Adam Birenbaum is betting on David Levin to be his J. Pierrepont Finch but to succeed by really trying

October 10, 2013 — 5:19 AM UTC by Lisa Shidler

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Dina’s Note: The following article reminds this Broadway buff of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.” In that splendid musical satire of corporate Darwinism, J. Pierrepont Finch rises from window washer to the mail room to the executive suite in a single week at the generic conglomorate World-Wide Wickets. But his meteoric trajectory is almost scuttled by one misstep — getting himself appointed vice president of advertising. Some of the particular pitfalls inherent in that precarious post are described in Lisa’s story below. In the end, Finch prevails; he saves his own bacon by stealing an idea from a colleague that involves sponsoring at TV game show event featuring a nationwide treasure hunt — a lot like that “Million Second Quiz” NBC was promoting like mad earlier this fall. But then that backfired and … well, it all comes right and our hero ends up as CEO of the company. We’ll be watching to see how Levin fares.

Adam Birenbaum is taking a page from the Victor Kiam playbook; he liked the work of his marketing agency so much he bought the company — or at least secured the talents of its founder and leader.

The chief executive of Buckingham Asset Management LLC has hired David Levin and tasked him with an ambitious goal: Propel the $20 billion firm to a $100 billion RIA with name recognition among retail consumers.

Birenbaum likes Levin more than a Remington razor because Buckingham of St. Louis got to test drive Levin’s Chicago-based 11 Communications.

Levin helped create the marketing strategy for its BAM Alliance, the overall group that includes both Buckingham’s turnkey asset management program and its RIA. The BAM Alliance just surpassed the milestone of $20 billion in collective assets — nearly $6 billion at Buckingham and more than $14 billion across BAM. See: Top 5 most influential RIA figures of 2012 going into 2013. As head of 11 Communications he also handled marketing projects for companies such as Microsoft, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo., McDonald’s and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Not wanting to share Levin with the Fortune 500, Birenbaum persuaded Levin to close his shop and move back to his hometown of St. Louis to head up marketing full-time for his RIA.

Household name

The Levin hire is part of a larger strategy to create a national firm known by consumers, says Birenbaum, and the plan is contingent upon using marketing as the fuel injection for reaching the loftiest of goals for an industry known to be conscientious but cottage

“The foot is still on the pedal and we’re moving fast and furiously. That’s why I’m bringing in a guy like David Levin,” he says. “We ultimately dream of a $100 billion vision. Someone will emerge from the RIA space to be the size and scale to compete with the largest wirehouses — so why not us?” See: Buckingham Asset Management creates a structure with Focus Financial that enables it to roll-up the 120 RIAs that entrust it with $13 billion of DFA TAMP assets.

'Why not us?

One of the many Fortune 500 companies Levin worked with was Nintendo. He worked with the game software’s global executive team leading the creative and strategic direction of the global launch of the Wii and DS gaming systems. He also worked closely with Microsoft for several years on the launch and roll-out of their biggest-selling software including Sharepoint and Exchange. Additionally, Levin has worked with a number of global healthcare organizations developing sales and marketing communications strategies for multi-billion dollar products such as Pevacid, Actos and Humira.

But he also feels that he’s using a different strategy with Buckingham than what he did with other firms. It comes down to having a hand in both form and function, a Zen Oneness in a dualistic world.

“For us, marketing goes well beyond what’s commonly expected in terms of eye-catching design and great messaging. Marketing is an essential tool — a critical part of the engine — that will power us forward and help us meaningfully connect with as many investors as possible,” Levin says. “For the BAM Alliance, effective marketing is about telling our story as innovatively and widely as possible, and then keeping our promises by delivering a client experience that’s second to none.”

David Levin: I wake up every day thinking about the 17,000 clients BAM Alliance firms currently serve and how we can expand that to 50,000 clients and 100,000 clients and 1 million clients and beyond.
David Levin: I wake up every
day thinking about the 17,000 clients
BAM Alliance firms currently serve and
how we can expand that to
50,000 clients and 100,000 clients and
1 million clients and beyond.

