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Ben Swartz of Marcel Digital: “Treat everyone like professionals”

Treat everyone like professionals. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t sweep under the rug, and don’t embellish. Be transparent and straightforward. They have enough uncertainty in their lives. If they need to hear it, say it. Be empathetic. In that same breath, people aren’t meant to deal with this consistent level of anxiety for so many months on end. […]

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Treat everyone like professionals. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t sweep under the rug, and don’t embellish. Be transparent and straightforward. They have enough uncertainty in their lives. If they need to hear it, say it.

Be empathetic. In that same breath, people aren’t meant to deal with this consistent level of anxiety for so many months on end. Be compassionate in your words and your deeds. Keep in mind, during all conversations, that behind the scenes, they might truly be suffering.


As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Swartz, 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?

Ben: My name is Ben Swartz and I’m the CEO and founder of Marcel Digital in Chicago. Marcel was founded in 2003, built out of the ashes of the infamous AOL/Time-Warner merger. At AOL, there was systemic obfuscation around product capabilities and I knew early on that model was not sustainable. I’ve always found connecting with customers through rigorous and honest discussion was the key to a successful partnership. When I launched Marcel Digital, I wanted our purpose to be simple and to the point. I wanted to create real transparency.

We were solely AdWords (now Google Ads) focused our first few months. I had a former client at AOL who was constantly asking, “why am I spending so much money on AOL and not on this new Google thing?” He was the catalyst for what would ultimately become Marcel Digital. In fact, I offered to name my company after him if he would become my first client. Years later he happened to walk in our office telling everyone he was THE Marcel. After he left, members of my team couldn’t believe it: “Wait, that guy is real?”

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

Ben: My 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. I’ve always asked my team to buy into that vision and to live that purpose. For instance, we provide clients access to all of our internal communication technology. It is important they know our work is getting done even while they are busy with their 10,000 other daily obligations. We provide sophisticated analytics implementations coupled with simple dashboards that are tailored to our client’s requirements. Our client communication might not be as polished as others but it is always authentic. We will not always be perfect but we will always be perfectly transparent.

Our corporate goals also help define who we are. To that end, we have three goals: Financial, Cultural, and Philanthropic.

All three of these goals both support and depend on one another. Our financial goal supports cultural and philanthropic goals, however we cannot reach our financial goals without the right culture and without remembering how fortunate we are. That means we need to come together and give back to the community which adds to our culture.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

Ben: There is no better example than the last 7 months. We are living through a pandemic, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, increasing environmental concerns, a divided country, a contentious election and more. Anxiety is high and there seem to be no breaks to recover. It’s crucial to give your team both vision and structure. This is where we are, this is where we are going and this is the plan to get there. It’s equally important to remain empathetic and provide emotional support and guidance if asked. I check in with everyone constantly. I remind them to reach out to family and friends so they hear a friendly voice. It is important that we are expressing ourselves, expressing our anxiety and frustration. We talk about journaling and bought everyone in the company a subscription to a meditation app. It’s important to never miss a chance to check in, even if it’s the 2 minutes before a Zoom or at the end of a long week.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

Ben: Any business leaders know there are extreme moments of uncertainty and self doubt.Thankfully, during these dark moments, eventually,it occurs to me that I can simply work harder. That I can work my way out of anything. I got that from my father and how he approached his business. There is a calmness associated with letting go of what I cannot control and just putting my head down and getting to work. The most difficult challenges are when you get to show what you’re truly made of, and truly live your values as both a person and as an organization. My drive comes from my family and knowing I have a wife and two girls at home who count on me. It comes from the inspiring work my team puts in day in and day out bringing the vision and values of Marcel Digital to life. It’s hearing from clients that they see that vision and those values in their interactions with my team. It’s knowing that whatever obstacle lies in our way as an agency, we can and will overcome it, making us stronger and more efficient for the next one. I don’t need to look far for motivation and inspiration to sustain my drive — it’s all around me.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Ben: Do what you said you would do. That applies to clients, employees, vendors, friends, family — every relationship. Leadership rounds to trust and trust rounds to keep your word. It’s the most important quality you can have not only as a professional, but as a person. CEOs are responsible for creating a vision and communicating it with their team, but they also have to embody that vision in their actions. If they don’t, their vision is nothing more than a nice idea.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?

