Lamar Advertising CEO: “Every organization needs to be a learning organization”

Sean Reilly, CEO of Lamar Advertising Company
Sean Reilly, CEO of Lamar Advertising Company

The business landscape is littered with the carcasses of companies (think Sears and Blockbuster Video) that failed to transform their operations to keep up with a changing marketplace. Adapting to such change is hard, says Lamar Advertising president and CEO Sean Reilly, which is why, he said, “every organization needs to be a learning organization.”

But learning and changing do not come without risk, according to Reilly, who knows firsthand from the transformation of his 120-year-old billboard advertising company. He says you need to instill a corporate culture “that encourages people to take a chance” if you are going to innovate and stay ahead of the pack.

Reilly offered his insights into innovation and organizational transformation on the November episode of the 21st Century Business Forum, a free webcast that features monthly one-on-one interviews with some of the nation’s most prominent business minds and thought leaders. Click here to watch the program with Reilly on demand.

For Lamar, the most important change it has undertaken this century is its pioneering efforts to create large-format digital billboards. Reilly said Lamar put up the first digital billboard in 2004.

“It cost $500,000,” Reilly said. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing. But we were willing to experiment. We were willing to take a chance.”

“And as we learned more about its capabilities and more about what our customers wanted out of it, we greatly refined the model,” he said. “And today, it’s the standard of the industry.”

A company that for decades had relied on paper and paste billboards for most of its business now operates the largest network of digital billboards in the world, according to Reilly.

“It is generating great revenues for Lamar, but more importantly, great results for our customers. They love it,” he said.

However, the move toward digital billboards wasn’t easy, Reilly noted. That’s because innovation “isn’t just about hardware and software,” the CEO said. “It’s also about people” and their willingness to learn and adapt, he said.

“Our account executives had to get comfortable selling it,” Reilly said. Our ops (operations) people had to get comfortable servicing it.” That means it took “a bottom-up transformation of our corporate culture to allow us to really maximize the technology and software” that Lamar had developed, he said.

Because of Lamar’s adherence to a bottom-up organizational style, “you can’t have heavy-handed rules and regs coming out of corporate,” Reilly said. “Rather, what you need is sort of a service ethic” where the staff at the corporate level works “to help our people in the field to be the best they can be.”

“If you want to know the secret sauce, that’s it,” Reilly said.

Also critical to Lamar’s success in attracting and retaining good people is that “we religiously promote from within,” Reilly said.

“The typical entry-level job at Lamar is account executive, and just about every one of our general managers at Lamar started as account executives,” said Reilly, who noted that the average tenure of a Lamar general manager is over 25 years, and the average tenure of a Lamar regional manager, of which there are six, is more than 35 years.

Such longevity is why Reilly can say with confidence, “If you have the right people on the bus, then the learning happens.”

The Business Forum is presented by BizTimes Media and sponsored by Johnson Financial Group.

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