McDonald’s template

One of the first things that Levin worked on when he started at the firm in March was a road map spelling out the firm’s policies for Twitter, websites and other social media strategies. “We put together a guide on how to use social media and how-to-guides,” Levin says. “Literally, the range on staff was from Twitter masters to people who say, 'what’s a Twitter?” See: RIAs recount how they reap new clients using LinkedIn and Twitter, stealing a march on shackled wirehouse advisors.

Levin says the firm is trying to map out consistent processes concerning social media and client communications so that all its advisors are giving the same experience to clients. For instance, he wants to make sure that all clients receive the same e-mails, phone calls etc. That consistency is important part of marketing because it is how the company presents itself. It’s a strategy being used by other growth-minded RIAs looking to go national, firms like United Capital (See: United Capital’s Joe Duran throttles back on deals as he opens an RIA version of Hamburger University) and Ric Edelman: See: The 10 most influential figures in the RIA business going into 2012, Part 2..

'All-star’ social media bench

One weapon at BAM’s disposal is a team of wordsmiths includingHuffington Post blogger Dan Solin and author and blogger Carl Richards, as well as Buckingham principal Larry Swedroe, who writes a blog for CBSnews.com and has penned more than a dozen books. See: A $17-billion RIA doubles down on a social media strategy that netted it 50 Facebook employees.

“You want to make sure there’s a straight line from marketing activity to revenue, otherwise in an organization like that where most people are producers, you are viewed as overhead,” Allen says.

Consulting the Rudy

Before pulling the switch on the Levin hire, Birenbaum consulted the executives at partner firm Focus Financial Partners LLC, including chief executive Rudy Adolf, helped his firm with this hiring decision. See: Buckingham Asset Management creates a structure with Focus Financial that enables it to roll-up the 120 RIAs that entrust it with $13 billion of DFA TAMP assets.

“We wanted the opportunity to reach and expand our story and to help our BAM firms,” Birenbaum says. “It became critical. But as we looked around the industry, there was just no one who has success in the RIA industry. The executives at Focus were instrumental in bringing David to the table. We consulted with Rudy Adolf and others before we brought David over. This is the biggest hire we’ve made in terms of bringing someone over from the outside.”

Megan Carpenter: Buckingham looks more like a Fortune 500 than your average RIA.
Megan Carpenter: Buckingham looks more like
a Fortune 500 than your average
RIA.

Fortune 500-like RIA

Indeed, there are few RIAs like Buckingham that have the scale, resources and capital needed to recruit and hire a full-time chief marketing officer, says Megan Carpenter, partner of FiComm Partners, a communication firm in Los Angeles.

“With their multiple lines of business, well-defined consumer segments, and need for multi-brand management, Buckingham looks more like a Fortune 500 than your average RIA. Where most RIAs would scratch their heads at distribution channel management, product development, and corporate character, Buckingham appears to be marching forward on an aggressive, yet extremely strategic, business plan involving these components,” Carpenter says. See: Fidelity and TD Ameritrade show new teeth in RIA advertising — albeit with giraffes, and children on summer porches.

Marketing gets no respect

Pat Allen, founder of Chicago-based Rock the Boat Marketing, points out that in sales-driven companies like an RIA, the marketing team is often looked down upon because firms don’t understand the value of marketers.

“Marketing is rarely the hero and marketing in a sales environment is sales support,” Allen says. “Whether they like it or not, it’s support for sales. Oftentimes, marketing comes along and it looks like it’s a layer and it looks like they’re making a big deal out of things and others say, 'Why is marketing making such a big deal out of things.’” See: Envestnet goes back to its un-marketing marketing approach as Marion Asnes (mostly) leaves and her CMO spot gets deleted.

