As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Eliran.
Michael Eliran is a 20+ year Marketing Executive who is the Owner and CEO of New York based, Gamma Communications, Inc., a Marketing and Activation company that works with the largest brands in the world. Michael has delivered Award Winning campaigns by leveraging a vast network of brand partners, celebrities, influencers and innovative technology.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you for the opportunity to interview for this series. My story started after graduating from New York University. I was a 21 year old looking for a career path. I spent my college years working as an intern at a New York based cultural advertising agency that specializes in Broadway, off-Broadway, NY City Opera, Big Apple Circus, etc. The world of advertising had a special place in my heart but I knew that I wanted to work with large consumer brands versus local entertainment. I was introduced to Mort Goldberg, a legend in the promotion & marketing space, who was just starting his second Agency after selling his initial shop to WPP Group, the world’s largest advertising holding company. The connection was immediate and electric. I found a home where I could learn all facets of operating a business from an early age, including how to source new business and manage existing business. I learned to recognize what I did not know and how to enlist those duties from experts I could grow from. I spent years building my network within some of the largest companies in the world, traveling across the country and abroad all while gaining an expertise in interpersonal communications. Approximately 7 years ago I was at a crossroads — I had spent years building my reputation and client base, as well as running the day to day operations, but I was still an employee, unable to reap the true upside that can only come from ownership.The Gamma Communications brand had a longstanding name in the industry and I was a big reason for that. I knew that unless I was able to acquire the brand, my only option would be to start from scratch. After four months of contracts and negotiations, we were able to finalize a buyout and I was officially the owner of Gamma Communications.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We were on a flight from NYC to Houston to see a client. A recognizable man at 6’5” boarded the plane and we quickly surmised that he was the Quarterback for the Houston Texans. He just happened to be sitting in the seat next to me. After four hours of conversation, I realized he was smart and engaging, with an organic knack for marketing. He explained that it was his off-season, so he had time to spare. He offered to join our client’s lunch at a steakhouse the following day to say hello, which I, of course, accepted . I was ecstatic at the opportunity to have him join the lunch, as we all know football is king in Texas. He ended up driving us from the airport to our hotel, and joined us at our table in the restaurant the next day. We spent two hours talking marketing while the whole restaurant was buzzing from the excitement of his presence. We won that piece of business quite easily. They say that luck is when opportunity meets preparedness, and I make sure to take this experience with me in every encounter.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was first starting out, I made a few funny mistakes but one resonates with me to this day. I was cold calling a senior executive at Kimberly-Clark about a concept I had come up with, but had not fleshed out or vetted in the slightest. My senior manager was out of town on business and I was eager to make a splash in order to impress them. Upon going into my pitch, I was quickly reminded that I was only 21–22 years old, with zero experience, trying to sell a concept without facts or ability to pivot to a person 20 years my senior. When asked a bunch of standard marketing questions to substantiate my concept, I was left tongue-tied and embarrassed. I quickly hung up the phone. My stomach dropped to the floor and I left the call in a total panic. It taught me a key lesson to always be prepared and to not act impulsively. When you are young, you want to see results immediately and only with experience and repetition can you truly command an audience.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are really two people:
- Mort Goldberg, who was the original Founder of Gamma. Mort identified my talent right away and hired me on the spot after our first interview. We ended up at a bar together after that first interview where he told me that my outfit was all wrong, earring had to go and to stop using so much product in my hair (he may have been jealous since I actually had hair). He became a true mentor and somewhat of a father figure to me. He taught me the importance of hard work, entrepreneurship and the importance of blending your work life and home life. He was and remains a walking example of how you will be successful if you put yourself out there and stay engaged every day.
