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Digital Design Leadership: Neil McPhedran


Neil McPhedran makes the jump from digital design to general management seem effortless. In this interview, Neil McPhedran details his unique journey to digital leadership at Grey Vancouver, including the many new challenges that come with such a leap.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed


Neil McPhedran: Neil McPhedran, and I’m general manager here at Gray in Vancouver. So I run the shop, essentially. We’re a quote unquote traditional advertising agency, that’s our heritage. Pretty much everyone here though is more digitally focused and digitally savvy and that’s kind of where we’re migrating. I think it’s similar in most advertising agencies right now, especially with us. My background is actually digital, so I have been in that space since I started doing advertising in the 90s. And this is actually my first gig in years where I don’t have digital in my title or that’s not specifically, I’m not the digital guy here, I’m actually focused on running the shop and evolving us more to be more digitally, socially, social media focused, actually, so. We’re an extension of the Toronto office, so we report into the Toronto office. And we’re trying to figure out how we can be more of a long hallway structure if you will, versus this satellite stem with…

Richard Banfield: Mm-hmm.

Neil McPhedran: Vancouver’s a really interesting market. It’s somewhat the back-water of advertising. There’s no real big head offices here. In Canada everything’s very centralized around Toronto and the world of advertising, all the head offices are over there. All the media’s over there. All the Unilevers or the Proctors and Gambles and the Kochs and everything are very much there. So, you know we’ve got I guess what you could say is the table-scraps here. What’s interesting though, is you’ve got a heritage of creativity and sort of the forefront of advertising, what’s kind of come out of Vancouver. Which is quite…

Richard Banfield: So there’s a strong creative culture…

Neil McPhedran: Yeah it has been that way, and I think a lot of that is because of what used to be called Palmer Drivers which is where I started which is now a DVD shop. Traditionally was kind of the award-winning agency in the country, and it’s, off the back of that spun other agencies, the people that have come out of that environment and grown agencies that are sort of, out of Toronto and here as well too, so.

Richard Banfield: So let’s talk a little bit about your rise into the leadership role.

Neil McPhedran: Sure.

Richard Banfield: At what point did you start to think of yourself as having that leadership quality? Is it something that you’ve always had, is it something that you grew into? At one point did leadership become…?

Neil McPhedran: I guess it’s, it’s naturally come to me. It’s been part of, I think, who I am, which I think leadership tends to be that way. That, coupled with early on in the 90s, sort of mid-90s, I went, ‘this internet thing is really cool.’ And as an ad-guy, junior ad-guy, account executive, account coordinator just starting out, I was like, okay well you know, I think something’s happening here. And I just aggressively pursued it, so I took some HTML courses and then I… It, as a result it catapulted my career and it threw me into a leadership role as a result, but I guess it’s partially, it’s a bit of both. What came naturally to me, but as well is because I pursued interactive internet digital side of the business. It took me there as well, too right, so I think it was…

Richard Banfield: You were part of the rising tide.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, I rode that whole crazy dot com thing, it was like, you know. I just put up my hand and I said, ‘I’m interested in the internet,’ and I aggressively pursued it and self-educated myself. I think as anyone did sort of through that era, there was no…

Richard Banfield: Right.

Neil McPhedran: …courses per say.

Richard Banfield: It also sounds a little bit like you, you’re leadership style may be through domain expertise or sought leadership, would that be correct, or…?

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, I think that’s a great way to put it. Definitely, I’d say that’s, that was the forefront of it. It’s backed me into this role. 18 years later where the industry has matured enough that someone of my skillset and my experience is now sitting in the seat I’m in, right, because of where we are and what’s happened with our industry and how it’s such a huge part of what we do now.

Richard Banfield: So the domain expertise, the thought leadership, the knowledge, the hard skills, all that stuff, clearly it’s something that’s just natural for you? Tell us a little bit about the soft skills, the other part of management and leadership that may not be as formalized.

Neil McPhedran: I would say I love, yeah, the HR side of it is something that I have to work on more. I’m not, that’s not my. Like I just like doing work and surrounding myself with a team and you know pushing people to do, I would say I’m more of a leader by example, leader from behind versus this. I’m not…

Richard Banfield: Not a cheerleader.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, I guess that’s kind of a good way to put it. But that’s a step I definitely learned by experience, or learned along the way or whatever, but if I look at what I do on a daily basis I would say like the, the HR side of the job is probably not my favorite part of it, but that’s the, that’s the nature of the beast.

Richard Banfield: So are there things in that quiver of expertise, the management expertise, the leadership expertise that you think you still need to work on?

