One on One with Bruce Maclellan

Small Business Canada

Bruce Maclellan

Bruce MacLellan is a veteran communications counselor and entrepreneur, and in 1994 became the founding President & CEO of Proof Inc. He is also the co-founder of sister company Proof Experiences Inc. Together, the Proof family of companies operate in five offices across North America with a team of over 180 people. Bruce has provided counsel to leaders in business, government and professional sports and continues to apply his entrepreneurial thinking to existing and new opportunities with the firm and clients. He regularly provides media interview and communications skills training to senior clients. In 2016, Bruce was honoured with the Award of Attainment by the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) for his leadership and contributions to the profession. In2019, he sponsored the creation of the CPRS Entrepreneurial Leadership Award. As an active volunteer, Bruce serves currently as Chair of the National Board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the country’s largest land conservation charity.

Can you explain the theory behind Proof’s strategy “Ask Better Questions” and how this can help entrepreneurs build stronger relationships with their clients?

We believe anyone can ask questions, but few ask the right ones. Successful entrepreneurs get at the key question that can identify a market niche or service gap. Better questions change how we approach business challenges. Better questions allow us to develop insights, strategies, and programs that drive tangible business outcomes. Proof asks better questions because they lead to better answers and results for our clients.

How important do you believe it is to have trust between an organization and its customers?

People want reliability but that can usually be obtained from more than one supplier. Trust is the way to rise above the pack and build loyalty. Trust is when a customer shares your values and connects with you in their hearts and minds.  According to our trust research, large corporations are the least trusted organizations in Canada right now, well behind non-profits, charities, media organizations and even governments. Surprisingly, Canadians are also feeling less trusting of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). We’re living in a mistrustful era and smart leaders will seek to build their trust to stand out.

What are some of the initiatives that organizations can put in place to build trust with their clients?

In Canada, organizations need to research their target audience to understand what drives trust for them. Our CanTrust Index shows that honest and transparent leadership is always important. CEOs can’t hide. Canadian ownership helps drive trust for many people. Alignment on values is also important, which is why Nike was confident in sponsoring Colin Kaepernick.

In your expert opinion, what are the three main factors that contribute towards a good communication between business owners and their customers?

Honesty, integrity and transparency. We can all think of companies that misled consumers, refused to cooperate with regulators or denied a problem exists. They are now at the bottom of our annual trust index.

What did the 2019 Proof Inc. CanTrust Index results reveal, and would you say you were surprised with its results?

We studied people in large cities as well as small towns and rural areas and we were surprised how much they think alike in their views on trust. The differences are far less than we might assume, showing that Canadian values are not that different from big cities to small towns.

What do you believe are some of the reasons why consumers are having a hard time trusting the brands and organizations they deal with?

We’re living in what has been called the post-truth era. People are wary. They are bombarded with messages and see economic disruption all around them. The secure job and reliable pension are gone.  Many new jobs such as ride-sharing drivers are essentially a new bottom step on the economic ladder. Affordability of housing is a serious challenge for young people. As people feel they are being left behind, their trust levels start to fall.

How can Proof help entrepreneurs build trust with their clients?

It’s important to not only understand your customer’s product or service needs but also their values and how to build a strong, deep relationship. We start with the research to truly know the target audience and then build a plan that is always on and building trust. The goal should be to lead your category. For example, our research finds that only 31 per cent of Canadians trust streaming services, but 53 per cent trust Netflix. Our full study report can be found at

What would you say is the number one mistake that entrepreneurs make when it comes to communication and how can Proof help them avoid those mistakes?

Each entrepreneur is unique, and I don’t subscribe to the mythology they are all big, brash personalities. That’s only for the theatre of certain television programs. That said, entrepreneurs see things differently and move quickly. A common mistake, therefore, is forgetting to communicate with their growing team and making sure everyone is on board and coming along.

What advice can you give to an entrepreneur that has just launched its business to ensure they have a positive communication and can help towards building a relationship with its clients based on trust?

I would start with the internal team. Trust is the backbone of high-performing and happy teams.  Trust leads to better engagement, retention and measurable business results.  Trust-centric teams are more resilient and can rebound from conflict and challenges quickly.  Trust contributes to positive, open and brave cultures and creates the foundation for smart risk taking, experimentation and thinking.

Some of the initiatives and work you’ve done at Proof has earned the company and its clients several marketing awards as well as entries in the Guinness Book of World Records. How does that make you feel?

We’ve won more than 300 different awards over 25 years for campaigns and programs, as well as for our own workplace culture. These external validations of our work are a great honour for our team and our client partners. The Guinness Book records come from brave and creative thinking and the trust of our clients that we should take that risk together.

As Chief Executive Officer of Proof Inc., what would you say is the most challenging part of your role?

Getting people to envision things that don’t already exist. Many people orient toward predictable, repeatable events that fall within a consistent pattern. With the pace of change and intense competition, we need people to also think about new ways to do things and new services to offer. Steve Jobs envisioned the iPad and now it’s a global tool for creativity and productivity.

On a final note, what would say has been the biggest accomplishment of your career? What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of co-creating a series of businesses that have helped so many people to start, fulfill or exceed their career goals. Over 400 people have worked, or work now, in one of these businesses and I hope each one feels they were enriched both financially and professionally. It’s about treating people well and enabling their success.

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