An executive communications leader, with 18+ years of international experience in the advertising, media and communications industries. Passionate and driven. Shannon champions CMDC’s business objectives with sound strategy, inspired creativity, and humanity.
Her mission is to shape the new direction of CMDC. Shannon’s operating mandate is to bolster trust by delivering greater – and lasting – value to CMDC members and partners. Currently, CMDC member media agencies account for 80 per cent of the total annual advertising investment in Canada. CMDC actively operates to ensure a fair & progressive marketplace on behalf of its clients, agencies, and media partners.
With over 18 years of experience in the media, advertising and communications industries, what would you say is the most important thing you’ve noticed that has an impact on the success of small businesses?
Over my career, I have worked in three other markets other than Canada: London, Sydney and Hong Kong. The common thread amongst all has been the importance of agility – to create a culture that is strategically so. Businesses today are a lot more dynamic, going at a faster pace and velocity than they once were. To build sustainable businesses, brands and leadership styles need to be particularly agile. You have to act quickly, decisively and strategically in response to change. I’ve worked across a lot of categories and have been susceptible to change. Whether it be market, culture or regulations, I think companies need to be agile to change, [thoroughly] understand the nuances of the marketplace, and act responsibly and strategically to what is going on out there.
Over my career, whether I’m working on big brands or SMEs, I always refer to a book called Blue Ocean Strategy. It’s in my office and I swear by it. It’s fantastic for any business leader. The reason being, you identify what your “blue ocean” is and how to create an uncontemplated marketplace and how to make the competition absolutely irrelevant. I think the beauty is when you are strategically agile, you can look beyond that and look at new frontiers, to where the opportunity lies. They refer to the Blue Ocean Strategy as looking at your current business but looking beyond your current customer base. Looking at different opportunities that complement the existing business you are in. I think that speaks true to being strategically agile.
In your expert opinion, how can SMEs use M&A and strategic partnerships to grow their business?
I am running the Canadian Media Directors Council (CMDC) and my philosophy is “We are better together.” There is an African proverb that says, ‘if you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ That’s my intention as a leader. For SMEs, I would say strategic partners are a game-changer. Having a small business can be challenging at times when you are competing against big giants. I think partnering, and identify the white space I referred to in Blue Ocean Strategy, defines what opportunity is. [Most] of the time, the opportunity lies with the partnership.
At the CMDC, we did a great session called “Unicorns, Giants and Startups”. CMDC is known for facilitating discussions [between businesses and industry leaders]. We gathered “the unicorns”, which are the startups [that are] shining, tech startups and the giants on stage [to discuss how] digital tech is delivering high growth for SMEs. What I found fascinating is it wasn’t just about the underdog, but a dual benefit for SMEs and larger organizations with partnerships.
When you align strategically, the most important thing to align on is your commonality. [This includes] everything from the core values of your organization, the audience you’re trying to tap into, to your vision and purpose. The [most significant] insight for me was when SMEs partnered, there was access to invaluable expertise and experience. On the flip side, for larger organizations, it can position you with a competitive edge, which sometimes is lost with scale. For larger organizations, it can be a testing ground when they partner with SMEs to test new products or innovations or potentially as a white space opportunity for potential acquisitions.
As President of the Canadian Media Directors Council, what are some of the initiatives you’re hoping to put in place?
I took on the role of president last September. Right off the bat, being a leader, my focus was on the most important aspect of the company which is people. It’s really about human capital. And the second, how do we create substantial growth for our industry? I also believe in improvability. How I’ve done that is by creating a series called the Media Leader Series. CMDC [has a] board comprised of CEOs from leading media organizations. I’m in a unique situation where I’m surrounded by media leaders who are driving the commercial value of their clients, who are marketers. At the same time, we are coming through a bit of change because we are redefining what the media agency model looks like, as well as the media agency environment. [My focus is on] how can I make my leaders be better leaders and bring them all together across all facets of media organizations and media ecosystem, which includes everything from digital, social, creative to broadcast. How do I build programs that inspired and continue to ignite and network amongst the leadership group? And also, the most important thing in my view, how do we inspire the next generation of leaders?
At CMDC, we have our Youth Ambassadors. They represent all of our member agencies. I meet with them on a monthly basis. The philosophy behind the YA collective is we’re trying to inspire culture connectivity and creativity. In September, we are hosting an award [ceremony] that is going to recognize the next generation of talent. The awards are centered around impact, which I strongly believe in as a leader – how are our youth creating positive impact in the media community, how are they creating positive impact within their partnership and also performance.