- My wife, before she was even my wife, was a key supporter of me acquiring the business. She believed that I could thrive if I controlled my own destiny. It’s scary taking the leap from employee with guaranteed salary to business owner where everyone else comes first. Without her unconditional support, it would have been exponentially more difficult of a process.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Equality and inclusion are an integral part of the Gamma Communications culture. In fact, a majority of our employees are women. I have found that most of the women in my life bring a level of critical thinking, composure and level-headedness which contrasts well with me, as I have a harder time staying objective when it comes to my business. At Gamma, I would be lost without the help of my team of women who all work hard, while also making sure to keep things light when things get stressful.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As a business leader, I understand the importance of treating everyone with the same respect you would want to receive yourself. Living in a city as diverse as New York and having travelled abroad, I have been lucky enough to be exposed to a melting pot of cultures and have seen firsthand how an eclectic mix of people can contribute to a richer and more conscientious community. Staying curious, asking questions and listening are essential in continuing to learn and grow as a leader in our ever-evolving society. It was empowering to have recently been involved in a shoot that required 60% of the production crew to include minority groups — whether that’s those that are LGBTQ+, Female, Black, etc. In all my years in this business, it ended up being the most well executed and fun shoot I had ever been a part of. I am eager to continue playing an active role as our society evolves into the equitable and inclusive environment we teach each generation to strive for.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think the most important responsibility of a CEO/Executive is to empower your team. In my experience, it all starts at the top. The best teams have great leadership that trickles down to every level. Encouraging all members of your team to be self-starters and find innovative ways of problem solving is essential in creating a healthy and productive workplace for your employees. You are only as good as your team and a CEO should set the standard.
It’s also highly important as CEO, when curating your team, to play into your strengths and hire those that specialize in your weaknesses. Since becoming CEO of Gamma, I’ve learned the importance of building a team of people with a diverse range of talents and guiding them on how to best combine forces. Working collaboratively as a team is when the most revolutionary and creative ideas arise. Giving everyone a platform to share ideas and listening to them is imperative in making decisions and running a business.
Another responsibility specific to a CEO is establishing and enforcing expectations as a company. Knowing that every member of your team is returning every call & email in a timely manner while treating clients with respect and kindness is fundamental in a company’s success.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think the greatest myth about being a CEO or owner is that at that level it’s all perks and benefits while employees do all the work. What many people don’t always understand is that there is a lot more that goes into owning your own business, especially a small business. Aside from knowing what is happening with every client account, payroll has to be met every two weeks, insurance, legal and accounting bills, rent, car payments, bonuses, etc. are primary responsibilities that must be met in a timely manner no matter what. While a CEO does benefit during growth periods, he/she is also responsible for making sure the business stays solid during lull periods.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Coming from being an employee, I worked hard, made my numbers, and then was able to go home and not have any burden outside of my own world. As a business owner/CEO, I don’t have the luxury of shutting off. It is a 24/7 responsibility for me, which is what I always wanted, but also very consuming at times. I can’t shut off the part of myself that is always wondering what I can be doing better as a leader.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I definitely do not think everyone is cut out to be a CEO or business owner. People are inherently risk averse and to own and lead requires you to also accept the reality that you can fail. Most people like knowing how much they are getting paid and the work/life balance they are afforded as an employee instead of an owner. They have monthly expenses that they need to cover and uncertainty frightens them. You need to believe in yourself and understand that without risk there isn’t as much opportunity for great reward. A true entrepreneur believes in their vision and their ability to execute against that vision.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Don’t make the workplace super stringent. Reward people for good work. I always tell my team that if the work is done and we are hitting our goals, then feel free to go on that ski trip. Try to engage with your team. Celebrate wins at nice restaurants, go on outings, etc. It should feel like a family where everyone has each other’s back.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I like to think so. Both my business and myself contribute to various charities including feeding and clothing less fortunate people both in the US and abroad. We also support various medical research organizations. I have two amazing kids who help keep me balanced and aware of the world around me. I want to use my lessons learned to teach them how to be good to others.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- The importance of keeping cash in the business. When you go from being a paid employee to a business owner with expenses, payroll, etc. One of the hardest concepts to grasp is managing cash flow and knowing when to pay yourself and when to leave cash in the business for future expenses, marketing expenditures and technology innovations/upgrades. When cash is flush, this isn’t as much of a consideration. It is during periods of slower cash velocity when planning cash distributions becomes key. Covid has amplified this for many businesses.
- Creating structure and rules for employees. This is something that has been particularly difficult for me because I always inherently knew what I had to do to be successful and just doing it. Structure wasn’t always present because we were always focused on doing business and the day to day minutia was always something that got done, but wasn’t organized and spelled out. What I am learning now is that employees often need structure and assignments delegated. While it might feel like a waste of time, it is something that helps keep the wheels turning and keeps people productive while giving them goal oriented ownership over their projects.
