Sharon Yu Ong: A Chinoy “e-nnovator”

Sharon Yu Ong, an Advertising Management graduate from De La Salle University, is the co-founder and general manager of Waveplay Interactive, Inc., an event technology company that develops creative innovations for in-person, virtual, and hybrid events.

Under Sharon’s watch, she spearheaded Waveplay’s experiential technologies used by top local and global brands such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, HBO, and Netflix, for their events.

During the onset of the pandemic, Waveplay launched the Philippines’ first virtual event platform dubbed as “Webplay,” which allows brands and organizers to create highly interactive virtual or hybrid event venues that’s fast loading and tailor-made to your event vision.

In this article, CHiNOYTV had the privilege to chat with Sharon to tell us more about how she “e-nnovated” her company to adapt to hybrid digitalization when the time calls during the pandemic. 

Can you tell us the story of how you co-founded/created Waveplay Interactive? 

The idea of Waveplay Interactive began as a college thesis. We wanted to create a fun ad campaign for a museum. I suggested adding an interactive cinema advertising component where we turn captive movie audiences into “human joysticks” playing a custom branded game. I had a small-scale proof of concept developed to get our defense panelists excited. 

Unfortunately, we didn’t win best thesis, but I continued to believe in the idea. So much so that I applied for SM Cinema and showed the concept to my bosses. They loved it! In a few months, we launched Winema, the first interactive cinema in Asia. 

It was a “pinch me” moment, seeing the audiences waving their hands in unison, shouting in excitement. After that, you can barely hear anything else. A top blogger’s son even said he enjoyed Winema more than the movie, and this was during Avengers.

A sneak peek of SM Cinema’s Winema

The corporate world has taught me a lot about professionalism, but creatively, I felt I could thrive more when I’m boundless. So with my then bosses’ blessing, I co-founded Waveplay Interactive with my partners.

How did the first thought of having an interactive event brand come up? 

Before we started Waveplay in 2011, most ad campaigns were one-way. In other words, consumers were passive viewers of ads. So we envisioned Waveplay to pioneer two-way brand experiences. And to make those memories stick, we wanted to use never-before-seen innovations that are fun. 

How did you work your way up? 

When we started, there were no precedents for a business like ours. Digitalization was in its infancy. The market for interactive experiences was more or less non-existent. We didn’t have a lot of connections in relevant industries either. So signing on clients was challenging for a new technology like ours that wasn’t exactly the most affordable option. 

I presented our company to many people I thought would be interested. A lot of them were not. But one of them shared the concept with an event agency, and we eventually closed our first project. 

Not long after, we were introduced to Eat Bulaga, which landed us the gig to produce the world’s first interactive audience segment on TV. It was a surprisingly easy pitch to Jenny Ferre, the Creative Director of Eat Bulaga. She liked the Waveplay Group Motion Gaming concept because it exemplifies the bayanihan culture. But before she awarded us the project, she just had one last question, “Are you a Filipino company? Because we love supporting Filipino companies.” 

This was the precedent we were waiting for. At that point, whenever we show our TV project to potential clients, they go, “Oh, that’s you guys!” So with this recall, it was the golden opportunity to amplify our momentum. So I proceeded to cold calling agencies, aggressively getting organizers’ contact information from every event I encountered. Because I knew, as soon as we had that opportunity to present, get them to experience our interactives, their eyes would open up to all the possibilities we can do together.

When did you realize that you’re ready to start the business? 

I wasn’t ready when we set up the company, but I’m blessed to have had my parents as a safety net. As Chinoys, this is one of the advantages we enjoy in that there’s parental support when you start a business. 

Even when they didn’t fully understand what our company was about, my parents let us use their warehouse, office, drivers, and service vehicles free of charge during our early years. 

I also asked my partners not to leave their full-time jobs just yet. Thankfully, the company did well enough that they eventually did a few years later. With all these safety nets in place, I was braver to take chances and market our untraditional venture.

In a nutshell, can you introduce what Waveplay Interactive is all about? 

To put it simply, when companies want to create unique interactive experiences for their in-person, virtual, or hybrid events, they give us a call. 

Why did you name the brand as such? 

Our very first product turned groups of people into human joysticks, waving their hands up left and right to play custom branded games. Thus, Wave + Play. 

