Reflections of a Former Agency Owner

Well, after a 26-year run, I’ve sold my ad agency, db&r. I’m the “b.” My email inbox is filled with congratulatory messages, which I appreciate. But it’s more about what the 26 years represent. 23 years of success with 3 arduous years of setbacks that nearly did us in, an obsession with holding on and making it all work for our clients, the agency, and the individuals who made it possible. It’s a long story. I’ll try to keep it short.

Three people – Joyce DiBona, David Random, and myself – started db&r (DiBona, Bornstein & Random) with our severance from the large agency we had worked at, a handful of clients, a decision to give it a year or so to see what would happen, and a recession that made rent cheap on Newbury Street. Our talents and personalities were complementary, and our values were in alignment: no egos allowed, the best of our large agency capabilities without the potentially toxic large agency mindset, high standards always, personal life comes first (perhaps the biggest challenge), no debt allowed to keep us afloat, and don’t order more reams of paper than we can afford.

Our first big conundrum was how many typewriters should we buy. The second was how we could afford a $12,000 stat camera (then a necessity; soon after, a relic donated to a Boston vocational school). The third was to figure out if we should get computers and what the difference was between a PC and a Mac. The fourth was when to hire a fourth person. A little more perspective:

  • Macs were considered as toys by most “serious” businesses.
  • Your creative lifeline was your type rep who translated designs and specs into ads overnight for hundreds of dollars per layout.
  • Turnaround times were weeks, not hours.
  • Facsimile machines were huge, noisy, and slow.
  • A cellular phone weighed three pounds, got hot in about two minutes of use, and cost several dollars a minute to use. A charged battery could last up to two hours.
  • Ad agencies had a mystique about them. (No one could do what we did, nor worked in the office environment that we had.)
  • Old school mad men were retiring and far less popular than the TV show.
  • Channels meant ABC, CBS, or NBC. That was it.
  • Amazon only referred to a jungle, a river, or a really large and tough woman.

I remember being told by one of my account guys that there was this company I should invest in as soon as it was possible. I thought it was a ridiculous idea. How could you make money on a company with a name like Google?

The fact is that things have never been the same, but they never were. That’s why you’re an agency. db&r thrived on a consistently wonderful staff, clients who appreciated strong work and a straightforward work style (although there was one client who asked us to buy him a set of steak knives from the restaurant we were at – better than asking for something illegal, I guess), and constant change in nearly everything.

People have often asked me if I was having fun. Fun, to me, was playing with my dog. But life at db&r was never boring, and I wanted to be with the people I worked with, every day. So much talent and no two days were the same.

So why decide to sell? As much as I’m averse to clichés, “it was time.” Owning a business is a marriage with obsession…about what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s next; who’s happy, who isn’t, why not; winning business, growing business, keeping business; taking intelligent risks, resisting indulgence…it goes on and has no intermission. I knew I had crossed some invisible threshold to a sensation that I no longer wanted that responsibility and the ever-present business voice in my head, day and night. If you care about the agency, your people, your clients, and yourself, it’s no longer a choice. It just isn’t.

The real choice becomes how to best do it. I believe I did. As far as I’m concerned, in acquisitions as in medicine, first, do no harm. That means keeping people whole, teams intact, values consistent, and clients happy, as well as working with a new owner who’s so smart, energetic, ethical, funny, and engaging that you wish you had been partners all along.

db&r is now part of Hatch. I am now a Creative and Strategy Consultant to Hatch. And I am doing more of what I want to do than I have done in years, and none of what I was really done with. Not yet an exit, but a wonderful strategy.

As for what I’ve learned, those blogs are waiting in line. Meanwhile, what questions can I answer for you? Ask anything.

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What punctuation mark are you?

As a creative person my job is create to connections. Wants to needs, lifestyle to products, aspirations to knowledge, heartstrings to helping. But sometimes it can be hard to turn this creative thought process off. Like on my commute the other day, I had the idea of pairing different types of people (mannerisms, speaking styles, personality types) with different punctuation types. Why, you ask? Why not, I say. A fascinating exercise that netted some interesting and potentially awkward results.

As a note of caution and honesty before you read further, I am a Creative Director who has a general dislike for most punctuation. It’s overused, misused, and often imbued by writers anywhere and everywhere! Maybe it’s just to seem smarter? That said, I just used the word “imbued” to impress you all.

See which one(s) you are and if you’re one of the good ones! Not that I’m biased.


I wonder what Carl Jung would think of this…

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An Integrated Approach: When a Commercial Becomes More Than a Commercial

When we set out to create a new commercial to promote the versatility of Hood Sour Cream, we tapped into creative thinking, proven techniques, and rallied the power of social media to get the word out and engage consumers. And did we ever.

Hood Sour Cream Integrated Approach



Click here to see more of our work with Hood Sour Cream.

