Touchy-feely Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Look, he knows he’s the boss and everything, but Marc Brownstein can’t help but admit he likes his 57 employees.

He really does.

And do you know what? That affection hasn’t stopped him from taking the family business, the Brownstein Group, to the next level. As president and CEO, Brownstein has helped the multipronged advertising agency take charge by opening a digital marketing division well ahead of the competition, and he’s overseen growth to $10.4 million in fee income.

All the while, though, Brownstein has hired carefully, instilled systems of accountability to keep people motivated and taken care of the people who make the company’s creative motors run.

“By doing that, you build a great team,” he says. “You have great culture, and within that, you do great work.”

Smart Business spoke with Brownstein about how much easier it is to check references in a world filled with social media and why he can tell a lot about a job candidate by how they treat a waiter.

Take care of those who will take care of you. The best advice I ever got is probably something my dad always said to me growing up, ‘Take care of the company and the company will take care of you.’ And by that he means don’t abuse the business, be modest in how you live and operate, and it will always be there to take care of you and your family. So we don’t have any debt — we’re debt-free. We don’t live lavishly. We take care of the family business, and it provides a good lifestyle, not just for me but for everyone on the team.

You keep people by creating the right atmosphere, and we’re not micromanagers. Everyone here is measured on performance. So everyone knows what they have to achieve, and then we measure their achievements because everyone wants to know, ‘How am I doing?’ If you leave it nebulous and in a gray area, then people don’t know where they stand, and human beings, in my experience, want to know where they stand. And we’re really generous with recognition when you do a job well, and then we get to know the human being.

We want to know how you are doing — ‘Hey, how’s that new dog? How’s the baby; is she walking yet? Hey, how are you feeling?’ We just want to know, and we care about the individuals. We’re a very human organization. That may sound touchy-feely, but it’s genuine, and it helps keep people here because they know that they matter.

It’s pretty easy. I don’t sit in my office, I’m out there; the sleeves are rolled up. It’s a pretty hands-on business, and when I’m walking to someone’s office, I make sure to stop along the way at other people’s offices, even the interns, everyone matters.

Build a management team that can follow suit. It’s hard to find because I prefer to hire talent first. By talent I mean in a lot of industries if you find a good manager they can do the job well, but in our business, you have to have a specific skill set, a marketing skill set, maybe you’re a writer, a designer or a strategic planner or a public relations expert or whatever, but in addition to that, when you’re more senior level, I also need you to be a good manager of people, and it’s often hard to get both the right lobe and the left lobe of the brains operating equally. A lot of times you find someone who is a good manager, but they’re not that talented. Or a great talent, but they’re a disaster as a manager. So my greatest challenge has been building a management team that has both.

We hire slowly, and if we make a mistake, we fire fast rather than the other way around. We take our time with people, and we really get to know them. Our interview process is pretty rigorous, and you have to meet with a lot of people on the team, and then you have to spend some time with us out of the office. We don’t want to check the references you provide, we want to check the references we discover, and if everything comes up real well, then chances are you’ll be a long-term member of our team. It’s so much easier to check outside references today than it was five to 10 years ago with all the online tools and strategies. You can find people who know these people. You can do some networking, leverage some social media. We find that there is always someone who knows someone who knows someone.

We take them to a ballgame or go out for a drink, go out for a bite to eat (to spend time with the candidate outside the office). Sometimes little things like seeing how an individual candidate treats a waiter or a waitress can be very revealing. Anybody who is going to treat a waiter or waitress disrespectfully is going to treat a report the same way.

Stay in touch. I write a newsletter every two weeks here, and it’s something that I refuse to delegate and that gives me a voice to the company. We have an office in Philadelphia, and we have an office on the West Coast in Seattle, and this keeps me in touch with everyone. I just write an introduction, so maybe 400 words, and I’m writing a piece on whatever I believe is relevant at that time, but it always reinforces what we believe in.

I hold town halls on a minimum of a quarterly basis, sometimes more. They’re plugged in (in Seattle), we conference them in. And I also write a blog on Ad Age at AdAge.com, so they can also read what I’m thinking.

They get it. I convey it in all ways, through my newsletter, through talks to the company, through my director’s meetings. Everyone understands. Fortunately, we have such good people here that I really don’t have to push very much. If anything, they’re pushing me just as hard. We have people who care so much that it hurts. We’ve been told that we ooze passion.

How to reach: Brownstein Group, (215) 735-3470 or www.brownsteingroup.com