Selling Success

Berny (right) and son Marc Brownstein at their building on Broad Street, home of the Brownstein Group, one of the top city advertising firms.
Berny (right) and son Marc Brownstein at their building on Broad Street, home of the Brownstein Group, one of the top city advertising firms. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)

The Brownstein Group at 50 remains a force in local and national advertising.

Posted: May 19, 2014

This has to get so old for the competition: Another awards season in Philadelphia's advertising community, another satisfying haul for the Brownstein Group.

This year, the 50th anniversary of the city's oldest independent ad agency, Brownstein took home 15 trophies from the Philly Ad Club's March gala, including "Best in Show." That extended Brownstein's ADDY win years to 19 - or every year of the contest.

With the business now in its second generation of Brownstein leadership, the wins were an especially satisfying affirmation that the company of 75 employees and $12.5 million in annual fee income hasn't just survived but remains relevant, said Berny Brownstein, 78, chairman and chief creative officer.

"It's reaching people and motivating them, that's what we're all about," he said of the fundamental goal.

For him, the mission began in the same era highlighted by the Emmy Award-winning television drama series Mad Men, which follows a fictional legion of New York's hard-drinking, chain-smoking advertising warriors in the 1960s.

Brownstein launched his agency in 1964 from his home, at the time in Mount Airy, to bring the high sophistication and creativity of Madison Avenue advertising services to Philadelphia.

How it grew

The pile of brown curls from his big-hair, early-career days is gone, but not his artistic flair - right down to his wardrobe. For a recent interview, he wore jeans cuffed high enough to reveal electric-blue socks. His shirt was open-collared and orange.

Throughout the lobby and three floors the Brownstein Group occupies in the 10-story, red-doored building it owns at 215 S. Broad St., the elder Brownstein's paintings and sketches are on display.

The graduate of the University of the Arts still paints, draws, and exhibits. His studio is in the basement of his Bala Cynwyd home, which he shared with his wife, Beverly, until her death a year ago from breast cancer.

Though art was Brownstein's passion, the reality that he had three children to feed and clothe steered him into the more paycheck-reliable ad business.

He admired the revolutionary, humorous, soft-sell advertising approach of Doyle Dane Bernbach in Manhattan, including its "Think Small" Volkswagen campaign and "We Try Harder" initiative for Avis The latter was candid acknowledgment of the auto-rental company's No. 2-status behind Hertz.

After art director stints in Philadelphia at Lit Bros. department store and then N.W. Ayer & Son, the nation's first advertising agency, Brownstein opened Berny Brownstein Advertising.

He would raise the profile of, for instance, a used-Cadillac dealer in Pennsauken. But the account that he said "vaulted" the firm was Peirce-Phelps Inc., distributor of Zenith electronics and Carrier air conditioners.

Full-page newspaper ads "put them into the No. 1 position in this market" and led to national work for Brownstein from Peirce-Phelps' parent company in Chicago.

Meanwhile, son Marc Brownstein was demonstrating advertising acumen of his own - at 13. He created a colorful hoagie ad for one of his father's clients, Chuckwagon sandwich shops.

The son graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 1981, after which his father wouldn't hire him. He urged him to go to New York to "learn from the big boys," Berny Brownstein recalled.

Marc Brownstein spent eight years as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather, working on such prestigious accounts as American Express and AT&T before his father sent for him. Business was booming and Berny Brownstein needed help or he was going to look to merge his company with another firm, he said.

In 1989, Marc Brownstein joined what he persuaded his father to rename the Brownstein Group. With his father's blessing, Marc Brownstein, 54, president and CEO, steered the agency away from local retail clients to regional and national accounts.

Hershey was among its first substantial gets, followed by Microsoft, Ikea, Comcast, and ESPN, among others. The account the younger Brownstein covets is another local family business success story: Wawa.

Recognizing early the dominant role digital would play in advertising, the Brownstein Group opened Fingerprint Interactive in 1999, the first digital-marketing agency in Philadelphia and one of the first in the country, Marc Brownstein said. Blog-management services and an in-house brand strategy group came next.

"One of the reasons they've succeeded is although they respect their past, they're always evolving," said industry consultant Lonny Strum, former president of Earle Palmer Brown. The largest advertising agency in Philadelphia when Strum led it from 1989 to 1996, Earle Palmer has since closed.

"A 50-year run is impressive," Strum said.

David J. Adelman thinks so, too. He is president and CEO of Campus Apartments, a Philadelphia national student-housing firm that started as a family venture 55 years ago and that has been a Brownstein client for the last eight.

"They were bigger than a small mom-and-pop firm, had the experience of a regional/national firm but yet still gave me the close attention of a smaller business," Adelman said. "I love that facet. No matter how much they've grown, they've kept to their roots."

Mulling the future

To the Brownsteins' relief, younger talent - the average age of their employees is 28 - is easier to attract and keep as Philadelphia has become a more enticing place to live.

"I think younger people like Philadelphia, they like living here. Ten years ago, they didn't," Marc said. "They're staying here and relocating here. It's really cool."

Father and son want the Brownstein agency to stay independent - and hope there's a third generation (currently in other jobs and school) willing to see to it. Not that Gen 1 or 2 have any imminent retirement plans.

"I'm a natural-born salesman," Berny Brownstein said. "I want to die with my boots on."

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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