Me & My Brand: MDC’s Terence Donnelly on the marketing of creative people

With one instalment of “Me & My Brand” under our belts, we’re already messing with the formula. Those who cover marketing spend too much time on agencies and executions, and not enough time with the marketers exploring brand strategy and the people who drive it. We’re changing that at Marketing, but at the same time […]

With one instalment of “Me & My Brand” under our belts, we’re already messing with the formula. Those who cover marketing spend too much time on agencies and executions, and not enough time with the marketers exploring brand strategy and the people who drive it. We’re changing that at Marketing, but at the same time Terence Donnelly, though he carries the title of chief marketing officer for Canada at MDC Partners, is not your typical CMO driving brand strategy.

Donnelly doesn’t manage the company’s marketing budget. In fact, he doesn’t even have much traditional marketing experience, aside from a stint with Adcentricity, a mobile ad platform. Most of his experience is as a recruiter. Before that, he toured with rock stars Sue Medley and Colin James, playing the keyboards. Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads fame once quipped Donnelly had probably played “Take Me to the River” more times live than he ever did. Cool, sure, but this isn’t “Me & My Band” and I am not after a music interview.

I walked the few blocks to the cozy confines of Miles Nadal’s charming Toronto headquarters – a tasteful mix of comfortable couches, fine art, sculpture and sport collectibles – to learn what Donnelly’s role says about the business of advertising, especially the growing pressures to increase agency collaboration in an industry dominated by a handful of global holding company powerhouses. And I wanted to understand the art of creating value by managing creative talent.

I started with a question that gets at the uniqueness of Donnelly’s role: what makes you different from the CMO of, say, a consumer products company?

Donnelly: Simple: I don’t have a product. We have partner agencies, we have people, we have talent. That’s obviously the first thing. And creative folks are, well, creative. What makes them valuable to clients are those unique ways of seeing the world and coming up with stories that resonate with consumers about brands. You know, the box of macaroni and cheese doesn’t decide how it wants to be marketed this month. It’s a very different thing when the “product” that I am marketing has its own ideas. It would be interesting working on a packaged good because the products don’t talk back.

This isn’t traditional marketing. But it makes a lot of sense in the context of MDC’s brand as a holding company, especially as the Nadal vision matures to focus more on winning market share and less on buying it through agency acquisition, as Nadal had done in recent years. To help, he’s added shared resources in areas like analytics and procurement, and four years ago he hired Bob Kantor (former CEO of Publicis NY, president of Lowe & Partners, among other things) to be the architect of agency partner alliances. That’s where Donnelly comes in, and I ask him if it’s even accurate to call what he does marketing.

Donnelly: It’s marketing in the truest sense of the word. We identify the need, then craft a solution to deliver that need. That’s the core premise of marketing. Clients find it really, really difficult to find the best-in-class resources. So our job is to make that easier and bring those partners together in unique collaborations that help solve client problems in a more compelling and complete way. At the same time, it creates opportunities for each of the agencies to own a larger slice of our clients’ business.

As big as MDC is already with more than $1 billion in annual holding company revenue, the growth potential in Canada and the U.S. is strong as its agencies only have an estimated 3% market share of North American marketing spend, according to company estimates. The goal for Donnelly and others on Kantor’s team is to both gain a bigger share of wallet from existing clients, as well as pitch and promote agency collaboration to open doors with new clients. I ask Donnelly to explain how that works in action.

Donnelly: We might call on an agency president and say we’ve identified a need we think you can be the right fit for. Or the agency calls us when they have a client with a particular challenge that isn’t their specialty. You need deep specialization in each of the disciplines as marketing moves away from a generalist approach. Nobody expects the plumber to sell you fine cabinetry. The agencies are all very busy with their heads down doing the work they’re best at, so they don’t necessarily see the connections between, say, PR and package design.

The more you talk to Donnelly, the more sense this unique role makes. Before joining MDC, he helped Tony Chapman bring Capital C to the MDC team in 2010, and then spent the next three years helping Chapman build the team he needed for succession planning. He’s “purpose-built” for the job he’s in, observes Glenn Chilton, CEO of Kenna. Donnelly was a factor in helping Chilton sell one agency venture, and again when Kenna was brought under the MDC umbrella (also in 2010). “He’s a matchmaker, the ultimate connector, but he goes beyond that. Marketing today is more than ever about value creation and he really creates value by connecting the right kind of people, resources and expertise.”
What’s more, he’s damned personable. Proof? After seven years of touring, Donnelly walked into a personnel agency looking for a real job. Instead of placing him, the agency snapped him up despite the fact his only recruiting experience was finding back-up bass players who knew David Byrne songs. He spent most of the following 25 years as a recruiter, building up Mandrake in Toronto and becoming a go-to head hunter for advertising and marketing, intersecting with MDC on numerous occasions and also working with major brands, including Coca Cola, Pepsi, Campbell Soup, Microsoft, Bell, SAP and CIBC. Our discussion meanders into the art of talent management and the magic of flexible org charts.

Donnelly: I worked for years building marketing departments, placing CMOs and building their teams with talent. Now I’m at a strategic level where it’s not just about an individual moving, it’s about building that partnership between the client and agency and setting it up with an exact fit. Take a look at clients like a Coke and a Pepsi. You’d expect them to share the same challenges, but they couldn’t be more different—culturally and in the way they do business. Then look at ad agencies and you see they all share the same org charts. What I can do in my position is bring agencies together and fundamentally construct the org chart differently from one client to the next to solve the client’s unique business challenges. It may seem like common sense, but it’s pretty uncommon—and it’s a massive advantage [for MDC].

Before we wrap, I want to get back to the band. Today, Donnelly is involved in a big funk group called the Community Soul Project that’s made up mostly of ad business folks, including Robin Heisey (Draftfcb), Tracy Jones (Veritas), Jon Finkelstein (BBDO) and others who have raised more than $2 million for charity through their services. Music takes talent and chemistry and other things to work and I ask him if he has been able to apply those lessons to his professional work.

Donnelly: Music is a whole-brain experience and it’s the integration of creativity and logic. I think my background in music brings a creative approach to people and to business challenges that others might not think of. Also, in order to be a successful musician, you have to sit and play scales for four hours a day and that tenacity and discipline applies to the job as well. Every role has something that’s just work that must get done, whether it’s connecting with people on a continuous basis, booking the meetings, making the calls. All of that I attribute to my classical music upbringing and practicing my scales.

Condensed from a longer interview

This story originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Marketing, and was first published online as an excerpt on Jan. 22.

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