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Ingredients: What goes into producing a commercial

What do…

inspiration, 30 seconds, 8 actors, an Art Director’s childhood memory, a classic song from 1961, multiple creative meetings, a man born in 1823, a personal dislike for the polar bear, a tech scout, an unscheduled construction project, a DPW crew to fix it, a rehearsal day, several 40-pound blocks of chocolate, a five person food stylist crew, a 100-pound vat of melted chocolate, 70,000 watts of light, 200 pounds of vanilla ice cream, 50 pounds of ground dry ice, a talent director, a tabletop director, 27 hours on set, a steady cam (with operator), a high-speed camera shooting 1600 frames per second, a choreographer, 2 wardrobe stylists, 2 hair and make-up stylists, 30+ gaffers and grips, an art team, 2 music composers, a craft services table, an editor, a colorist, an animator, several producers, creativity, persistence, and a 167-year old New England tradition all have in common?

They’re all the ingredients needed to introduce you to Harvey. Meet Harvey…

Have you tried one yet?


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The Importance of Expressive Voice; the storytelling of a Maasai woman

We are storytellers. At the heart of what we do in advertising is the creation of a story that we want the listener or viewer to relate to, interact with, or become part of.

Over more than 20 years, I’ve developed a fairly strong sense for the ways to take on this challenge and the talent and tools I can tap into to accomplish it. On the ever-moving technology curve, we have so many sensory cues from all our electronic devices that there seems to be little to do without them.

But my sense of storytelling took on a whole new meaning when I was completely off the grid in a remote northern part of the Serengeti in Tanzania, with no electronics and no way to recharge anything …I sat listening to a Maasai woman tell stories of her childhood, in Swahili (or maybe the Maasai language, Maa). I was mesmerized.

maasai woman & storytelling

This woman, 65-years-old perhaps (they don’t keep track of years), had a nearly shaved head, earlobes stretched by a lifetime of large, heavy and beautifully beaded hanging earrings. She wore wide, flat bead and wire Maasai necklaces, a flowing print wrap of a shapeless dress. And I couldn’t miss her life-experienced sparkling small eyes, her generous smile with large white imperfect teeth, and her large hands and long fingers. She was tall, as most Maasai seem to be.

That was how she looked. How she spoke was something else.

The only words I understood were the ones that could not be translated by a young, elegantly tall and graceful Maasai translator named Johnson, robed in their signature red draped cloth. They weren’t actually words. They were sounds. She told her story by braiding sounds of emotional expression, animals, snoring, breathlessness into her sentences as if they were words.

“My father had me tend the cows mooo, but I kept losing ahhhoooueeee them because I would hachhh fall asleep!”

I can’t replicate it. And it wasn’t just sounds. She was using her body to tell the story as well. I watched her hands waving, clapping and tapping her punctuation. Everything in a continuous flow. She was entirely immersed in the telling, knowing that words, alone, weren’t enough. In fact, using words, alone, was inconceivable.

In a business where we work hard and spend more money in an hour than many Tanzanians make in a month, using every tool and hired talent at our disposal to create the perfect sound to convey the perfect message, none of it is as real as this woman. In our culture where the show can usurp the story (i.e. the recent Oscars on tv), we confuse the two.

Today, I will focus my energies on what I can bring to the creation of a thirty-second television commercial. And the quest that’s more reinforced in me than ever is the need to be the story you’re telling or you just can’t tell it well enough.

Do you know what makes a story work for you? I’d like to know.

Postscript: Ironically, as I drove on the Mass Pike to work this rainy grey morning, the huge WGBH screen that faces the Pike showed elephants foraging across a sunny grassy plain and it instantly transported me back to the Serengeti as I approached the express lane toll. I always go back. Hard to explain in words. That’s another story.


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Recruiting A New Class: The Harvard Ed.L.D.

How do you inspire 500 extraordinarily talented, experienced, and motivated candidates to apply for 25 spots in one of the world’s most innovative education leadership degree programs?

Start with one program (the Harvard Ed.L.D.) and one ad.

A new program created to change things in the American Education System.

And an ad to reawaken the desire to reform education, targeting bright and passionate professionals across diverse backgrounds in education, policy, and business.

Then, after year one, make it bigger.

It was time for another class. A new group willing to uproot their lives, their careers, and move to Cambridge for 3 years, all for a challenging, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become a network of people with the influence to transform children’s futures across America.

So we called on them.

The approach? Create an aggressive digital & inbound marketing strategy that put current students at the center – because they are the story. They’re the ones making the difference. So prospective students needed to identify with them and imagine being part of it too.

Include a targeted digital campaign to focus in on specific demographic and psychographic profiles and obtain a broad range of applicants. The goal of the ad: reignite the drive and desire to change education.


What happens post click? Drive prospective students to an engaging web presence to interact with and re-invigorate their passion, making the degree and its mission relevant and memorable.


A blog, The Ed.L.D. Speaks, to add transparency and give future students a glimpse into a day in the life of an Ed.L.D. Student. A blog to not only showcase what they work on, but also how they manage family/work balance, what makes them tick, and drive traffic to a two-way conversation.


