsy, unapologetic place.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
My mother has been the only role model I’ve ever had. In ways I can’t fully express. But especially because she epitomized the truth that social constructs (i.e., gender, race, education, faith, background etc.) are irrelevant to one’s worth and/or potential in life, and that one needs only character. It remains the most valuable lesson of my life, and I learned it very early on.
From a business perspective, I admire and relate to aspects of personalities like Elon Musk, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, to the degree that they exhibit a courage or fearlessness in their approach to life; inventiveness and unconventional thinking and behavior; and with standards of excellence that result in breakthrough(s).
But I especially admire social entrepreneurs, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with, and who move the world forward in meaningful ways.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I can never get enough of the meditative benefits of sun, sand, and ocean, so I love beaches – the more remote, the better.
I’ve also found the expansiveness of desert – with its magnificence of rock, open air and sun – to fill me up in ways I can’t explain.
Both types of environments contain a stillness, and natural reverence.
I suppose I’m a cross between a monk, a surf bum, and a cowboy, though I’m happy to be a city-dweller for now.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
Music, though I’m not sure that qualifies as either. I also love art and creativity in virtually any form.
I can live with little more than books. But I prefer the sensual experience of holding and reading cover-to-cover vs the digital versions (or “products”).
I’m a minimalist, so I have very few objects. What I value most are my bicycles, and a few technology devices that enable my access to a world beyond that outside my door.
My Current Passions?
Cycling is a lifetime passion. There is a liberating, meditative bliss in being one-with-your-bike outdoors. It’s the best way to get lost, in every sense.
I also have fallen pretty hard for no-limit poker. It’s chess-with-cards for me. The risk-taking, game theory, discipline, and potential for immediate outcome or reward are great mental exercise. And its total absorption of your mind is a form of escape, if not meditation, though I enjoy the social aspects.
It’s always about finding flow.