As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Swartz.
The CEO of Marcel Digital, Ben is known for finding talent and letting it thrive. He sharpened his digital marketing skills at AOL Time Warner during their heyday before launching Marcel Digital on his birthday in 2003. He received his MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business to compliment his Marketing degree from The Ohio State University.
Ben is passionate about several organizations including Chicago Lights Internship Program (Marcel has been a participant for over 10 years), JUF (Marketing and Communications Board), and University of Chicago Social Enterprise Executive Coaching. Currently Ben serves as Chairman of the Board of StreetWise, empowering Chicago’s homeless population with the dignity of work.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started Marcel Digital in 2003 out of the ashes of the AOL/Time-Warner acquisition. Most readers probably recognize that deal as a famous case study from business school, but for me, it was a real world lesson on how to run an organization. There was a lot of obfuscation at AOL. From training to client communication, there was a lot of disconcerting smoke and mirrors and knew it was not sustainable. As a nationally recognized sales person, I prided myself on connecting with customers by understanding their needs, rigorous thought partnership, and clarity. When I launched Marcel Digital, I knew it needed to be based on transparency.
A former client at AOL was constantly wondering aloud during our meetings, “why am I spending so much money on AOL and not on this new thing called Google?” He inspired me to start out re-selling Google Adwords but refused to be my customer until I offered to name my company after him. Years later he happened to walk in our office telling everyone he was Marcel! After he left, members of my team couldn’t believe it: “That’s actually a real person?”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I made countless mistakes when I first Marcel Digital and still do. Mistakes are not the problem. If you are not making mistakes, you are likely not getting anywhere. The key is the response to those mistakes and making sure they do not happen again.
The funniest mistake I made in the first couple months was deciding to build our first website in Flash. It was the trend at the time, but we quickly found out that Google can’t crawl Flash. Our SEO prospects wanted to know, if we were so good at SEO, why did we build our own site that was invisible to Google?
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are two podcasts that I’ve been following for years which influence how I approach being a CEO. Oddly enough, neither are business or marketing related.
Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”. It is fascinating to learn how great leaders throughout time made difficult decisions. Learning about history also brings me perspective on the present. We are going through trying times but they are no more trying than world wars or other pandemics from our past. If those generations made it through, so can we.
The second is Sam Harris’ “Making Sense”. Sam has an amazing ability to bring clarity to how we might navigate these turbulent times. I appreciate his sound POV on a range of subjects.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Since the beginning in 2003, the vision for Marcel Digital has always been to be a family of A players that acts more as a consultancy than an agency. Our purpose has always been to bring transparency to our client’s digital universe. We provide clients access to all of our internal communications where they can observe or even participate in our project management. We provide sophisticated analytics reports but simple dashboards. Our culture emphasises simple and direct communication. There is not an emphasis on growth. We emphasize being great at our craft.
Our goal as an organization defines who we are as a company. To that end, we have a three goals:
Our financial goal supports cultural and philanthropic goals, but we pay attention to all 3 equally, as each defines who we want to be as an agency.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Do what you said you would do. To be a great leader you need to build trust. To build trust you need to do what you said you would do. Whether you are my family or friend, employee or client, I will follow through on this promise.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have two family members who are high risk for severe consequences if they were to contract the virus. It was imperative that we took immediate measures at home to not only keep them safe, but also to ensure that none of us contracted the virus because it would be so easy to transmit it. It was especially important for my wife and I to communicate with our kids about Coronavirus and what precautions we were taking. We keep ourselves aware of the latest developments from both state and local governments, as well as paying close attention to doctors and health experts’ orders and insights. We developed a preparatory plan that included how we would self isolate in our own home in a worse case scenario. We also know what hospital we would go to if needed, and even who would watch the kids in case both of us were sick. These were all intense conversations to have and precautions to take, especially when we were just planning a vacation just a few months ago. What we found is that our anxiety levels are inversely correlated with our level of preparation.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At Marcel Digital, we pride ourselves on face to face meetings with clients and Covid-19 has been significantly disruptive. We quickly got a plan in place as we all moved to working remote. Zoom will never replace face to face but we decided to make sure we were on camera for all meetings for all clients. Leadership at Marcel also began to attend most all client meetings, also on camera. Zoom will never replace face to face but we hope our clients feel this extra effort.
