A Q&A with AbelsonTaylor’s New President
With the announcement that Jeff Berg is the new president of AbelsonTaylor, Med Ad News took the opportunity to ask Berg about his future plans for the agency, how he approaches leadership, and how healthcare advertising is changing,
As president, do you have any specific initiatives you would like to get off the ground?
Prior to moving into this position, I had begun to implement a number of change initiatives at the agency along with our senior leadership team. First and foremost was a SWOT initiative, where we brought in outside consultants to take a long hard look at the things we were doing well and areas for improvement. It was a fairly comprehensive analysis that incorporated feedback from current and former staff, clients, industry experts and competitors. We routinely collaborate with clients on SWOT exercises for their brands, but it certainly feels different when your agency is being evaluated. While the results weren’t necessarily a surprise, it often takes an independent lens to help jumpstart change.
After an in-depth review of the results, we began to create five workstreams to address current and future changes we need to make to continue providing our clients with industry-leading solutions. For me, one of the most exciting workstreams is the enhancement of our data analytics capabilities. We have also begun an organic growth initiative to refocus our efforts on providing additional value to our current clients. And we’re creating an updated set of best practices. We have excellent momentum on implementation of these initiatives, which will position us for a strong finish to 2019 and a great start heading into 2020.
How would you describe yourself as a manager? What can AT employees and clients expect to see?
I enjoy collaborating with people on ideas and inspiring them to think differently about problems. Mark Goulston, in his book Just Listen, suggests managers ask their staff the following “Impossibility Question.” Here’s how it works:
YOU: What’s something that would be impossible to do, but if you could do it, would dramatically increase your success?
OTHER PERSON: If I could just do ____ , but that’s impossible.
YOU: Okay. What would make it possible?
It’s a question I often ask, and I find that once people are in that what-would-make-it-possible frame of mind, barriers vanish and solutions start to emerge.
Our agency staff would probably characterize my style as MBWA – Management by Walking Around. Many years ago, when I worked at Allegiance Healthcare, now part of Cardinal Health, I heard then-CEO Bob Walter speak about the importance of forcing yourself to be inefficient. He was referring to making time to see customers even if it meant not sitting at your desk cranking out e-mails or writing reports. Informal conversations with customers and employees generate ideas that don’t lend themselves to formal, structured settings. I often learn more in a hallway conversation than sitting in an all-day meeting.
Employees and clients can expect to see more of me asking a lot of question with the intent of understanding the problems they are facing and listening without judgment. I may not have all the answers, but I want to inspire people to find ways of solving problems themselves.
What do you think the future of AT (and of the healthcare advertising business overall) looks like?
The change initiatives we are putting into place, combined with our nearly 40-year record of helping our clients build successful brands, bode well for the future. But we need to continue to evolve and focus on change. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, speaking about the technology space, said, “Our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation.”
Technology and advertising have collided, and we need to continue to reinvent the way we think about our business and our clients’ businesses to provide creative solutions. I emphasize “creative” because it has a double meaning for what we do at AbelsonTaylor – the creative words, images and ideas that reflect the brands we help promote, and the creative answers to our clients’ business problems.
To help nurture the spirit of positive change, we will be moving to a fantastic new space, Chicago’s famous Old Post Office, in February. It will dramatically change the way we interact and collaborate. The new space is being designed with a “maker” esthetic intended to do two things:
1) Take down the walls that divide us, not to just foster better collaboration, but to give added visibility, access and inspiration to the work that’s taking place across the entire agency.
2) Create flexibility by giving staff a number of different workspace options (workstation, team rooms, quiet rooms, etc.) so they can decide on any given day, week, or month the type of space they need for the type of work they need to accomplish.
As for the future of the healthcare advertising business, I remain optimistic. However, it’s important to remember that healthcare advertising is in the crosshairs of two industries undergoing seismic changes. In healthcare, the latest gene therapy treatment is reported to be priced at $2 million. In advertising, more and more companies are establishing in-house agencies to address their needs. For healthcare agencies to survive and thrive they must continue to innovate and clearly articulate their value proposition.
What do you expect to accomplish in the first 100 days? The first year?
I’m hoping to instill a spirit of excitement about the new initiatives being undertaken. Change can be as unsettling as it is inevitable. In the first hundred days, I expect we’ll be well on our way to implementation of the solutions outlined by our senior managers to address the areas where we need improvement. We will share our goals with the entire agency and then each team will be held accountable for achieving the results.
The model of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) described by John Doerr in his book Measure What Matters is where we are heading. We began last year by setting three high-level objectives for the agency and have been tracking progress and sharing the results internally. The full realization of this process involves everyone establishing OKRs on an individual level in concert with those established by management. This will require a significant change in the way we think, and a cultural change, but we already have some momentum.
What are the things you believe make AT great? What would you like to improve?
For nearly four decades, Dale Taylor has led AT to steady acclaim and built a culture that is unique and enviable. That culture is rooted in the people who work at the agency. I’m a social animal and derive much of my inspiration from the talented people I have the opportunity to work with on a daily basis. People are proud to be part of this organization and have a high level of expectation about the work we produce. So I firmly believe that AbelsonTaylor’s people are what make it great. Where we can improve is in challenging our own beliefs and not falling into repetitive communication patterns. We need to improve our internal feedback mechanism and communicate with a greater degree of radical candor.