CEO of Digital Marketing Agency Created Best Workplace for Millennials

Elite SEM works with more than 200 clients — Anytime Fitness, Hugo Boss, Pandora, the NFL, Etsy, Tommy Bahama, USA Today, the WNBA, Lilly Pulitzer, Barneys and Gannett, to name a few — with company revenues above $20 million. 

Ben Kirshner knows what his employees’ time and dedication are worth — so he made a business model around that.
Kirshner, 38, is the founder and CEO of Elite SEM, a performance-driven digital marketing agency that specializes in search engine marketing using both paid and organic searches.
Originally from Dresher — a graduate of Upper Dublin High School and then The George Washington University — he started the company in 2004 in New York City.
Since then, the business has expanded to seven other offices in San Francisco; Atlanta; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Los Angeles; Toronto; Austin, Texas; and, most recently, Philadelphia.
“Our Philadelphia office is now one of our main hubs where we just opened 7,000-square-feet right above El Vez on 13th and Sansom,” Kirshner said. That’s right in the middle of the local tech community.
Elite SEM works with more than 200 clients — Anytime Fitness, Hugo Boss, Pandora, the NFL, Etsy, Tommy Bahama, USA Today, the WNBA, Lilly Pulitzer, Barneys and Gannett, to name a few — with company revenues above $20 million. 
There are about 140 employees overall, with about 91 percent of them being millennials. The average age is 29.
“Philadelphia has a lot of talent. Also, Philadelphia provides a better cost of living compared to our other offices,” he said of his employees. 
And the employees are his biggest concern at Elite SEM.
“There’s a lot of great talent in the Philadelphia area, so we wanted to create a great environment to track that talent.”
Fortune magazine recently named Elite SEM the top place for millennials to work, which Kirshner credits to his employees or, as he calls them, “heroes.” 
“Our business is all about our people,” he continued. “Our people are our most important assets. And so my philosophy is if you create a great work environment, you’ll attract great employees, which, in turn, will be happy employees, which, in turn, will make happy customers because they’ll work really hard for their clients. I think that focusing on the employees first and putting them in the spotlight and making them the most important part of what we do has really been the reason for our success and our growth over the last 10 years.”
Employees are paid based on a meritocracy system. 
“We have people who show true entrepreneurial spirit. They’re entrepreneurs within our organization. They have the autonomy to do what they need to do to make the clients happy,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if they help make their client a lot of money and [clients] pay the firm a lot more money, [employees] make more money.”
Clients hire the account managers for their team, and Kirshner said if the managers are motivated, they’re going to go the extra mile.
“They feel the ups, and they feel the downs. So we just have a very unique culture in the way we incentivize people. It’s really important that the people we hire, we retain and treat them well, so they are ultimately motivated to do a great job for their clients,” he added.
Employees can mold the perfect position for themselves — a pretty impressive perk — as well as benefits like phantom shares in the company, unlimited paid sick and vacation time, and any millennial’s favorite perk, free lunch.
The average turnover rate of employees in the agency world is about 30 percent. But at Elite SEM, it’s less than 1 percent.
“It’s one of our competitive advantages, that we retain our people compared to other agencies.”
Kirshner added that they consistently ask employees for their opinions and feedback and often make improvements based upon that, building a lot of trust and respect in the process.
Millennials also appreciate the transparency and flexibility of this type of work environment.
“It’s really a humbling experience to win the award. I never imagined when I started my business that it would be ranked the No. 1 employer to work for by Fortune magazine, so it’s definitely a humbling experience and I’m very grateful for employees rating us so high,” he said.
About 20 people work in the Philadelphia office, which opened in 2011, but Kirshner hopes to expand to about 60. 
He commutes to the New York City branch a handful of times a month from his home in Gladwyne.
Since moving to the suburbs four years ago, Kirshner said he got more involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia as well. 
He recently traveled to Israel on a Jewish Federation’s Men’s Mission in April. 
“I’m much more involved in helping to support [Jewish] Federation’s mission. I’ve been able to see firsthand what the money from [Jewish] Federation goes to,” he said.
Kirshner’s connection to Israel was formed in childhood, he said.
“I guess what really got me connected to Israel was in high school, I won an Alexander Muss High School [study abroad program] in Israel back in 1995,” he said.
“I was always very fascinated with Israel; a lot of the high-tech innovation coming out of Israel always fascinated me. I always wanted to be involved in high-tech in some way or another,” he recalled.
“Now the way I’m involved is helping high-tech companies get found on Google,” he said, adding that they help companies acquire new customers, though it’s not limited to just high-tech companies.
“Having that connection to Israel, learning a lot about high-tech in the mid ’90s, late ’90s, kind of piqued my interest in technology. I guess Israel deserves some credit for me wanting to get into the tech space,” he laughed.
Kirshner continues to stay connected: His 6-year-old daughter will be starting first grade at Perelman Jewish Day School, and his 3-year-old daughter attends preschool at Har Zion Temple, where they are members.
Whether in the Jewish community or in the marketing world, Kirshner said he is humbled by the attention his efforts are generating.
“I’ve been humbled before in the past where large companies have come to look at us to maybe potentially acquire us. And at the end of the meeting they say, ‘We can’t acquire you because you’d destroy our company. You have 100-and-so employees and we have 700 employees, and if we had to give the perks and benefits to all 700 of our employees, we would go bankrupt,’” he recalled. “So I kind of took that as a compliment that they couldn’t acquire us because we treat our people so well.” 
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