Ben: Be present, be engaged, be authentic and level up regular engagement with employees. Instead of trying to dream up an inspirational quote or trying to nail the moment with some brilliant message, try asking questions. Get your team talking. Get them thinking about exciting ideas for the future or how to tackle the here and now. Guide them through that experience. When they reflect back, they will realize how special it was that they figured out for themselves that the world is not as horrible as it seems at times, that there are a lot of good things happening and opportunities to be excited about.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Ben: Being transparent and straightforward. I think of the movie Moneyball where Brad Pitt teaches Jonah Hill how to tell a baseball player they’ve been traded:

“They are professionals, treat them like professionals.”

Keep in mind while delivering a difficult message that handling tough moments are when partnerships and relationships are truly solidified.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Ben: It’s the perfect time to plan. Uncertain times should free you up to envision the future free of all your antiquated restrictions. You finally have your excuse to step back and look at the big picture. Right now my Executive Leadership Team and I are looking at everything from our marketing to our financials, our internal communications to expanding services. Most importantly, we are thinking about where the future opportunities lie. While there’s a lot of uncertainty, there is also a silver lining. You’re free.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Ben: In Urban Meyer’s book about the 2014 Buckeyes, he explains it is not about trying to control the events. Think of this as a math equation, E+R=O. (E)vents, specifically, challenging moments in business do not alone determine the (O)utcome. Your (R)esponse to the event will have a major impact on the outcome. During turbulent times, don’t forcus on the E’s, focus on your R’s.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

Ben:

  1. Only cut once. If you’re going to have a round of layoffs, have only 1 round. Otherwise it gives the impression that another round might be coming and creates uncertainty and inefficiency.
  2. Don’t sugarcoat. Sugar coating might get you through a moment in time but ultimately creates distrust. Always be transparent and straightforward with your employees. Remember, they are professionals, treat them like professionals.
  3. Sound financials. Make sure that you have substantial retained earnings, access to credit, and valid financial projections so you can make educated business decisions for both now and future. Reduce or eliminate debt if possible. Your stress levels lighten tenfold and in the meantime,you’ll survive a pandemic.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Ben: Having a validated, weighted pipeline is key. Validated in that when you note a piece of business has a “20%” chance to close, you’ve tracked similar business long enough to know that it is actually just 20%. Weighted is to then multiply each projected piece of business by its % chance to close to get an accurate outlook of the future. Without, it is impossible to accurately make important business decisions based on forecasts. You are flying blind and the ramifications are multiplied in a difficult economy.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

Ben:

  1. You’re the leader. You’re the mentor, the guide, the support. Right now and in every interaction, your employees are looking to you to set an example. This is why you get paid the big bucks. Rise to the occasion.
  2. Be present. Give your full attention to employees and clients. Understand the problems, listen to those around you, and respond without delay. It’s difficult to stay in the moment with the world as it is — family, friends are struggling, world events, the onslaught of bad news and 10,000 other struggles of a business owner. Through all of it, make your goal to increase engagement by a factor of 10 for both clients and employees.
  3. Treat everyone like professionals. Don’t sugarcoat, don’t sweep under the rug, and don’t embellish. Be transparent and straightforward. They have enough uncertainty in their lives. If they need to hear it, say it.
  4. Be empathetic. In that same breath, people aren’t meant to deal with this consistent level of anxiety for so many months on end. Be compassionate in your words and your deeds. Keep in mind, during all conversations, that behind the scenes, they might truly be suffering.
  5. See the opportunities. As challenging as today is, there are new businesses being dreamt up or restructured that are going to be changing the business landscape of tomorrow. Listen to your clients, employees, and data to see where those opportunities lie. Your instinct might be to hold on to what you have but you might be missing the opportunity to be everything you want to be.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ben: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.“

Each of the 5 things a business leader can do to lead effectively requires a lot of work. It is not enough to read this article or a book on leadership. It is not enough to think about it once in a while. We must all be dedicated to getting better, little by little, in every interaction.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Ben: Our experts are always writing about industry news and insights in our digital marketing and web development blog. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn where we distribute content regularly. If you want to follow me, I’m also on LinkedIn and Twitter where I’m always happy to have discussions there as well.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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