Maintaining culture is one of our goals and we take that very seriously. Since the pandemic began, we have been sending food and surprise treats to our employees on a regular cadence. We have our regular happy hours where we catch up and play online games together. Lately we’ve scheduled random, short, midweek meetings with everyone in the company just to catch up, see each other’s smiling faces, and have a few laughs.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
There’s no doubt that anxiety has become and remains a major problem for everyone in the world right now. It’s hard to focus on work, family and friends especially after consuming the latest news cycle. One thing that has helped me through the years, and something I try to instill in my family, friends, and team, is the importance of meditation in your daily life. I found that this practice has always helped me focus in creating moments of calm. In fact, you can learn a lot from Sam Harris who I mentioned earlier.
In the midst of Coronavirus, I’ve been communicating to my employees, as well as family, to reach out and talk to each other. I think it’s more important now than ever that we spend time with each other, even on Zoom — talking about fears and anxieties is cathartic.
Leaving your home for a haircut or to go to the dentist can be nerve wrecking. I recommend taking a minute to envision the journey out of your home in detail. For example, my daughter needed to visit the hospital during the pandemic which you can imagine was nerve wracking. Together we visualized every microstep of that experience, everything from waking up that morning to what PPE we would need, when we would put on our masks in the parking lot, checking in, taking the elevator inside the hospital, social distancing once inside the hospital, and even how we would communicate with each other inside the hospital. We even figured out how we would “kiss” each other in the hospital while wearing masks.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We’re looking at this as an opportunity to spend marketing dollars smarter. For instance, investing a relatively small amount of money in a Google Analytics audit or setup will allow marketing teams to spend significantly less on traffic while maintaining similar if not improved performance. Also, in most instances, improving the conversion rate of your website will significantly increase return, whether that return is leads or revenue. Google’s most recent algorithm update even further emphasizes the need for a fast user friendly website, so improving the user flow and experience of your site will greatly help the efficiency of the traffic coming to your site. In short, most firms are focused on digital marketing spend levels, while they should instead be focused on the efficiency of that spend.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Overall, I think it’s going to make us more health conscious as well as conscientious of our behavior. This means everything from how we interact with each other to how much compassion we show to strangers. We’ll have lived through a global pandemic together, and while we might be more slightly redescent to shake each other’s hands, we’ll all have more empathy given our shared experience.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to teach us how strong we are and how much we can accomplish together. Transitioning to a remote work environment was seamless but what was most impressive was our improved efficiency. We’ve been integrated and cross-training departments for years but I’ve never seen us collaborate to this extent in the past.
Our new normal has shown me that our core team is capable of anything. We plan on growing our team and going after new markets.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
This is a great time to not only give your teams the ability to reassess their processes, but for you to reassess your business, marketing efforts, and values overall. When we get back to work, instead of “business as usual”, I would consider hitting the “reset” button on any area that hasn’t worked for you in the past. Our team put together a comprehensive article about digital strategy after COVID called A Digital Marketing Strategy Post Coronavirus. In it, we discuss everything from Google Analytics audits to SEO audits and content analysis.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
E+R=O. Events in life are going to happen and are largely beyond our control. Coronavirus is an amazing example. The outcome from those events is not predetermined. The outcome is largely determined by your response to that event. I learned this from Urban Meyer’s book, Above the Line. Stop worrying about the events, they only bring anxiety. Focus on your response.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Marcel Digital consistently posts insights and articles on our website that you can check out on our digital marketing and web development blog and case studies. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, posting regularly. Or just give me a call.