In Conversation With Jamie Edwards, Chief Executive Officer, MediaCom
Knightsbridge: You started as a consultant to MediaCom. What were your first impressions and how did you come to run the Canadian operation?
Jamie Edwards: Historically, MediaCom Canada had been a very successful, very dominant, media planning and buying company that was held up as a benchmark in the Canadian advertising industry for many years. However, the business had been losing clients for the three years prior to my arrival in November 2010, losing $300m plus in client billings, and employee engagement was at an all time low.
I was asked by the Global CEO of MediaCom to come to Canada to help the Canadian CEO and the leadership team to re-think their new business process. At the time I was not a MediaCom employee, but I had 18 years of experience in the media business. During that consulting engagement, I was getting broader questions from the regional and global CEO regarding what was wrong with the business overall and what they needed to do to fix it.
From what I witnessed, the Canadian leadership team was dysfunctional. There was no sense of vision, clarity of purpose, or teamwork. On top of that the product suite was outdated. Overall the business had clearly lost its way. In response, I wrote a one-pager for regional and global management on what I thought was needed to reignite this business.
At the end of my assignment, I was invited to New York to talk with MediaCom’s Global CEO, the North American CEO and the North American CEO of our holding company GroupM. They said ‘Look, we don’t want you to consult for us any more; we want you to run the Canadian operation as CEO. We want you to turn it around and future proof the business. We want you to reignite the passion and put it back in the number one position.’
It was quite an intriguing proposition because MediaCom’s global philosophy is “people first, better results”, and I had just finished a six-month training course in coaching that had really changed my style as a leader. I was looking for an opportunity to bring a culture of coaching into a business on a large scale.
I was convinced I could lead like a coach in an industry that generally has a reputation as being quite narcissistic and where leadership styles are more direct than collaborative. I was convinced that we could win clients and deliver high performance by taking a different approach.
KHCS: How negative was the culture at MediaCom?
JE: After MediaCom Network, with its 89 offices worldwide, purchased MBS six years ago, many things seemed to go wrong at the Canadian operation.
What you tend to find is that local management transition out shortly after a purchase and the people left behind are still rallying around the old cause that doesn’t align with the new company that owns the business. In our case, clients were leaving at an alarming rate, our reputation in the market had soured, and employee engagement scores were some of the lowest in the world out of our 89 offices. The facts spoke for themselves.
I think underneath it all, the ‘people first’ culture was there, but the appropriate behaviors and values weren’t being celebrated and integrated into the DNA of the company or modeled by our leaders and key influencers. In response, we undertook a structured and facilitated review of our values over three months. We wanted to really get to the essence of what our values were locally to ensure our staff ‘owned’ them.
In the end we arrived at passion, imagination, courage, teamwork and performance as our values. A lot of people are going to wonder, ‘what does that really mean? They are just words aren’t they?’ The answer is no. Each value has a ‘descriptor’ and three very clear behavioral expectations associated with it.
We’re very clear on our values now, and most importantly, we’re very clear on the behaviors we expect and model in the company to make those values real. Those behaviors fuel our culture. We hire against our values and behaviors so that we attract a certain type of person. We also bonus against the behaviors we expect. All our annual and ongoing rewards programs are built around our values and behaviors so we’re constantly celebrating them and reinforcing them in the business.
KHCS: How have things changed since you came on board?
JE: What we’ve done is translated the “people first” culture into a brand promise we call “igniting and delivering growth.” The reason I keep it broad and not just media focused is that in our company we obsess around three things: growing our people, growing our clients, and growing our business.
I believe that as CEO, I’m responsible for developing, training, motivating, and providing every opportunity for growth to our people.
As a result, we’ve delivered 20 percent profit-before-tax growth year over year since January 2011. That’s significant against the background of a company that hadn’t won any new business in the three years before I arrived. In the last three years we’ve pretty much won every major pitch we’ve been invited to: CIBC, Mars Wrigley and Yum Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC) to name a few.
At the same time, we have increased the training budget eight-fold. In a public company, you know that if you aren’t growing the business, it’s going to be tougher to get money to spend on training your people.
It’s tough, but we’ve pushed hard on getting significant investment approved. We’ve implemented an online electronic 360-performance review system. Everybody has a one-page development plan, five performance goals, and a personal annual training objective. We also have a rigorous training program covering nine skill and competence areas.
We’ve also gone from one and a half HR administrators to a team of five talent experts who obsess around implementing our people programs and being there for the staff. That’s a significant investment in a business like ours. I don’t believe you’ll find another advertising business in Canada with such a low ratio of staff to Talent and HR employees.
KCHS: How much effort do you put into bringing people along into a new cultural vision, and when do you make a decision to just let them go?
JE: Throughout the process we had a lot of people naturally opting out because they didn’t want goals or accountability. They didn’t want KPIs or their performance to be measured. That’s quite telling in itself. I said ‘Look, we need to become accountable to our clients and ourselves. We need to measure everything, including our own performance.’
We do have a rigorous process of assessing performance and giving people an opportunity to improve where they are under performing. But in the end, you are paid as a leader to make choices that will benefit the other two hundred or so people, not just one individual. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made.
Conversely, a high number of the existing employees were crying out for the change, and embraced it fully. Where people are performing we reward and bonus them well as a result. It’s democratic both ways.
KHCS: Do you ever reach a point where you say ‘That’s it, we’ve got our culture nailed’ or are you constantly tweaking?
JE: Culture is like a garden. You need to constantly nurture it.
On November 9th, I will have been here three years and we’ve surpassed every target we’ve set for ourselves. We’ve also been named Agency of the Year 2011 and we were awarded Media Director of the Year 2012. I’m proud of that, as it’s our people that have won these awards. We’ve also been nominated for Knightsbridge’s Canada’s Passion Capitalist Award 2013. I think these are all external signals that we’re doing something right.
Moving forward, my plan is put a lot more time and energy into nurturing our culture. More time ensuring our training programs are improving and working. I want us to be known as a place where people come to grow professionally. I want people to know that when you work at MediaCom, you are going to learn more than you ever have.
KHCS: You really have come a long way in just three years.
JE: It’s quite a miracle really, and I say that humbly. The previous head of our holding company took me for lunch after the 18 months and said, ‘Nobody thought what you have done could be done.’
I’m really proud of what our team has accomplished. I think I have proved to myself, and I think to the market, that you can be really successful through creating a culture of people first.
At some point in the future I’d love to help coach CEO’s full time on how to implement coaching cultures that deliver innovation and high performance as standard. It’s a significant mind shift to embrace as a leader and it’s hard, damn hard but when it works, it works really well.