CEOs Who Give Back: Ben Swartz, Marcel Digital

"From college to AOL to Marcel Digital, I have been tremendously lucky to have continued support and help from amazing people along my journey. For these reasons, I feel compelled to always give back to my community."

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Ben Swartz, CEO of Marcel Digital in Chicago

Ben Swartz founded Marcel Digital in 2003, a leading digital marketing and web development agency in downtown Chicago. At that time, nobody knew Google would one day become a global powerhouse handling over 3.5 billion searches daily; but Ben saw opportunity in search engine marketing and risked everything he had on learning and selling Google AdWords. And it worked. Over the next 14 years, Ben would grow Marcel Digital to become one of the original and most well established digital agencies in the United States.

Ben recently took the time to sit down with me and answer a few questions about his upbringing, the people and projects that inspire him, and how community service continues to be a fundamental aspect to his professional and personal growth.

What is your “backstory”?

Ben: I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and attended The Ohio State University. After graduating, I made the move to Chicago where I took my first job at a mortgage startup. Even though I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere, as well as the ups and downs of it all, I ultimately realized that it was not the industry for me. I wanted to bring real value to the world through my work. My father has always been an entrepreneur and had always given back to the community; I just wasn’t aware of it until much later. While home on holiday, I told my parents about the philanthropic work that I had been involved in at the time, to which my mother told me “I got that” from my father. It was then and there that I decided to pursue a career where my work could serve a larger purpose.

Around that time, I found out that AOL was hiring and decided to apply. Those three letters, A-O-L, sounded as cool as Google, Facebook or Amazon sound today — everyone wanted to be a part of it. I quickly became a top producer nationally. It was clear that I would retire in my early 30s, most likely to an island which I owned. Those dreams of early island retirement would soon dissolve after the now-infamous AOL acquisition of Time Warner. Having to start all over, I decided to launch Marcel Media with a friend. We named the company after an old AOL client-turned-prospect, in the hopes the tribute would earn his business. He never became a client, but we soon learned to sell a lot of Google Adwords which was the new advertising arm of Google developed by Sheryl Sandberg and her team. To this day, Sheryl remains a hero of mine.

In 2014, I bought out the shares of my business partner, expanded the business, and rebranded the company as Marcel Digital. Through it all, I have been extremely fortunate to be involved in different philanthropic adventures such as tutoring in the Cabrini Green Tutoring Program (now Tutoring Chicago), serving food at The Chicago Help Initiative, or bringing the Chicago Lights program to Marcel Digital. Giving back has always been, and will continue to be, a top priority for me and for both my professional and personal fulfilment.

After earning my Masters in Business from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2014, I was invited to join the StreetWise Board of Directors, where I continue to sit and be heavily involved to this day.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Ben: My old AOL client Marcel (again, who Marcel Digital is named after) refused to become a client of ours because, according to him, “startups always fail”. Several years later, there was a knock at the door of our office. Marcel had a business meeting in the building that our office occupied, saw our name / his name outside of our door, and walked in. He was astonished, as were our employees. In fact, one of our developers pulled off his earphones, stood up and exclaimed “that dude is real?!”

Ben and his daughters

Are you working on any meaningful nonprofit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Ben: From college to AOL to Marcel Digital, I have been tremendously lucky to have continued support and help from amazing people along my journey. Whether financially or inspirationally, I did not do this alone and remain incredibly grateful. For these reasons, I feel compelled to always give back to my community. The most substantial nonprofit project we are working on today at Marcel Digital is completing the new StreetWise website. As CEO of a digital marketing and development shop, we are well positioned to build and maintain a state of the art site to help Streetwise obtain their goals. I’m also excited to be taking a Vice Chair position in that organization moving forward.

Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

Ben: While I am extremely proud of my team at Marcel Digital for developing a new website for StreetWise that will help thousands of homeless individuals in and around Chicago, the person I am most proud of is my very first Chicago Lights intern, Livong Loving. He was a high school kid who we had given an internship in the hopes that he could learn about working in an office and get a taste of the digital world. We quickly bonded and Livong’s internship became a mentorship. At least, I like to think of it as mentorship, but Livong has really done it on his own. He is married, recently had his first child, quickly moving up the ranks at his current company and is looking to purchase a house. I could not be more proud of Livong and the man he has become. He continues to be an inspiration to me and my work.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

Ben: There are so many lessons I’ve learned, and continue to learn, everyday in my career, but I feel these are the most important:

  1. Some people have knowledge and some have wisdom. If you find people with both, hold on to them with everything you’ve got.

  2. You gotta fight for every inch every day. It is impossible to predict which battles you will win or lose, so you must fight every single one when you are getting started.

  3. You will fail much more often than you will succeed. I had heard this, but did not truly believe it to the extent to which it is true.

  4. Nothing grows under a banyan tree. It took me years to develop my leadership style.

  5. You’ll know you truly understand subject matter when you can explain it in 1-2 sentences. I always think of the quote, “I apologize for my long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” It takes years of learning before truly becoming an expert who can boil the topic down to its true essence.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Ben: I would love to sit down with Sam Harris. I’ve nicknamed him “The Truth”, however, I am pretty sure nobody else calls him that. As I listen to his podcast or read his books, I wish I had his clarity of thought, vocabulary, ability to remain calm even when confronted with the illogical and irrational.

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