Go Canadians, Go: Maple Leaf Food’s Stephen Graham

"To be honest, I’ve never found resources to be a limitation in Canada"

As part of our “Go Canadians, Go” project, Marketing asked dozens of Canucks working abroad (or those who’ve returned with a few years of international experience) to give us their impressions of the differences between Canada’s industry and others. Does being Canadian give you a leg up?

I think there’s a much greater confidence in Canada about who we are now, as opposed to who we are relative to the U.S. or others. We clearly have a world-class quality of life that is based on a strong economy and social generosity, but one of our greatest and perhaps less known advantages is our worldly perspective.

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That global point of view and openness to diversity helps Canadians when they go to work abroad. I think it makes it easier for us to understand other markets because we are naturally curious about the world, but also recognize and respect the cultural differences that are important.

The talent we have in Canada, including that in marketing and advertising, is as good as any out there and in many cases, better. You see that in how well Canadians do internationally, and in the recognition they receive. A good example within this business is at Cannes, where Canada keeps winning more and more awards each year, and now punches well above its weight.

My first big move internationally was to the U.S. to Basking Ridge, New Jersey in 1996 to become vice-president of marketing communications worldwide at AT&T. It was a unique opportunity because it was the height of the telecom wars. AT&T was the dominant player in the market but losing share and leadership because the brand had become less relevant, less consumer focused and far too reactive to the two upstart competitors, MCI and Sprint. AT&T was at the center of the largest marketing and consumer battles on the face of the planet at the time.

Interestingly I had been approached by both MCI and AT&T to join them, but ultimately I thought it would be more gratifying and fun to help turn around one of the world’s great companies and brands than continue to grow an upstart.

The biggest and most obvious difference was that you had a lot more people and a lot more resources to work with, which can actually be a negative if you let size or bureaucracy get in the way of “speed.” In Canada, you’re accustomed to moving businesses forward with fewer resources, so in the U.S. or globally this experience can help you be much more entrepreneurial.

You need to get people focused on the big things that will truly make a difference and get those things done quickly. At AT&T we needed to not only rebuild an iconic brand but also create new offers that were so provocative we could put our competitors out of business, and then we could focus on taking leadership in wireless.

Once you had the right new solutions like AT&T Digital One Rate, our annual budget, which exceeded $1 billion dollars, allowed us to execute powerfully at both the product and brand levels. If we wanted Elton John’s Rocket Man track for our brand campaign we could get it, and we did. And in four years we were able to double the value of the business.

But to be honest, I’ve never found resources to be a limitation in Canada. If you really set out to do great things, you’ll find a way to do them. You may have to more creative or more diligent to get it done at a world-class level, but that is what helps make everyone better.

As for how I was perceived in the U.S. or our global markets as a Canadian, I think people forget about where you come from pretty quickly. They are more interested in who you are as a person and what you actually do. In fact, I was extremely fortunate to be chosen global marketer of the year by Ad Age and I remember everyone being surprised to find out I was a Canadian, but ultimately not really caring.

In the end, my international experience was an extremely positive one as I got to be part of the earliest days of the digital and wireless revolution that continues to redefine the way we all live, communicate and do business. It was also a rewarding one for our family as we made some great new friends.

Ultimately, people who are really good in Canada are likely to be really good elsewhere – especially if they possess a strong inner confidence, courage, competence, and a sense of humility, which Canadians tend to have.

It’s also not surprising that after having wonderful international experiences Canadians come back, simply because they realize how fortunate we are to call this wonderful place home.

Stephen Graham is CMO, Maple Leaf Foods

Look for the full “Go Canadian’s, Go” in the July 2014 issue of Marketing, on newsstands now and available to our subscribers. You can also find it in the iPad Newsstand.

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