Mod Ad Men

Mod Ad Men

While his middle school buddies squirmed at their desks in embarrassment on career day (“Oh God, my dad’s here”), Marc Brownstein couldn’t wait for his father’s turn to speak.

“He told great stories, and the kids ate it up,” Marc explains. “I thought it was kind of cool. What he did never seemed like work.”

It still doesn’t.

“I love the action,” says Berny Brownstein, the self-described “semi-retired, but not really” chairman and chief creative officer of the Brownstein Group. Berny became an advertising man during the Mad Men era (though he was too junior to have an office where every meeting involved alcohol); Marc, unlike his older brother and younger sister, can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be an ad man, except for a nanosecond’s flirtation with dentistry. (“I had a great dentist, but I suck at math and science.”)

Together, father and son run a 70-person agency that is among the best in Philadelphia and beyond. The Brownstein Duo knows so much about branding, digital and traditional advertising, and public relations and social media that Drexel LeBow turned to Marc when it needed an executive director for its Center for Corporate Reputation Management, a post he has held for the past year.

“We don’t want people to get up in the morning and feel like a kid who has to go to school,” Berny says of the staff. “We want people who can’t wait to get here.”

The Brownstein magic began when Berny attended the University of the Arts on a full scholarship (he was, and is, a painter) and caught the graphic design bug. He was working as an art director for an ad agency when a series of Volkswagen commercials delighted his imagination. An actor drove a Beetle into a lake, and floated. Another removed a Beetle engine by unscrewing only four bolts. A stunt man drove one off a cliff, turned it over, and drove away. An animated tortoise beat a hare because he selected a Beetle for its lofty 27 miles per gallon (fewer stops required). Advertising as hip art: That’s the kind of creative work Berny wanted to do; the agency where he worked did not. So he walked.

“I saw the light, I liked the light and I went after it,” says Berny, who was still in his late 20s when he launched his own ad agency. Among his early work: a print ad for car batteries headlined, “This ad won’t get you to buy our lifetime battery. Read it anyway.” A billboard proclaiming: “Call WA3-LOAN for a you-know-what.” An ad with four housewives promoting pool tables under the headline: “The day they killed Mah Jong.”

“My wife did the books and helped with public relations, and I did the product,” Berny recalls. “We sort of knew how much to charge. Next thing you know, we have three kids, the money’s coming in and the business kept growing.”

From the beginning, Berny would work only for clients whose products he believed in. “I don’t do this for the big, fat fees; that can go away in an instant,” he says. “The best possible scenario is having clients who say, ‘You’re part of our business. We’re going to have a good time together.’”

IKEA North America is one of those clients. They use Brownstein for a lot of their consumer strategy, digital advertising and social media, and IKEA holds its annual, two-day, off-site management meeting not at a resort hotel but in the agency’s South Broad Street conference room. Why? “They love the creative vibe around here,” Berny says. Other agency clients include Comcast, Microsoft, ESPN and Cozen O’Connor.

The agency was ahead of its time in creating cross-disciplinary capacity in advertising, public relations and brand management before “integrated marketing communications” became the industry catch-phrase. A digital team rounds out the current capabilities, although Marc preaches that every client should first be a brand-strategy client.

“Some clients want to get right to execution,” he says. “If I was a client and had a limited budget, I’d say: ‘Do the branding for me,’ not, ‘I need a website. I need some ads. I just need a PR campaign.’ OK, but how do you know your message is right? You’re going to put all this money into execution and you might be saying the wrong thing? Really?”

The agency gives the same advice to all clients, whether they are trying to sell to consumers or to other businesses. “B-to-B companies and agencies tend to go right to sales materials, trade show booths, print ads in vertical publications,” Marc says. “Wrong, wrong, wrong. B-to-B buyers are just consumers; you better know what the triggers are to make them buy your product.”

To speak with the father is to speak with the son. The office is a “sandbox.” The staff is “family.” Integrity and taking smart risks are valued above all else. Accolades are deflected and shared. “Making registers ring” for clients is the payoff. Success only counts if you have fun getting there.

“We don’t want people to get up in the morning and feel like a kid who has to go to school,” Berny says of the staff. “We want people who can’t wait to get here.”

But Berny did make one person wait: his own middle-child. Marc graduated Penn State and became a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. Berny called it “graduate school.” Eight years and one grandchild later, it was time for Marc to come home.

“My father was unlike many founders who can’t let go,” Marc says. “He stepped back when I got here. He gave me his point of view when I asked for it, but I can’t remember a time when he stood in my way and said, ‘Don’t do that.’ I have friends whose fathers take too much control, take outsized compensation compared to their contributions, second-guess and belittle their sons and daughters. That sounds like a nightmare; I can’t relate.”

Berny, in a moment of uncharacteristic self-pride, takes full credit for this highly functional family transition in leadership.

“The buck has to stop right here,” he says, tapping his breastbone. “If my ego foolishly got in the way, we would have never succeeded. It behooved me to make sure that Marc had a clear path to growth and success. That way I ensured my own happiness.”

So, what of the next generation? Ask that question separately of father and son and you get the same answer: a re-telling of the adage that the first generation creates a business, the second generation grows it, the third generation “puts it in the dumper” (Berny) or “trashes it” (Marc). The Brownstein family will be an exception to the rule, they say.

“My kids are coming of age (24, 21 and 17), and I want them to do whatever they want to do,” Marc says. But of middle son James, a junior music major at USC, he adds: “I can’t imagine a scenario that this kid wouldn’t take the agency to a different level.”

“James is ripe for this,” Berny says. “He’s got the temperament, the intelligence. Marc will be able to do what I’m doing today.”

Or will he?

“I bet I will let go less than my father did, knowing me,” Marc says. “I’m a bit more of a businessman than my father, the artist.”

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