Mike Lescarbeau is what many would call a people person. With 40 years in the advertising industry — including more than a decade as a top leader of prominent Twin Cities firm Carmichael Lynch — Lescarbeau has spent a lifetime wooing clients, rubbing shoulders with competitors and also navigating an aggressive hiring culture where highly coveted creatives regularly move from agency to agency. In April, Lescarbeau announced he would leave advertising and start an employee-engagement firm called Person. The firm will provide consulting on retention and inclusion, issues that have been focuses of Lescarbeau’s, to a wide range of businesses and offer services like implicit-bias training and diversified-staffing help.
Q: What do you think has changed the most about the advertising industry compared to when you first started?
A: Just everything. What do you say? Where do you begin? The main thing is the way messages are delivered to people. The way the media landscape changed over the years changed every dynamic there is, and it’s still changing. That was the biggest piece of it. What’s a constant is that you still have the distinct advantage if you have messaging — or people messaging on your behalf — now through social and you are doing it in a way that’s just more interesting than other people. It gets you an outsized share of attention. It’s a lot more about number of followers than number of viewers anymore, and I think that’s a huge change.
Q: Do you feel nostalgic about any aspects of advertising from the past that no longer exist?
A: I don’t. The last 10 or 11 years of my career I wasn’t a creative in the direct sense. I didn’t have that, “Man, I wish I could just write a radio commercial the same way.” I always saw a lot of danger in being nostalgic about it. It’s a death sentence that just defines you as someone who was more useful once upon a time. I think more than that most creative folks and agency folks are really always interested in what’s next so they are driven toward new things. They get bored easily and would want to try something new. Right now you see that happening with AI [artificial intelligence] and VR [virtual reality] and social a few years ago and prior to that the digital revolution. They have all been kind of exciting for ad folks. Threatening sure, but that’s more to the business models than to the folks who want to make cool work.
Q: What’s the idea behind the Person firm?
A: What I think we discovered at Carmichael is that we really have to allow people to have a sense of personal fulfillment in their work. They are allowed to bring something unique based on who they are, their background, etc., to their work and can be proud of that and can see their effect on the whole company based on just who they are. If you are going to value people bringing something unique to the firm, then you have to be able to appreciate them bringing something you don’t already have or something that doesn’t match up to your own experience. That means you are going to have to be the kind of organization that welcomes people challenging you and making their own personal contribution as opposed to just looking how they are going to fit in. That’s a real distinction. I think at one point we decided we are going to stop hiring for fit — like, she thinks like we do, she belongs here — and more toward contribution. What can this person bring us that we don’t have already? Person is an employee engagement firm that is going to help retain their employees longer, build a deeper connection with those employees, enable them to do their jobs better.
Q: Are you going to focus on advertising firms?
A: No. Quite the opposite. I’m trying to avoid at the onset here the advertising and marketing world because the need is so much more universal than that. And also because I think I will learn more as I work with hospital groups and investment firms. We all have our blind spots. I have yet to find anybody in any industry who says what we ought to do is keep the women out of the powerful positions, keep people of color out. Everybody talks this talk of wanting diversity. But where it gets controversial is the steps that you are going to have to take to make that happen. It’s going to be more work. You are going to have to go out of your way to build your networks differently, and it costs money and takes time.
Q: What about the current job market and low unemployment rate struck you?
A: The implied contract between employers and employees has changed. Job security is gone. Pensions have gone. And employers shouldn’t be surprised that loyalty is gone, too. People have to feed themselves, so they are going to look for the best opportunities out there. I saw a lot of frustration with managers through the years, particularly with the millennials. They blame the generation. I think it’s more the times we are in when young people are saying, “Yeah, I’ll be loyal for two to three years, and if there is something better, see you later.” The challenge is how do I keep you longer than that assuming I want you? How do I keep this interesting for you? What we discovered was it wasn’t the parties. It wasn’t the perks necessarily. It’s really allowing people to be their authentic selves at work.