People First HR Services

Combining cultures a challenging task

John McFerran

The Exchange District is shaping up as Madison Avenue North, with many creative firms setting up shop in the historic neighbourhood. Among the local “Mad Men” located downtown is Peter George, CEO of McKim Cringan George, the largest full-service advertising agency in Winnipeg.

“I’d classify what we do as anything involved in the business of persuasion,” he says, citing the creative work done for a broad range of international, national and regional clients by MCG’s 35 employees at its Winnipeg headquarters as well as its Regina branch office.

In recent years, one of the largest works of persuasion George has undertaken was convincing himself that after 16 years, it was time to take a step back from being a business leader, head account manager and creative director, and to follow the sage advice of “stop working in your business and start working on your business.”

“I’d started my own graphic design boutique in 1995 and over the course of 10 years, we grew to about 21 people. But in order to accelerate that growth, I determined that the best move I could make would be to identify a compatible competitor in the marketplace who could help us build out and boost our knowledge base, our skill set and our client list.”

In 2006, George’s firm, Taylor George Design, merged with advertising agency McKim Cringan to form MCG.

“If anyone tells you merging two companies is an easy thing to do, they’re lying,” he says. “Figuring out how it all would work is probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but at the same time it’s been the best thing imaginable I could have ever done for the business.”

Q: Can you take us back five years to when you were in merger discussions with McKim?

A: Before the merger, I had known several people at McKim and had a great amount of respect for them. I got to know the owner well and it seemed everything would be a fantastic fit. What I didn’t expect was that even though we worked in the same industry and the two agencies were compatible in many ways, our two cultures were completely different. McKim was one of Canada’s oldest agencies and their office was part of an international conglomerate before they became locally owned. They were a close, tight-knit group, but in my view still retained a degree of that big-agency culture. On the other hand, the Taylor George group worked in a very open, collegial environment with a pool table, a pet-friendly policy and casual atmosphere. People were encouraged to take charge of their own work, their own day and to take leadership roles on projects as early as possible. We knew we had to find a way to bring both teams together and it probably took two and a half, maybe three years before we successfully merged the two cultures.

Q: How did you eventually manage to bring two teams with two distinct cultures together?

A: Before we got there, my partner, Drew Cringan, and I came to the realization that we really couldn’t merge our cultures with two 50-50 partners in charge. Employee loyalties were split between us, and staff were confused about who to report to. So, Drew and I agreed that from a business perspective, it made more sense for me to become chief executive officer and for him to become board chair and senior partner. Succession is not easy on the guy coming in and it’s not easy on the guy stepping back. But it’s just a part of business, and that was the start of integrating our cultures into one way of doing business, one way of working with each other and one way of working with clients. I wouldn’t say we’re quite where I want us to be yet, but we are certainly leaps and bounds ahead of where we were a couple of years ago and client feedback has been highly supportive.

Q: How would you describe MCG’s culture today?

A: We’re still a very loosely organized company that refrains from being super-hierarchal. It’s the best ideas that win, not the most senior people, and anyone is welcome to come up and contribute an idea on anything. We still have the pool table, which we consider a cultural hub, and our people don’t punch a clock or adhere to a strict dress code. Giving full trust to employees has the best effect in terms of responsibility and job ownership. We do a lot of high-profile government and Crown work, but from time to time, we also enjoy taking on special projects that are not necessarily profitable, yet engage our creative people in a unique way, such as developing campaigns for the Winnipeg Folk Festival or Manitoba Opera.

Q: How are you able to differentiate MCG from competing agencies in the marketplace?

A: We think of ourselves as being the best at what we do based on the skills and talents of our people. But not only do you need the best talent, you have to be a likable, engaged and collaborative company or else people won’t want to do business with you, regardless of how good you are. There are no formulas to creating good advertising — what you need is talented, lateral-thinking creative people. But it’s not enough to simply be the best, you need the ability to sell your expertise and get it used. The business community might perceive our industry as a bit of a commodity because there are a lot of agencies in Winnipeg, so it’s all the more important that we can get them to choose our expertise.

That’s why we put so much effort into hiring the right people in all areas of our business. For example, it’s easier to recruit a strong individual for our creative department because I can look at someone’s portfolio and say, “this is good, this is not good,” and right away get a feel for what they can bring to the team. It’s more difficult to hire the customer-facing staff — the strategists, account managers and relationship builders — because those are very complex roles to fill and the skills aren’t necessarily evident in a resumé or work history. To be able to sell our agency’s expertise, they must know how to work with all kinds of people and that requires exceptional listening, communication, selling, negotiation and other “soft” skills that are hard to assess in one or two interviews.

Q: What has working “on” instead of “in” your business taught you about working with people?

A: About four years ago, I realized I needed to become better at people management and leadership, so I now spend about half my time working with our senior people. I also work with our account team when they need to grow their skills or require certain advice. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned that if I don’t regularly check in with people and let them know I’m involved in their career, they won’t stick around. In the past, I’ve had individuals say, “I need more access to you; I don’t feel like I’m learning enough,” and, “I believe I can get that mentoring elsewhere.” While we have excellent retention, I know that I personally have a role to play as teacher, so people are engaged, feel valued and are able to get that knowledge passed onto them by myself and other key MCG folks.

Q: How are you preparing for future growth and eventually, the succession of new leadership?

A: This is a very interesting business in that so much of it revolves around the crafts of advertising — design, copywriting, strategic marketing and planning — so we tend to hire for technical talent and cultural fit rather than leadership potential. The biggest challenge right now is that our senior managers are very effective key practitioners, so they’re not necessarily eager to give up their craft to become leaders in the business. This is why finding the next generation of leaders is now my biggest priority; and while not critical for running our business today as I’m still in my 40s, it will obviously become the case one day. Implementing a leadership team will be a key factor in reaching our goal of doubling in size over the next two to three years through acquisition and organic growth. Plus, in this business, it’s conceivable as our size of agency to suddenly land a significant account worth 30 to 40 per cent of current revenues. By having a leadership team in place, we’ll be able to recognize and close on the right opportunities as they come along and ensure we can continue to scale our business appropriately and profitably as MCG goes forward.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

John McFerran, PhD, F.CHRP, is managing director of Boyden Global Executive Search. He can be contacted at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 H1