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Lessons From Dad: Tips for Running the Family Ad Agency

Second-Generation Adman Marc Brownstein on What He's Learned

By Published on .

Our company is the oldest independent ad agency in Philadelphia. It was founded by my father, Berny, in 1964. Dad is an artist who painted his way into a college scholarship with masterly oil canvases. But he had three children and had to put food on the table, so he traded his paintbrushes for Magic Markers and became an art director at NW Ayer. After a few years, he opened Brownstein Advertising (now Brownstein Group).

Dinner-table conversation always fascinated me: the ideas Dad and his team were coming up with, the pitches and their inherent drama. I started my advertising career at age 3, when Berny took me on a client call. At 13 I wrote my first campaign, which was produced -- with the client none the wiser.

Advertising wasn't for every Brownstein family member. My older brother and younger sister wanted no part of it.

Dad wouldn't let me come into the business after college, saying I needed to learn best practices from the big boys. So I went to New York and got a job as a copywriter. The years passed, and my career was going well at Ogilvy. That's when Dad came calling. "I need you back in Philly, or I'm gonna have to find a partner," he said.

My father had thought of everything. He had carefully laid out my job description, with detailed roles and responsibilities, as well as a structured compensation plan. He also enumerated his role, to ensure that we could avoid arguments about decision-making. His plan even included where I should buy a home in the Philadelphia suburbs to raise my family.

It was the toughest choice of my life.

Fast-forward 20 years, and our family business is functional, both structurally and culturally. We've had our disagreements over the years, but none that we couldn't resolve. We never went to a lawyer to have an employment agreement drafted, though we put a partnership agreement in place outlining our ownership stakes in Brownstein Group. Dad has sold shares to me over the years, and I am the majority owner of our agency.

Berny, now 76, does not plan to retire. "When you rest, you rot," he says. He is our shop's "minister of culture," constantly reinforcing our values.

Will there be a third generation? You never know. I have a son who's a sophomore at the University of Southern California, studying music and communications. His current dream is to be a rock drummer.

Some lessons:

Learn from the best.
One of the smartest things my Dad did was insist I work for best-of -breed competitors before I came into the family business. I don't believe he would have ever taken me seriously otherwise.

Borrow from other family businesses.
Dad spoke to several other founders of family businesses, asking them what they did right and what they would have done differently.

Who's next?
It's important to identify the next generation of leadership long before it's time to take over. If you have family members with the skills required to succeed in this business, start a dialogue during the college years about where their interests lie. Share industry articles, talk shop and discuss management matters, involve them in problems you're wrestling with. You'll get a sneak peek into how they think.

Conversely, it's a mistake to put family into leadership if they aren't qualified. I have seen businesses fold because of nepotism. If there's no heir apparent, consider selling to your management team.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia.
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