In terms of programming, we hosted a media summit which is focused on inspiring our media community and also talking about the big, burning issues in the [current] media [landscape]. Under my leadership, I want to refresh CMDC and make it a more contemporary and relevant brand. I had the vision to do something [bolder] in our industry and create a form where we gather our media community together and talk about how we build a sustainable, forward-facing future for our business. With that being said, it was called, “seed the future”. It focused on building sustainable business brands and the most important thing, human capital – people. At the same time, it was a marketplace for ideation. We brought some big players who were also partners of ours, The Globe and Mail, Amazon, Spotify, Facebook, Google, and ThinkTV which was representative of all the broadcasters across Canada (Rogers, Bell, and Corus). [The summit] was about bringing all of our partners together to ignite conversation at the leadership level, but also encourage new partnerships.
The last thing that is on top of my role is advocacy. As an association, we are promoting the value of our industry, but also partnering on any big, burning issues that affect our industry. For instance, we’re involved in shaping policy that is directly impacting marketing and advertising communities. Most recently M2K, which is marketing to kids, which was called Bill S-228, I was involved with, in partnership with our other associations. Anything related to CanCon (Canadian content) we lean into it. The big question right now is around data privacy and responsible advertising. As a body, an association, we definitely lean into the conversation.
You’re hoping to reshape the CMDC by bringing it towards a new direction. Do you believe that by implementing a new perspective in the CMDC you will be able to further help entrepreneurs grow their business? Why?
As I’ve mentioned before, I was brought in to rejuvenate the brand of CMDC. CMDC is an iconic heritage brand and is over 32 years old. We have strong brand equity in the marketplace. The first thing to do is research, whether you’re a B2B brand or B2C brand, figure out what you stand for and what your customers or members think of you. I met with our members, partners and people to really [understand] what CMDC means to them as a brand. What I found out is it needed to be contemporized, which was my gut feeling at first being a leader, and we needed to rejuvenate it to build some relevancy. That was my first thing to do – reshaping the brand – and also bridging it to the future where we are today. The most meaningful insight I received, which is also relevant to the marketplace today, we see in the headlines all over the news, is about trust. I believe trust right now is the ultimate currency for our brand, and also for SMEs. In order to grow the business as a brand, they have to build trusted relationships with customers or clients. At CMDC, our core proposition is to be trusted advisors to our media community.
What struggles do entrepreneurs encounter in growing their business and how can CMDC help them overcome this?
I’ve reframed it to what keeps entrepreneurs awake at night? I was an entrepreneur for five years, I’ve also worked with startups, and as a leader of CMDC, I still have an entrepreneurial spirit. Although I am leading an association that is representative of 90 per cent of media across Canada, we still have at our core entrepreneurial spirit.
The number one is struggle [surrounds] growth. How do [businesses] scale? But, once you’ve scaled, how do you maintain a start-up culture? It’s that debate between giants and startups. I think with a startup, the struggle for entrepreneurs is the more you grow with talent, scale and resources, how do you maintain that innovative vibe or culture, and will innovation slow down? The flip side solution is if you hire the right people, maintain the right culture and nurture that culture innovation, you can maintain that momentum even if you are growing at rapid speed. There is also a rule of thought that there is a numbers game behind this. An example of this a creative agency I know they opened a second creative shop once they hit 120 [employees] – that was the sweet spot in terms of numbers. Some agencies and organizations will open start different divisions once they’ve reached a specific cap [number of employees].
A second struggle is [acquiring] talent. I constantly hear people ask, ‘how do we attract talent’? I believe we are very lucky in Canada. SMEs are perfectly positioned because we have a diverse marketplace – a diverse city in thinking, which is critical to our industry today. On a broader spectrum for Canada, we embrace the entrepreneurial culture. You look at the rise in creativity, the rise in tech jobs (we’re a hotshot for AI right now), the engagement economy and sharing economy in the Canadian environment, I think we’re a hotbed for entrepreneurial spirit and creativity. The Economist [magazine] said there were more creative and tech jobs in Toronto than there are in Washington, Seattle, and San Francisco combined. For me, being a leader in our media industry, this is what is so exciting – when you look at our diverse palate. Number three is the attitude. As an entrepreneur or leader, you have to be a self-motivator. What keeps entrepreneurs up at night is ‘how am I going to get up and do it again?’, and have that drive and ambition, and look at things from a fresh and optimistic perspective. We are our best motivators.
It can be very lonely at the top, so it’s very important to surround yourself with brilliant people you can rely on. I think it’s very important to stay connected to people that can understand the position you are in.
In your previous experiences, you’ve actively contributed towards the success of global brands such as BBC and Microsoft just to name a few. Can you tell us about the strategies you used that helped you in the successful branding and marketing of these exclusive companies?
