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“Be Willing To Collaborate With Those Who, At First Glance, Might Seem To Be Competitors” With Greg Stern of BSSP

“Be willing to collaborate with those who, at first glance, might seem to be competitors. Clients demand collaboration among all of their partners. Even beyond that, there’s an opportunity to enhance your own credentials and build better solutions by working together with companies who might do what you do.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Stern, founding partner and CEO of BSSP, who has over 30 years of advertising and marketing experience, both domestically and internationally. Greg’s career has seen him travel the world, working coast to coast across the U.S. as well as a lengthy stint in Southeast Asia. Having co-founded and captained the BSSP ship for the last 25 years, he has also guest lectured at Stanford and Haas (UC Berkeley) Business Schools, is the current Chairman of the 4As (American Association of Advertising Agencies), and is an advisor to various technology start-ups.

What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in LA, the son of a commercial talent agent, so I became familiar with ad agencies and what they did, while working for my father’s talent agency. I went to Brown University, majoring in Political Science, taking many music production courses, and working for the radio station. After college, I was recruited by Ogilvy and started in their Account Management Training Program. I spent almost five years with Ogilvy in New York, working on American Express and Seagram (launching Seagram Golden Wine Coolers with Bruce Willis), and then moved with Ogilvy to Hong Kong and Indonesia, each for three years. After six years overseas (and 10 years with Ogilvy), it was time to find a job back in the US. I was hired by Goodby to run the Sega business, where I met my future business partners, Mike Shine and John Butler. Within two years, I joined them to start Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We have often been ahead of our time, from creating consumer-generated advertising for Converse, well before YouTube was launched, to using existing MINI customers to evangelize and promote the brand. One of our earliest clients was Anheuser-Busch, who hired us to create new brands, based on a regional or specific consumer target opportunity. So, for instance, their Williamsburg, VA bottling plant wasn’t operating at capacity, so we were given the task of developing a Colonial America-themed microbrew, for that region, from that plant. This took us across the country, seeking new brands, product formulations and opportunities for niche beers.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our humility. Mainly because it’s a rarity in this business. We try not to take ourselves too seriously, and put our employees and our clients first. We try to do the best work we possibly can, realizing that advertising, while creative, ultimately is a commercial enterprise. We should probably try to do a better job of calling attention to ourselves.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

We’re finishing up a great content project for Greyhound that demonstrates the amazing and affordable road trips you can take on a Greyhound bus, while staying fairly close to home. This was done with limited production dollars and resources, in partnership with Luis Pena, a former BSSP employee, which makes it even more fun. We’ve recently created new work to support the launch of the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross. We’ve extended the Blue Shield of California brand campaign that is all about maintaining freedom of choice and healthcare as a right, in this divisive political environment. And we’re gearing up for the NBA 2K 19 launch, supporting one of the biggest gaming franchises in the world.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Listen. Trust others. Your gut instinct may be right but validate it. Surround yourself with people who complement you (definitely not those who compliment you). Build a team where you create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Build for who you need to be, not for who you are today.

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?

Both of my parents provided me with unquestioning support. My father, in particular, led by example with entrepreneurial initiative and confidence. Along the way, I had mentors at Ogilvy including Rod Wright, Brendan Ryan and Shelly Lazarus. My BSSP business partners — John Butler, Mike Shine, Ed Cotton and Patrick Kiss allowed us to create a mutual interdependence that has served the company well.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

BSSP continually donates its time and services to pro bono causes. We’re currently working on an assignment for an incredible organization: Crisis Text Line. I would like to think that my support (and my employment) has helped my wife start her non-profit: Project Grace, an organization that takes mothers who have lost a child on service trips to help provide context to their grief. Also, I served on the board of SFJAZZ for 9 years. This organization promotes and presents live jazz and provides jazz education. And music is goodness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each)

  • Hire senior people earlier. There’s a tendency to hire more junior people in the first years of a start-up(for the obvious financial reasons). I think there’s also a psychological component. In fact, by finding that complementary set of talents at a senior level, you have the opportunity to accelerate growth.
  • If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. This applies to team members and business partners/clients. The sooner you eliminate a bad fit, the better.
  • Be willing to collaborate with those who, at first glance, might seem to be competitors. Clients demand collaboration among all of their partners. Even beyond that, there’s an opportunity to enhance your own credentials and build better solutions by working together with companies who might do what you do.
  • Always do your research. We participated in a pitch for a major wireless device company. In the midst of the agency review, they were slapped with a $1Bn+ fine. Had we known that might be coming, we probably would have saved our time and effort and chosen to not participate. Another example: The very first client we pitched was a shampoo brand. We were informed we won, and then we never heard from them again.
  • Keep playing your instrument. Literally. I’ve played music all my life, but with work it always ebbed and flowed. In the last few years I’ve started playing with a band again. Not only is it fun, it’s a great creative outlet, a wonderful way to keep things in perspective, and the team dynamics of a band definitely relate to the workplace. So, if you play, keep playing.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“One chord is fine. Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” — Lou Reed

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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?

I’d like to have breakfast or lunch with Freada Kapor Klein, whom I’ve seen speak, and who is committed to bringing diversity into the rather homogeneous world of venture capital. I believe there would be some very valuable lessons to be learned and applied to my industry.

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