I had the pleasure to interview Marc Landsberg. As founder and CEO, Marc lives and breathes all things SOCIALDEVIANT, a modern ad agency for modern brands who need to do more with less. If he’s not personally serving a client, he’s pursuing a new one, no matter where it takes him. Before creating his own agency, Marc led teams at Leo Burnett, McCann and Lake Capital. He earned his B.A. in Human Biology at Stanford University, and his M.B.A. from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University.
Thank you so much for joining us Marc! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ichose marketing and advertising because I was fascinated by the ability to solve meaningful business challenges with creative solutions.
I was considering Investment Banking (can you believe it?) and consulting, and in between my first and second year of business school, I spent the Summer at an investment bank in NY. It was cool, and I learned a lot.
But then, at the end of that Summer, I participated in a 5-day internship at Leo Burnett. They gave us a case and asked us to present a creative solution to senior leadership at the end of the week.
I was smitten. I loved every minute of trying to solve a real business problem, creatively.
Advertising and marketing captivated me because, at the end of the day, I am compelled by creativity in all its forms and instances.
Creative problem-solving has been my career NorthStar…finding solutions to seemingly intractable problems by thinking in non-linear fashion. I’m especially motivated by solutions that live in the world — that motivate people to think or act differently, to see things in a new light.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
SOCIALDEVIANT is a pure start-up. Me, in a Starbucks with my laptop and a vision for building a new kind of agency.
So, to be honest, the challenges were almost too many to count. Typical start-up challenges: finding capital, finding clients, finding office space, finding amazing talent, finding a reliable Internet Service Provider (wink), and more.
But I started SOCIALDEVIANT with a singular, and rather unusual purpose.
To be the world’s kindest company.
And pretty soon, I realized the biggest challenge was simply defining exactly what I meant by that, what I expected from my colleagues, what they could expect from me, and what our clients could expect from an agency with such a non-traditional premise.
I learned a simple, but powerful lesson.
Clarity is the key. Lack of ambiguity trumps just about everything else. Clarity allows everyone to do their very best work, and give their very best effort, without concern or worry that they might be doing the wrong thing or wasting their time.
We held an offsite, clarified what kindness means for us and for our clients, and published a document which we reviewed quarterly to make sure we were all on the same page.
I learned you can’t assume that others know what you mean, despite understanding your words.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
First, I think we’re still working to be a success. We define success differently than most agencies, I think. It’s not about creative awards, per se. It’s not about revenue growth, per se. It’s about one thing, and one thing that follows that one thing.
For us, success is defined as driving our clients’ business. Growing our clients’ business results in growing our own business. And, doing that as kindly as humanly possible.
Given that, I think there are a few factors that have contributed to our growth and impact in the marketplace:
We Have Clarity of Purpose. We know what we are trying to accomplish in the marketplace, and everyone is clear about their role in that.
We Are Focused. We don’t zig or zag. Pivoting is for excel spreadsheets. We stay the course.
We Over-communicate. We pride ourselves on over-communication both internally and externally.
We Shine the Light. We do our level best to acknowledge the efforts of those who make meaningful contributions. We do it publicly and we do it often.
We Reward Success. Both financially and otherwise, we make sure to reward those who are driving client success.
We Iterate to Great. We make mistakes, but mostly they are errors of commission, not omission.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Everyone Will Watch Everything You Do. Nothing you do will be off the radar. What you wear. What you drink in a meeting. What color ink you write in, what tech you use, and yes, whom you tend to favor and disfavor. This is an unavoidable truth about leadership: you are under a microscope, so be aware of every single thing you do and say.
In my first CEO role, I made an off-hand comment that I enjoyed working on weekends to get ahead of my work. Before I knew it, the word spread that I wanted everyone to work on weekends. I literally had to call an all-company meeting to disavow everyone of that notion. It might work for me, but that doesn’t mean I expect it of you. And I realized, right then, that colleagues are paying attention to everything a CEO does, and says, and you have to be very careful to send the right messages and signals.
2. No Days Off. Many people have good and bad days. It’s human. As a leader, you are the exception to this rule. You may not feel your best self every day. You may not deliver your “A” game on any particular day. But only you can know that.
I tend to work hard, and in my entire career, have never called in sick. That’s not a badge of honor — it was, instead, simply a streak that somehow happened, and that I was unwilling to break. One day, I was feeling really ill, completely unlike myself. A close colleague observed this — and suggested, strongly suggested, that I go home. It was a moment, I must say…because she was right. There’s a huge difference between doing your level best every day and taking proper care of oneself.
In that moment, I learned the lesson, and the important difference between the two.
3. The Road to Leadership Heaven is Paved with Predictability and Consistency. The key to being in the Leadership Hall of Fame is consistency. We’ve all had leaders with whom the team was wondering daily: “Will it be good Ted or bad Ted? Coherent and kind Ted or crazy Ted today?” You can’t be that kind of person if you want your team to be high performing. Allowing everyone to know how you’re going to show up every day is fundamental to a high-performing team and culture.
I had a boss once who was completely unpredictable. We never knew, day to day, who we were going to get.
And when we’d guess, weirdly, we’d almost always guess wrong. So, we’d show up one way, and he’d react negatively because we’d mis-read the situation and his mood. And that made for a bad day for all of us. During one of these moments, I promised my future self to be as consistent as I could be as a leader, and to at least signal to my team if I was having an “off” day or in some kind of mood. That helps, almost as much as pure predictability.
