Commandment #3—Ron Elgin’s Golden Rule
By the time the dessert menu arrived I’d lost count of the number of people who went out of their way to greet us at our table at the Capital Grille. Among them were CEOs, venture capitalists, a serial entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a politician. I knew none of them. Ron knew them all. What baffled me was how he remembered everyone’s name. I guess it’s no big deal when part of your DNA is hardwired as a consummate networker. I could see why he named his company “re:Connects.us.”
In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell refers to people who start social epidemics—trends, if you will—as Connectors. The way Gladwell describes them fits parts of Ron’s MO to a tee:
“The first—and most obvious—criterion is that Connectors know lots of people. They are the kinds of people who know everyone. All of us know someone like this. But I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of these kinds of people. I’m not even sure most of us really believe that the kind of person who knows everyone really knows everyone. But they do.”
Amidst the parade of greeters and idle chatter I marched on with a few deeper, more sensitive questions as we wrapped up our lunch.
(Me) What’s been the financial impact on the agency business in recent years, and how do you think it’s affected the average agency person’s income?
(Ron) First and foremost, one must understand and appreciate the basics of our economy. Clients don’t grind on their agency partners because they’re assholes or trying to be mean. They’re pushing to get more for less because their companies and stockholders demand it. That mentality is not going away. In order for an agency to provide more for less, several actions must take place.
Agency leaders must ensure they have the best and most productive employees. This invariably means for those employees, they need to pay above market rates. In order to make that financially viable, the agency needs to be right-sized. Given the option, an employee will almost always admit they’d rather be well paid than to be given an extra pair of hands. Specific to your question, Phil, I think the “average” agency person will be lucky to even keep their job in this economy. The extraordinary employee will, however, always make good money in the agency business.
(Me) In retrospect, it seems that selling ElginSyferd to a multi-billion dollar communications conglomerate was the most strategic decision of your career. Would you agree? Were there stakeholders in the company who may have felt otherwise?
(Ron) First of all, my partner Dave Syferd and I owned virtually 100% of our company. With the help of our extraordinary employees, in eight years the agency grew to be the third largest in the market. It became a very large fish swimming in a pretty small pond. That very fact made us attractive to several of the multi-nations that didn’t already have a local presence. We began paying attention to their overtures after realizing that many of our national accounts such as Holland America Line and Nordstrom could benefit from their billions of dollars of clout. We also felt our employees could benefit from the depth and breadth of experience from the big shops. Plus on a personal note, Dave and I would make a lot of money by selling! So yes, Phil, I agree it was a good decision. As to your other question, we considered each of our employees to be an important stakeholder and wanted all to be comfortable with our decision to sell. I asked DDB Global’s CEO, Keith Reinhard, for assurances that after the sale no one from NY would waltz in and start replacing our people. He laughed and said “Do you think we have a big warehouse in Manhattan filled with talented people in search of a place to roost? We’re buying your company because of your talented people and their brilliant work. I promise as long as you continue doing great work and making decent money, you’ll only hear our voice when you call us.” Keith kept his word to the end.
(Me) Let’s face it, your agency career has been pretty charmed, but nobody bats a thousand in this or any other business. What do you think was your biggest mistake?
(Ron) Let me think about that for a minute while I finish this delicious salmon. Phil, I honestly believe I never made a BIG mistake running our company; lots of small ones to be sure, but nothing major. For example, I wish we had never made a handshake agreement to sell our shares in Hornall Anderson ten years after co-founding it because I’d love to still be a part of their great company.
I’ve often wished we had actively pursued a merger with another small agency about our size in Portland that was (and still is) handling Nike. I wished every day that we would win more business. But even with those and many other little things like them, we were able to claw our way to the top of the rankings faster than any agency in the history of this market. Staying on top as long as we did says a lot about our people, our culture and our work. So you’re right Phil, we didn’t bat a thousand but because of what we accomplished over the last 30 years, I think we batted close to 950.
(Me) Throughout our conversation today you’ve referred over and over to your people. I know that part of being a good leader requires delegating to those people. Can you tell me a little about your approach to continually opening your hands, hoping for the best outcome, taking risks?
(Ron) I learned the value of delegation as a young Army officer. The first “report card” from my commanding officer basically gave me 39 A’s and 1 E. I was pretty happy until he told me he wasn’t recommending me for a promotion. He explained that I probably earned the 39 A’s because I micromanaged everyone’s work. The E I earned was in Delegation. He said if he promoted me, I’d have more people under my command.
At some point I wouldn’t be able to do everyone’s work myself. At that point, I’d start an inevitable slide into mediocrity and probably failure. I vowed at that moment to make it a life-long passion to bring my E grade up to an A. The ability to successfully delegate is the most valuable skill a manager can possess. One of our agency’s founding philosophies was to allow our people the opportunity to fail. We made them aware that we were delegating not abrogating. We’d always be there for advice and counsel to keep them from sinking but we wouldn’t be holding on to the bike while they learned how to ride it. A word of caution: good managers must also know when a person is not capable of successfully handling the responsibility delegated to them and what needs to be done about it.
(Me) If you could make one rule every ad person had to live by, what would it be?
(Ron) That’s a great question, Phil, and one I’ve never considered. Since we’re nearly out of time let me end with this cornball but heartfelt rule: Every person should treat every other person with the same integrity and respect that they would hope for themselves. When that person happens to be in the advertising business, that integrity and respect should also be applied to every message created for their client’s customers.
Perhaps the most poignant part of our meeting came at the end. After lunch Ron and I walked out the restaurant to the curb and chatted next to he electric bike I’d ridden off the Bainbridge ferry up Madison and Fourth Street. While frisking my coat in search of the key to unlock the bike a distinguished looking young man approached us and introduced himself to Ron.
I overheard only parts of the conversation, but what I gathered was that he’d followed us out the restaurant door and stood patiently for our visit to end so he could connect with Ron. He was a marketing buy who’d crossed paths with Ron through some previous agency work. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the exchange.
Ron, once again, stepped into his Connector mode, gave his undivided time and attention to a fellow colleague aspiring to climb the agency ladder. Once again, I watched him practice what he’d consistently preached for thirty years—Follow the golden rule.
Phil Herzog is CEO of SmoothStone Partners. He’s served as new business director for Seattle’s top marketing agencies. He is currently building a sports and entertainment marketing practice to promote entertainers, recording artists and sports personalities. Reach him at Phil.Herzog@smoothstonepartners.com.