- Don’t get too emotional when clients don’t see things your way. I know I am good at what I do and I know that what my team presents is better than what other agencies are presenting, but, you can only make the best case, provide the relevant data to substantiate it and hope it takes. Clients/people come from all different backgrounds, geographies and philosophies and you can’t always control how they perceive things. Sometimes a client already has a friendly relationship with another Agency, sometimes it can be a matter of them simply not being aware of what you are presenting regardless of how big it is and sometimes it can simply be a matter of fear of taking a risk. Large corporations employ highly educated people that are also very risk averse in all aspects of life. They are constrained by the corporate hierarchy that they work within and therefore the unknown often hinders their ability to identify and execute against big ideas. You can only do your best, present good work and play things by the numbers. A great example of this was at the beginning of my career, we were presenting to a brand that was targeting 13 year old girls. It was the height of the Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera “Teeny Bop” period, and we had figured out a way to tie-in with Christina through her Teen Help CD-Rom, produced by Simon and Schuster, without paying Christina for Talent Fees. This was clearly the big idea. Upon presenting this opportunity to the VP, Marketing, Director of Marketing, Brand Manager and Associate Brand Manager, it was obvious that nobody in the room had even heard of Christina Aguilera. At that point there was nothing more to discuss. We had presented the winning concept, but the client wasn’t equipped to execute against it.
- Most people don’t work at your speed and are not going to be as invested in your business, or their business, as you are. I fall into the trap of assuming that most people live and breathe what they do. I assume they will respond to emails or phone calls in real time regardless of where they are or what they are doing. Most employees set designated hours for work and when that time is done, they check-out and things go radio silent. A year ago we were in the middle of a very high profile negotiation with two A-List Celebrities and it was very critical for the client to secure and pay the talent before end of year for tax purposes. What is usually a slow holiday period became a pressure crunch, because we not only had to deal with the negotiation terms, but also all the players involved, who had somewhat checked out for the Holidays. This made getting the answers a slow, tedious task and amplified the stress for me, as I was engaged 24/7 until New Years, when I could have been enjoying the Holidays with my family. While these sacrifices range in size, I understand they come with the territory of being a successful business owner.
- Do not be afraid of evolving and delegating responsibilities to team members that are more equipped to handle certain parts of the business than you are. I was trained in a very one-dimensional business rooted in in-store marketing tactics i.e. sales promotions, shopper marketing, etc. I am also a doer who always felt like I could handle everything on my own. What I didn’t know, I could learn. As the Marketing world was changing, it was important to invest in technology to provide more digital and data based solutions for those in-store programs. In order to evolve, we leveraged a technology company to build our Receipt Rewards platform, an OCR Mobile Fulfillment platform that enables brands to run promotions and acquire key consumer data with ease. Additionally, as social media and the world of influencers has become so massive, it was important for me to lean on our younger talent who were raised in that sphere and are far more knowledgeable and capable of making the right recommendations in those areas.They are constantly educating me so that I can also speak intelligently about the emerging platforms and how they can benefit our clients. We are always looking for ways to push the limits and be at the forefront of the current trends. NFTS are the next frontier that we are helping our clients get involved in.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As a budding chef, feeding people has always been a passion of mine. I know there are already charities & organizations that focus on feeding the less fortunate, but if there was one thing that I could wish for, it would be to create a movement where both the haves and have-nots in the world can sit down together for a properly served meal. Call it the “Great Supper”. With all the divisiveness in the world, I truly believe food is a common denominator and the bridge that can unite everyone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Time is a created thing. To say I don’t have time is like saying I don’t want to.” — Lau Tzu
One of my biggest pet peeves in business is when people don’t respond or say they are out of pocket. I place such a huge importance in giving those around me, whether client or acquaintance, the respect of a response. Especially in this day and age with the convenience and access to a smartphone, anyone can easily type in a quick update whether negative, positive or neutral.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This is a tough one as there are so many. I would have to say Sir Richard Branson is someone that I have admired from afar for many years. I have always been fascinated by his ability to live big while also being a business mogul. He is clearly operating on a whole different level than most, yet he embodies everything that the average person aspires to be in life: Good father, successful business person, leader, innovator and worldly adventurer. Plus, I would like nothing more than a few nights on Necker Island eating lobster and surfing.