A conversation on the blog and on Twitter, to engage and converse with prospective students and showcase the innovation bred on Appian Way.

EdLD Tweet

Create all of this with one goal in mind: to exceed the number of qualified applicants and increase awareness about the program.

We achieved that goal and positioned HGSE as the leader in education reform, creating a new class, THE New Class, with the energy and intensity necessary to transform education in America.


In the 3rd year of the program, we refreshed the look of The New Class…


targeted a more diverse audience,

and captured the attention of a national audience via paid search.

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Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 3.13.09 PM

And another class will graduate, while yet another begins their journey at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We feel honored and proud to have played a small role in what will be a significant positive change in American Education.



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It’s a Jungle Out There: How to choose the perfect Facebook ad format for your goals

Facebook advertising is more sophisticated than it was a year ago, or even 6 months ago. When advertising was first introduced to the platform, Right-hand Side Ads were the only option, but now the options are almost endless (at least with the various types they seem endless!).

Navigating these different ad options can be tough for a marketer to do without a ton of experience under his belt. There are so many things to consider:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. How are you measuring success?
  3. What kind of content do you have at your disposal?
  4. What kind of content does your target audience engage with the most often?
  5. How do you want users to change with your content?

To help you more easily choose the right ad type for your specific needs, here’s a rundown of the different ad types and the best ways to use them:

Right-hand Side Ads

Right-hand Side Ads

Right-hand Side Ads

These are the traditional ads provided by Facebook that allow advertisers to get in front of users who are on their desktop devices. The important word here being…DESKTOP. They aren’t served on mobile devices, so if you’re trying to reach people when they’re on the go, this is not the best option for you. Also consider that at the end of January 2014, Facebook mobile users surpassed desktop users.

Right-hand Side Ads work well as a means of awareness and continuity for the rest of your campaigns – they’re a great way to keep your brand and message top of mind throughout your campaign.

With a platform like AdRoll, you can use Right-hand Side Ads to retarget users and get them back to your website or landing page to achieve higher CTRs and engagement rates.

Facebook Promoted Post Ads – Link & Image

Recently, Facebook changed its algorithm (EdgeRank), making it nearly impossible for brands to appear in a user’s News Feed without serving an ad. So, if you want to make sure your post gets seen, you’re going to need to put some money toward it. The good news is that promoted posts (when done correctly) are very engaging and see low CPCs.

There are two different types of Promoted Posts to use for different purposes.

Image Promoted Posts

Image Promoted Posts

Image Promoted Posts used to be the only option for Promoted Posts. This was based on the knowledge that users interacted with image posts more often than link or text posts. In fact, photos on Facebook generate 53% more Likes than the average post. So if you’re looking for user engagement in the form of page Likes, post Likes, comments, or shares, Image Promoted Posts are a great way to go.

The one downside to Image Promoted Posts is that you cannot ensure a click to your landing page or Facebook tab with one of these posts. When a user clicks on the image, he or she is taken to a larger version of the picture, not to your website, so there is no way to guarantee that a user actually gets to your site. When bidding on a CPC basis with these posts, you aren’t paying for a click to your landing page, you’re paying for a bigger image view.

The best way use Image Promoted Posts is to increase your Page Likes or interactions with your brand in general, as they garner more shares and Likes (in my experience) than any other format.

Link Promoted Posts

Facebook Link Promoted Post

Facebook Link Promoted Post

A month or so after Facebook introduced the new link post format with much larger images, they also introduced Link Promoted Posts. Like Image Promoted Posts, Link Promoted Posts can be served to users on both mobile and desktop devices and are best used for directing users to another landing page or Facebook Tab, because no matter where a user clicks on your post, he will be directed to your landing page. In that vein, if you’re measuring success by the amount of leads your campaign as generated, or entries your contest received then Link Promoted Posts are the most efficient use of your budget.

Facebook has also introduced Cost Per Action bidding, which allows an advertiser to pay only when a user has visited your website or when a user completes some pre-determined action (like filling out a form). In my experience, though, the average cost per action is much higher than your average cost per click AND Facebook will generally serve fewer impressions of your ad because they’re not guaranteed to make as much money off of it.

Page Like Ads & App Install Ads

There are a few other ad types I haven’t mentioned, like Page Like Ads & App Install Ads. As their names suggest, Page Like Ads are used to help you generate more Likes to your page and App Install Ads (allowed only on mobile devices) are used to advertise a new app to user.

The best campaigns use a mixture of all of these ad formats (except for the App Install Ads, which don’t apply to all situations). As they all serve a different purpose, they’re complementary in that manner – Increase awareness with Right-hand Side Ads, increase user engagement with Image Promoted Posts and, further down the funnel, capture a user’s information with link promoted posts.

What other questions do you have about the different Facebook ad types?

We’re more than happy to answer them – just tweet @dbrboston.



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