50 Years in the Family Ad Agency Business

In 1964, the Beatles took America by storm. The creative revolution was not only in music, but in advertising, led by Bill Bernbach. My father Berny saw it coming, and in that same year he went out on his own to start an ad agency.

Dad was an artist turned art director, and wanted to shake up the Philly ad canvas. More than that, however, he wanted to create a company that felt different — where crazy, talented people wanted to work, and clients wanted to be.

Fifty years later, we are still thriving. But it wasn’t easy. We have more than a few war stories under our belt. So this is not going to be a column that pats Brownstein Group on the back for making it to our 50th birthday. Instead, I want to give back to those of you who may want to start your own shop one day — or who already have — and could use a few new ideas to help you get your shop to a ripe old age. I could’ve listed 50 of them to be cute, but there are eight tenets that really got us here:

Know who you are. Dad would only hire people who shared his values: integrity, humility and risk-taking. When you hire for values, you shape your culture. And a strong, well-defined culture attracts and keeps the right people and clients. I’ve visited other shops like The Martin Agency and The Richards Group, which also have well-defined cultures.

Treat your people like family. In 1964, Dad went out and got the clients, and created the work, while Mom did the PR and the books. It was a family business from the start. Today, I am a second-generation Brownstein, but we treat everyone like family, regardless of their last name. If you truly care about the people you hire, it will show in the work they do, how they care about the success of the agency, and how they worry about delighting your clients. Not everyone can be an owner, but if you treat people properly, everyone will think like one.

It’s still about the work. It was in 1964, and it remains so in 2014. Don’t let it slip. I still look to so many others agencies like 72 & Sunny and Goodby for continued inspiration.

Count to 10. There are going to be times when an employee’s behavior is going to make you want to fire him or her on the spot. Or you will be upset by a client’s comment or decision. It comes with the territory. In the fast-moving pace that defines the agency business, this is no time to make a hasty decision or response. Take a breath. Better yet, sleep on it, and address the issue when you are rational. And reflect carefully on the issue — you might feel differently the next day. Remember, your employees are observing your leadership.

Run an agency, not a bank. Be careful about extending credit to anyone. Cash flow is crucial in our industry, and you can easily be taken advantage of. Also, if you buy media, never, ever use your clients’ media dollars to pay your non-media receivables. Fastest path to shuttering your shop.

Be lean. It’s important to keep your overhead low, and your financial obligations to a minimum. If you can, don’t take on debt; pay your bills as you get paid, and don’t spend beyond your needs. Also, only hire once you have secured new business, not in anticipation of it. You’d be amazed how many agency owners are so sure the new revenues are coming in that they green-light hiring and then, for one reason or another, the new client falls through.

Practice reputation management. As I tell my own kids, you only get one reputation in life. So do the right thing, consistently. And your reputation will be earned, one action at a time.

Stay modern. In an industry that changes every three months, it’s easy to get old fast. So be a life-long learner, and evolve your business before it is time to. And you will remain relevant.

Our agency has had many successes — and survived dark times — but the guard rails that I’ve outlined above kept us on the path to 50. In some industries, that milestone wouldn’t raise an eyebrow; it doesn’t happen too often in advertising/PR.

Before you know it, we’ll be entering our sixth decade. And we’ll continue to heed our own advice. But we surely don’t know it all, and I’d enjoy hearing thoughts from you on how you’ve made your shop successful.

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