BBC and Microsoft are very different [brands]. BBC is a quintessentially British brand and Microsoft is a leading tech company. I’ve worked on over 50 international brands and the commonality for success has been the purpose. The common thread is they stay true to their higher purpose, vision, and true meaning. And more important for today, it’s done in a responsible fashion and acted upon. You can say you have a purpose, but don’t actually act on it. Acting on your brand’s purpose has never been more important. Ultimately, that’s what grows brands that people identify with and love.
I always distill purpose to what is your why for the greater good. A lot of people think purpose is philanthropy – what charity are you aligning your brand with? That is not it. Your purpose and your brand is your mission. Every successful business I’ve worked on really stayed true to their purpose. Without a purpose, I believe the business model is incomplete and will not survive the test of time. Purpose is also about the bottom line because you need to run a business. Purpose is about having a core purpose, but making a profit, and driving optimal performance from your team.
What are the top three factors that entrepreneurs should consider when it comes to the successful marketing and advertising of their company?
Number one is human truth. Even though we live in a world where we have a lot of data which informs insights, the focus on any successful marketing or advertising campaign is what is that core insight that really drives people? What is the fundamental human truth that is motivating the customer’s behaviour? That’s paramount for any CEO driving the business.
My next point is never lose sight of your customer, whether it’s B2C or B2B. Number one, how do you provide the ultimate customer experience? Right now, in our digital world, how do you connect those dots? How do you provide this connected customer experience across every single channel?
The third point is to test new ideas and strategies. We should advise entrepreneurs to be ready to explore, take risks, test, and implement. Draw on skills from the current talent you have in your current organization, but also look outside of your organization to enable you to try and test new ideas and strategies. That’s really the only way you can be innovative as a small business owner.
How important do you believe innovation is when it comes to marketing and advertising for small business owners? What role does it play?
For small business owners, there is a [demand] that you have to be innovative, especially in the age of distraction. As we know, there is a velocity in data and consumers are more distracted. Companies and brands need to be innovative and innovation is a leader in having that relentless pursuit to be better and move your brand forward.
I recently attended the Cannes Lions Festival and one common truth with innovation was there is a rise of challenger brands in the marketplace. I call it a marketing mega trend – there are a lot of small, innovative brands coming up that are challenging different categories, creating new audiences and transforming the way we live.
At Cannes, I met with a company called Oatly, a Swedish brand that is an alternative to milk. Their philosophy is ‘it’s like milk, but made for humans’. They are staying true to their core purpose which is redefining what the food production system is. This is especially [relevant] with the rise in lactose intolerance and people [examining] the food production [processes] today. They’re really redefining the farm to table
category. To me, that was really fascinating as a challenger brand in terms of what drove it, what made it unique and successful.
While I was in Austin at a YPO retreat, there was the rise of e-scooters. Everyone was commuting by e-scooters. When you look at it from a challenger brand perspective in that sector, they’re not only redefining what mobility is, but they’re challenging cities to rethink the way they build cities and the way transportation functions. I think that’s important for Toronto too. As cities [become denser] and populated, it’s important to look at redefining how people get around, the mobility of a city, and how to give accessible mobility to everyone in terms of affordability. Brands such as Lime and Bird have redefined the e-scooter revolution. Uber is now getting into e-scooters.
What has been the biggest accomplishment of your professional career? What are you most proud of?
I have been fortunate to work with wonderful people because I’ve had a lot of international experience. I think the people I surrounded myself with are what has driven success in my professional career. Currently, I am honoured to be the president of the CMDC and I work with my board, who are some amazing CEOs who are leading media agencies. Not only are they driving the commercial success for their clients, but also driving the culture and reshaping the future agency model and media within their organization. I am so proud to be at the helm of this association.
Ultimately, what’s most important to me is the next generation – looking at the future generation in media and inspiring youth. I am also honoured to sit on the Canadian Cannes Advisory Board. In June, I was at the festival and I mentored the next generation of marketing and creative talent that were competing on a global scale. I am proud I was able to be at the epicentre with them, discussing important topics such as unbiased leadership, responsible advertising, brand purpose and women in leadership, which is close to my heart.
On a personal note, you are involved in several charities and organizations. What organization is closest to your heart and why?
I always believe that anything I do related to a charity or organization has to be intrinsic to my core values – what I believe in or what issue I want to address at that time. In the past, I was heavily involved with a children’s charity in London, England when I wasn’t a mom. Now, as a single mother, I am still involved with children’s charities because it’s intrinsic to what I believe in. I believe in protecting, and inspiring kids to be the best they can be and play. Through CMDC’s Youth Ambassador program and Young Lions program, [I have been able to mentor] the next generation. I have also been involved in raising awareness and fundraising for art charities, such as NABS (National Advertising Benevolent Society).