Access to the top guy

Pat Allen: Marketing is rarely the hero and marketing in a sales environment is sales support. Whether they like it or not, it's support for sales.
Pat Allen: Marketing is rarely the
hero and marketing in a sales
environment is sales support. Whether they
like it or not, it’s support
for sales.

But Levin feels that he has excellent support from Buckingham and says that since he joined his team at Buckingham has been sending out 11 original pieces of content each week.

“The confidence the firm has in our marketing team inspires us every day. From our most senior founding principals to our newest associates, everyone has embraced the role that marketing plays in our firm’s ability to reach its goals. Our team is actively engaged in virtually every area of the organization,” Levin says.

Top dollar for talent

Carpenter points out that the move is risky even to the firm, given that chief marketing officers don’t come cheap.

“Talented chief marketing officers certainly were not likely looking to the RIA space for their next career move, and even the most advanced RIAs would have viewed the position as an unnecessary luxury,” Carpenter says. See: LPL’s marketing destiny got reshaped by a dark horse in a dark room.

“Buckingham’s hire must have been, and will continue to be, a significant investment ... There is the risk that David Levin may not be able to transfer the success he’s had in consumer brands to the RIA space. No RIA has been successful from a marketing perspective in crossing the great brand divide to effectively resonate with the public at large. There is no RIA that is a household name with consumers nationwide; that brand recognition just doesn’t exist.” See: The hedge fund legal elite meet in NYC to wrestle with a terrifying new threat — RIA-like accountability.

Joe Anthony: Part of the continued evolution of the independent RIA channel is that these firms need to be taking a more sophisticated approach to marketing.
Joe Anthony: Part of the continued
evolution of the independent RIA channel
is that these firms need to
be taking a more sophisticated approach
to marketing.

The great divide

Levin concedes it is an uphill battle trying to create consumer awareness of an RIA.

“It is true that in our particular space, one particular leader has not emerged,” Levin says. “We’ve got the attitude that it should be us, and we’re working to position that. The story we have to tell is so compelling and I believe is a unique story. I think it’s finding the right combination of tools and strategies and tactics to get our message out there. It’s an appropriate goal and it’s what gets me up every morning: how we can position the BAM Alliance front and center to the investing public.”

About time

RIAs can’t continue to operate with a small-business mindset if they expect to compete with those popular financial brands, says Joe Anthony, senior vice president of Gregory FCA Communications.

“Part of the continued evolution of the independent RIA channel is that these firms need to be taking a more sophisticated approach to marketing while incorporating an increasingly complex array of tools at their advisory’s disposal,” he says. See: Top 10 ways financial advisers can 'market smarter’ — and enjoy it more in 2012.

“Our clients have done well by having a devoted marketing executive run this business function with the same level of accountability the compliance and technology functions are expected to adhere to. For some firms, the investment will need to go beyond having a CMO, but giving that marketing executive the tools to be successful.”

First things first

But Levin says that first and foremost he’s trying to ensure that Buckingham keeps all of its current clients happy and by doing that, the firm will ultimately grow. And Birenbaum isn’t counting simply on marketing alone to grow the company. He also plans to bring aboard more advisors to both Buckingham and BAM. Buckingham has 30 wealth advisors and 20 portfolio advisors. At BAM, the company provides services to 130 independent RIA firms. See: Focus Financial gets a long-sought $400 million DFA RIA in Dallas — with Adam Birenbaum’s firm as the final added ingredient.

“Frankly, just like my colleagues on the leadership team, I do not wake up every morning thinking about a goal of $100 billion in assets under management—-I wake up every day thinking about the 17,000 clients BAM Alliance firms currently serve and how we can expand that to 50,000 clients, 100,000 clients and 1 million clients and beyond.”


Mentioned in this article:

BAM Advisor Services
TAMP
Top Executive: Mont Levy

Gregory FCA Communications
Public Relations Firm, Blog/Social Networking Tool
Top Executive: Joe Anthony

Focus Financial Partners, LLC
Consolidator/Roll-up Firm
Top Executive: Rudy Adolf



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