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Agile Businesses: John Berg On How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Berg.

John Berg began his advertising career in the account management training program at Doyle Dane Bernbach. When DDB became part of the Omnicom Group, he joined Omnicom agency BBDO, where he remained for 12 years. During that time, he had the privilege of managing a wide variety of businesses ranging from Pizza Hut to Bayer to Dell and Campbell’s. Distinguishing himself at BBDO, by consistently helping clients succeed, John became the youngest board member in the company’s history. Next with Wenner Media, he tried his hand at publishing and not only guided Rolling Stone to its most successful year, but also helped transform US to US Weekly. Returning to his true love, advertising, John became president of DDB New York and later spent several years leading EURO RSCG through a period of extraordinary growth and the expansion of its capabilities.

Prior to joining Kelleher, John Berg was Swirl’s Co-President, focused on leading the account team and business growth initiatives for existing and prospective clients and award-winning integrated campaigns for the world’s leading brands including Chevron, Volvo, New York Life, Michelin and Pepsi.and as President and CEO of Young & Rubicam’s San Francisco and Los Angeles agencies. He joined Y&R from TAXI New York, where as president, he broadened the company’s offering and drove innovation.

As a leader who has his roots in account management, John understands that creativity is not an end in itself, but rather a powerful transformational tool whose relevance can only be measured by direct benefit to clients’ brand health and growth.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. 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?

I was a political science major in college and decided late not to go to law school. I landed a job in an ad agency training program in NYC and spent all but my last four years in the ad business. The business was never boring for me as technology forced it through constant and profound change.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

The first TV commercial shoot I was responsible for was for Wisk laundry detergent and it was to be held in London. I agreed to pay the production company in pounds rather than dollars. By the time we had to pay the production company, the exchange rate had moved significantly and now we owed several times my salary more. No way the client was going to pay the difference. The lesson I learned was always seek the help and advice of experts first. Then you won’t need them after.

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 but I’d have to say Tom Carey, who was president of BBDO New York and my boss’s boss when he decided to make me an EVP and give me responsibility for the troubled Pizza Hut account. With his guidance I turned it around and really made my career from there. After that I never shied away from fixing problems, finding them challenging, fun and a great way to show value.

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?

It’s hard for me to talk about when Kelleher started but I can say that we express our purpose as: “transforming lives through purposeful connection and love”. We talk weekly, as a whole company, about the fact that we, in our jobs, we get to transform lives. Our staff truly feels both the joy and the weight of our purpose.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?

We help people find their person. Generally, our clients have been out of the game for some time and have tried and rejected the online dating platforms. Our high touch, bespoke methodology, combined with our extensive database yields industry leading results and helps us fulfil our purpose.

Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?

As the internet developed, we have watched app-based dating engines pop up and become huge part of the culture. These services are easy to use and can be effective for large numbers of singles. Our users tend to be older, more affluent and less interested in dating and more interested finding a partner.

What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?

To date, we have really focused on the differences between the dating app technologies and our bespoke approach. Additionally, we put technology at the fingertips of our matchmakers allowing them to search for matches much more quickly and effectively. We are in the process of launching new technology that will enhance the client/matchmaker experience.

Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.

Several years ago, when we decided we needed to leverage technology to help in our matching process we quickly learned that there weren’t any off the shelf solutions available at the time. We built proprietary software to manage this and have refined it extensively through the years.

So, how are things going with this new direction?

We’ve always known that people’s shared values drive healthier and happier relationships more than the swipe left, swipe right mentality of the current dating apps. As we’ve developed the algorithms that assist our team in the matching process it’s the values-based approach that wins the day.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?

As the dating apps really took off, we were looking at AI, facial recognition and other cutting-edge technologies to see if they fit our model. In the end we leaned into what we we’re really good at. We’ve had more than a million hours of live conversations with our members through the years about what’s important to them in finding a partner and relationships. 2021 will be our best year ever on any measure.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?

Taking responsibility and not assigning blame. Things will not always go smoothly, and the organization needs to know it is free to make mistakes in search of progress.

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?

Have a plan. People are comforted by knowing that the company is being thoughtful and deliberate. Keeping track of progress towards goals can have a great effect on morale.

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

Over-communicate with transparency.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

  1. Hope it will eventually just go away.
  2. Resist learning about it and its implications.
  3. Not paying attention to what your customer is thinking and doing.

Ok. Thank you. 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 pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Stay true to your purpose and don’t confuse technology with strategy. Sometimes when you lose sight of your purpose and just think about how cool the given technology is you can make a major investment that doesn’t make you better at delivering your purpose.
  2. Surround yourself with tech experts that can think strategically and translate complex tech. I’m not an engineer and it’s not productive for the team to teach me at a granular technology level. I need people that can help me understand conceptually well enough to make sound strategic decisions.
  3. Create a base level fluency in the tech relevant to your business. There are certain technologies that are critical to your business, and you need to have a deeper working knowledge of those in order be respected by the team. This can be difficult but is well worth the effort.
  4. Don’t be afraid to invest when necessary and don’t go in halfway. You can waste a tremendous amount of money trying to save money in technology. Pick your investment and do them right.
  5. Understand that tech in itself is not the benefit but rather a tool to help create a benefit(s). Our custom software means little to our clients. What they care about is great matches. The software combined with our expertise is the how; a perfect match is the what. Lots of organizations get so enamored with the tech they try to sell it as a benefit.

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

Be fueled by an inability to leave well enough alone.

How can our readers further follow your work?

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



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