A Family Business Flourishes
Marc Brownstein, President & CEO, Brownstein Group
Many of the CEOs I interviewed never dreamed of a corporate or business career when they were kids. Not true in the case of Marc Brownstein. He was attracted to his father’s advertising company from a very early age.
“I’m one of three kids,” he told me. “I was the ad brat, the writer. When I was a kid, I was either playing hockey or writing. I loved coming into dad’s oﬃce at an early age. He took me on client calls when I was three.
“He was really babysitting,” Marc added with a smile, “but I always came into his once on school breaks. I wrote my ﬁ rst ad campaign at age 13 about a regional chain of sandwich shops.”
Marc’s father Berny founded what is now Brownstein Group back in March 1964.
“Dad was an artist, a ﬁne painter,” Marc said. “When his buddies were playing baseball, his passion was a paintbrush. He won a painting scholarship to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. But then he realized, ‘I got three kids, I better be making some money.’”
Brownstein’s father turned his artistic interests in a new direction. He went to work for N.W. Ayer in Philadelphia, the country’s ﬁ rst and biggest ad company. A few years later, with Marc’s mother Beverly, he founded Brownstein Advertising.
Marc always planned to work in the business. After graduating from Penn State, where he cut his teeth running the school newspaper, he went to New York to learn best practices in the industry.
“I went from Happy Valley to Manhattan,” he said, “and worked for Oglivy and Mather, the ﬁ rm that was the smartest strategically and the best creatively. The plan was to work there two or three years, then go back and work in dad’s ﬁ rm.
“Well, after eight years in New York, my father asked me, ‘Are you coming back?’ I didn’t think I would. I was starting to hit my stride. I was living in Manhattan. I had a wife and child, I was looking for homes. Dad is thinking, ‘He’s gone.’
“So ﬁnally he comes to New York and says, ‘I really need you. I’m either going to bring you back or bring in a partner. Here’s a plan I drew up. You’ll do x, y, and z, and we won’t step on each other’s toes.’”
Marc’s father wisely understood the challenges posed by family members working together.
“Dad did a lot of homework,” Marc went on. “He spoke to other family businesses and patriarchs about how to do it right, so you have a functional family business rather than a dysfunctional one. Some family businesses need professional counselors in order to function. Fortunately, that’s not the case with us.”
Brownstein joked, “Partly that’s because we limited family to just the two of us.”
Marc came back to his father’s ﬁrm in 1990 and the collaboration has been extremely successful in the years since.
“If we disagree, we have a lively debate and that’s it. We share the same values. We want the same things for the business. We have never fundamentally disagreed and kept it there. We’ve always aligned our thinking.”
Marc worked as creative director at Brownstein Group for seven years and was the strategic lead for the agency. Over time he evolved into CEO as his father gradually pulled away from the business (although Berny Brownstein is still very much involved in the ﬁrm).
Brownstein Group employs 65 people and earned $10 million in revenue in 2008. The company has oﬃces in Philadelphia and Seattle, with clients primarily located in the Mid-Atlantic states and Paciﬁc Northwest. Major clients include Microsoft, Comcast, Ikea, ESPN, and Goretex.
“We’re a brand communication company,” Marc told me. “We create unique brand identities for clients. But we’re digitally centered as an agency, which means that we’re non-traditional. Instead of thinking TV commercials, we’re thinking, ‘Where are the customers and how do we reach them?’”
That means going outside usual advertising venues.
“It might mean using Twitter,” Marc continued. “For Ikea, we manage their global Facebook page. Our public relations team is managing blogs and writing on websites.”
Brownstein said the company repositioned for the digital era about 10 years ago. They created a ﬁrm that built and marketed websites, which put them ahead of the curve in responding to the internet age.
Asked how he leads people, Marc stressed the importance of common ideals and goals.
“People may have different personalities,” he said, “but what align them are shared values. We’re clear about our core values. I want people who take smart risks. I want people who have sweaty palms in terms of their ideas, because their ideas scare them a little. I want people with ﬁ re in their bellies. I want people with integrity. I want wickedly smart people. I want people who think about ‘we’ rather than ‘me.’ The culture is very strong here and weeds out people who interview well, but who don’t really share those values.”
As CEO, Marc travels a lot and spends about 50% of his time on business development with new and current clients. Like many chief executives I interviewed, he’s never complacent.
“I never feel secure. It’s the nature of the business. As soon as I win an account, I worry about losing it. That just drives me to work harder to make sure we don’t lose it. I have to touch that client on a weekly basis, which stretches you a bit.”
Like many of the chief executives I spoke with, Brownstein beneﬁts greatly from using other CEOs as mentors. He’s the current chairman of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO), a group of dynamic CEOs from around the globe.
“I’m in awe of these guys. They learn about communication and productivity from me, and I learn how to manage in a more disciplined way. My graduate degree is from YPO.”
Because of the pressures of their jobs, CEOs can face health risks. Brownstein ﬁnds balance from “two things—family and exercise.”
“I’m still married to my bride,” he said, “and I have three great kids. That gives me balance. And exercise—I belong to four gyms. In a creative business, it’s essential. It wipes away stress, and keeps the blood ﬂ owing and the imagination ﬁ ring. I also play golf, tennis, and take long bike rides.”
For the future, Marc wants Brownstein Group to continue to lead the way by “staying on the cutting edge and always reinventing, even after 45 years.”
“We embrace change, as long as it’s in best interests of our clients and the agency. We come up with unexpected ideas and solutions for clients. We think like an Oglivy, but we behave like a nimble, two-person shop. A lot of companies come to us because they get frustrated with the cumbersome approach of large global networks that think about Wall Street and quarterly earnings, rather than the client’s business.”
How does he view his legacy?
“That I made a difference and did it the right way. My moral compass is very important to me. I sleep at night because I knew I did the right thing.
“I don’t have a good memory, so I couldn’t cover my tracks if I wanted to,” he added, laughing. “That’s what my dad taught me—do it the right way, so you don’t have to look over your shoulder.”
He encourages aspiring CEOs to “play to their strengths.”
“It’s a cliché but I really believe it: one, ﬁll an unﬁlled need, something the marketplace needs, and two, make sure that need plays back to your strengths. If you do those two things, you’ll ﬁnd success. You can waste a lot of time doing too much or the things you’re not good at.”
Marc’s last point is especially welcome, after recent corporate abuses.“
The greatest leaders aren’t arrogant, but always believe they can improve and learn.”