4, No One Will Ever Thank You. Your job is largely thankless, in the literal sense. You will shine the light on others, reward others, praise and promote, bonus and celebrate others, while never being thanked yourself. Park your ego and go about your business. You’re not in it for the praise — you’re in it because your DNA compels you to lead. The best leaders don’t seek (or care about) praise, but instead heap it on those around them when deserved.
Lots of stories to share here . but in the end, they all lead to the same place. If we’ve created a happy outcome, for our clients and for ourselves, I really don’t care who gets the credit. The corollary is that I will do my best to take the blame or criticism for colleagues when the finger gets pointed. I’m happy to do this because leaders understand that the only finger to point is toward themselves.
5. It’s not a popularity contest. Be strong. You will be disliked, No Matter What. Right or wrong, be strong and have a POV. The very best leaders set a clear strategy and have a clear POV about what success looks like. No matter what you do, or what you say, there will be people in the company who don’t like you and will never like you. Accept that as fact, and knowing that, it should give you the courage and power to be a strong, caring leader who is not afraid to declare a direction and set a course, regardless of its popularity.
I once had someone say straight to my face, “Hey, I know you’re a pretty good CEO, but I just don’t like you.” I learned that in any room of 50 people, regardless of my role or title, there will be some people who like me, some who don’t, and some who just don’t care either way. It is only amplified by being a leader. Definitionally, people view you a certain way. I’ve learned that with the role and title comes a responsibility to be self-aware. To have an appreciation for how others perceive company leadership, regardless of the situation.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I have a few thoughts about thriving vs. burning out:
- It’s about being productive, not being busy.
- Pursue your potential. Life is really only about that one thing — and when you pursue your potential and not a career, things line up quite nicely.
- Be passionate. If you go too many days and can’t find the passion, then try something else.
- Careers, I think, are 25 two-year stints. Each stint should be about adding tools to your toolkit, both soft and hard skills. Keep learning until the day you die.
- Life is about experiences, not things. The more experiences you have, the more you learn and the more you grow, and the richer your life is.
- Be decisive. I think it’s less about making the right decision and more about being good at making decisions. If they don’t work out, learn how to quickly adjust and make the next, best decision.
- Find stolen moments. On almost every trip, I find a moment to connect with a former colleague or friend, have a nice meal, or simply enjoy a coffee in a lovely vista. Found moments are the key to thriving. I call these “short burst rechargers.” You don’t need to always recharge the entire battery with a long holiday or sabbatical — stolen moments, almost like a 15-minute nap, can do wonders.
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?
There are many people who influenced me a great deal, but there was one boss in particular who far and away shaped my career and whose lessons I still apply every day.
Steve was one of my first bosses — I started reporting to him only 2–3 years out of college. Little did I know that I wouldn’t find a boss as important and relevant to me for the rest of my career.
At the time I was in sales, and Steve challenged me on a daily basis to be my very best. To not simply rely on my intellect. And to be highly ambitious for myself.
One day I returned from a sales call and he asked how it went. I answered, rather quickly and without a lot of thought, “Fine,” or something along those lines.
He didn’t say a thing. He just looked at me, knowing full well there was more to be said. It turns out his slight head turn, that slight pause, resulted in an hour-long conversation about what I could have done differently, done better.
Steve’s input was always specific. It was always applicable. It was relevant to me.
And above all — beyond functional skills and helping excel in my sales role — he saw my full potential. He encouraged me to go to Business School, and for many years stayed in close contact as a mentor and as a friend.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I feel like, in many ways, I’m just getting started. I’m learning every day, trying to be better every day.
Personally, I’m continuing to work on how to be a better friend: how to be more patient, more kind, how to listen better, how to park my ego better.
Professionally, I’m learning, above all, how to not take up so much oxygen in the room. This is a really tough lesson, but one that I’m working on, hard. It is one of the last domains of great leadership for me –striving to be the best leader, colleague and partner I can be.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
That’s an easy question. From the day I launched SOCIALDEVIANT, I wanted to leave one legacy. Not to be the fastest growing agency ever. Not the most awarded. But simply to show that good guys can win. That an agency dedicated to being the world’s kindest can still be urgent, can still be commercially successful, and can produce amazing creativity, day in and day out.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Well, the first thing is easy. There should be a standard default version of Chicken Salad: mayo, onions, celery, salt, and pepper. That’s it. From there, an infinite array of variations is acceptable: curry chicken salad, California chicken salad (walnuts and grapes, etc.) — but for the love of all things reasonable, let’s agree that Chicken Salad is Chicken Salad, unless told otherwise.
Ok…maybe not exactly that.
I have for as long as I can remember been obsessed with being as kind as I can humanly be, and equally, building a company that aims to be the world’s kindest company.
The movement I’d like to start is all about kindness in our daily lives.
While there’s already a Random Acts of Kindness Day, I’d push for a Regular Acts of Kindness Life. Aim to make a positive difference in the lives of everyone around you, every day. The world would be a much happier place.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
All my social media handles, are simply my name — not jenkybear123#, but simply, my name.
LinkedIn: Marc Landsberg — https://www.linkedin.com/in/marc-landsberg-4a9103/