On the other hand, how did Webplay come about? 

When physical gatherings were halted due to the pandemic, many pivoted their events to webinars and Zoom. But clients were not satisfied with these options. They looked for ways to continue creating one-of-a-kind experiential events, even in a socially distanced setting. 

In May of 2020, we launched Webplay, which was the breakthrough our clients and partners needed amidst a severely affected event industry. 

Webplay gave brands and agencies the power to translate physical event experiences online and create unique, interactive virtual events with limitless possibilities. 

What is the first-ever event that you successfully did when you were just starting? 

One of our first events was a nationwide caravan. I had to fly to Cebu and Davao for some of the runs. My dad disapproved of me going out of town without a chaperone. Thankfully, my Di-hia, who also happens to be a talented developer, accompanied me. So it was us setting up our equipment and inviting guests to try our interactive games. The project was a hit that we had to turn down other brands that wanted to tap us for the caravan’s succeeding runs, out of respect to our client at the time.

And our sibling tandem has continued on since with my Di-hia managing our company operations. 

What are your current clients/projects now? 

We work closely with our agency partners to create interactive events across major industries from FMCG, Healthcare, Telecom, Food, Insurance, Financial Institutions, and Non-Profit Organizations.

Some of the brands we’ve worked on include Coca-Cola, Nestle, the World Health Organization, and Sanofi, to name a few. 

What do you think sets Waveplay Interactive apart? 

Our experience working with various clients with diverse needs for more than a decade has strengthened our expertise in experiential technologies. As a result, our team can implement unique executions probably faster than anybody in the Philippine event industry today. 

Can you recall the exact moment when Waveplay Interactive started gaining attention from consumers? 

An indication that your company is capturing attention is when your friends, schoolmates, and other people you know inquire about your services without you marketing to them. 

What is the most challenging part of being a CEO of this type of brand? 

A company like Waveplay is only as good as our ideas. Once we stop innovating, we’ll become obsolete. As CEO, this is a constant challenge. So at times when I’m trying to sleep, I still brainstorm in my head.

On the other hand, what’s the most fulfilling part? 

It’s when people see magic in what we do, and it stays as an unforgettable memory for them. 

What’s next for Waveplay Interactive? 

Going virtual has allowed us to do scaleable work, with some of our successful projects getting referred to international counterparts. So we’ll just take it one project at a time, continue exciting our clients, and maintain our team’s reliability in delivering results. 

Do you have any new projects you’re currently working on? 

We work with repeat clients who want to level up their events constantly, so we’re continually expanding our platform’s features. 

But as much as virtual is the way to go at this point, once physical gatherings return, everyone will want to see each other face-to-face again. 

And as an on-ground experience company with virtual capabilities, we’re excited to fuse our live and virtual tech to maximize both audiences’ participation whether they’re attending in person or online. 

What do you think are the qualities/attributes of you and your team that has made Waveplay Interactive what it is today? 

We’re multi-specialists. Almost everyone in our team has upskilled way beyond our calling, making Waveplay the adaptable company it is today. 

Another attribute I’m proud of is our “malasakit culture”. We think like our clients. We anticipate issues on their behalf. Our goal is to unburden them so they can focus on other aspects of the event. 

What advice can you give to those who want to pursue the same path as yours, especially to younger people? 

With whatever business you’re planning to enter into, study the market and similar companies well. Be honest with yourself about the good, especially the bad.

Compute your potential profits realistically and see if it’s viable. If these are in check, get started. You don’t need perfection to begin. Instead, adjust as you learn along the way. For most of the entrepreneurs you look up to, chances are, their first products weren’t as good as they are now, either. 

And if your business can handle it, I highly recommend bootstrapping so you can see if your business is truly performing. 

What are you most proud of as a Chinoy? 

Being a Chinoy has undoubtedly given me an upper hand as an entrepreneur. Like most Chinoy families, our upbringing was ingrained with the mindset for business, but I never knew it then. I thought it was customary to work in your parents’ office every summer, have your dad teach you the context of his business decisions at 10 years old, and be taught that having a business is a great goal. 

And now that we have our own family, my husband and I are aligned in passing down to our two daughters the Chinoy upbringing and Christian values that have helped us become who we are today. 

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