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, I think we always do. And I think because as you pointed out and I agree with you, sort of a domain expert leader versusI didn’t go, oh I’m going to be a CEO or oh I have these aspirations to be a managing director or whatever it is, kind of like where I’ve ended up. Those are the things I’ve learned along the way, right, so.

Richard Banfield: Mm-hmm, okay. Tell us a little bit about the, a physical space that you worked in over the time that you’ve had these leadership roles. Advertising agencies are well-known for creating great advertising spaces, tell us a little bit about physical space, and how that influences leadership style and sort of leadership in general.

Neil McPhedran: It’s interesting, I think that we’re going through it here, it’s like we’re grappling with how do we physically set our, how do we physically set ourselves up. I think more and more the roles of advertising are melding more so I mean it’s, they’re going, when I first started in the industry there was definitely a bigger divide between the creative people and the account people, or sort of the production people, I think. Those roles are starting to mostly because of social media, I think are starting to come together more, so traditionally then you would’ve had like a physical separation of where the creative people sat and where they recorded and all that kind of stuff, right, so.

Richard Banfield: Put them in cages.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, or a whole other floor, or. I mean way back in the day, like the writers and the copy guys weren’t even together, right, it was like, I mean that was back you know.

Richard Banfield: So you’re going through a bit of a physical organization process…

Neil McPhedran: We’re going through that right now, I think, physically a physical space, and I think just definition of roles, and how that works especially on the strategy slash account management, sorry, community management, content and development side of things. I think that’s where. Like as an industry we’re really grappling with the model. I mean my personal opinion is, the economic model is broken, so…

Richard Banfield: Right.

Neil McPhedran: It’s based on a, a good old model of campaign is based on slow-moving creative development. It’s you develop your 30-second TV spot and then you spin that out over a bunch of media, and that’s what it is and then you kind of move on into the, kind of move on to the next thing. And now we have to be agile. We have to be considerably more prolific with the content we’re developing, so. The fee-for-service model doesn’t fit that. So it’s affecting everything from roles to how we sit to what we do so it’s a really interesting time in the business, actually, I think, to be part of it, but also I think be a leader in it, to try and figure out where we’re going with this thing, what are we doing with this thing, how do we.

Richard Banfield: How long have you been in this particular role?

Neil McPhedran: Since May.

Richard Banfield:  Since May, so it’s, you’re just finding your stride now, or…?

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, it’s complicated, it’s, there was, the fellow who was here was here for 28 years and he had, he tried to retire and then they brought in a person who, unfortunately had cancer and so it’s been a complicated, it’s been a complicated situation, too, so.

Richard Banfield: So it sounds… sorry one second, could you slide that, there you go, I just got the wheels and then…

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, sure, sorry.

Richard Banfield: Take the wheels off. So obviously, taking new roles, re-organizing giving past cultural, philosophical changes, some of that’s stressful. Very stressful in some cases. How do you deal with your own personal stress, how do you organize around it to make sure it doesn’t overwhelm you?

Neil McPhedran: That’s a good question. I’m, I think I’m just, I tend not to be a stressed-out person. I guess, so I’m more of a classic laid back west-coast guy. I know it sounds, I’m not cognizant of that, I just kind of take it and run and move forward and kind of deal with it, so. Could be an Achilles heel as well, too, so. I think it’s a little bit of a… I just moved back here to this role from 11 years in Toronto actually, so it’s a different, it’s a definitely different pace of how, out here on the west coast. We’re a lot more similar than I would say you go. It’s more up and down here, so we would be more similar to a Seattle and Portland and San Francisco, LA’s its own beast, but I’d say culture and work environment and level of casual-ness and whatnot versus Toronto, I find very much more like New York, you know, tend to work longer hours and go a little bit more crazy.

Richard Banfield: So you obviously inherited this here.

Neil McPhedran: Mm-hmm.

Richard Banfield: But you’ve also had the opportunity to maybe change or update or round out some edges on the team, first of all, but about how you approached team both from a creation of that team and also from an ongoing cultural point of view.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, so I walked in the door there had been a few moves made with some folks who had been here for a long time. And they had already took sort of earlier in 2013 there had been some moves made with a few people, so that had been put in place already. So we had a good core that was still here. It’s taken some time to assess, I mean I came in with, opinions from other folks as to who should be and who shouldn’t be here, so, and I’ve definitely come at it from a different perspective. I’ve got a different take on things. I think not until you’re sort of on the ground and you can kind of feel it versus like what management in Toronto thought and how they were pigeon-holing people or whatever, too, so. But then I made some moves as well, too, so one of the big moves I made is on the PM producer side of things. So we just have a new guy starting who is, has more of a digital software background and it’s definitely something that’s been missing here, so it’s a big piece to kind of change up that person, have a new person coming in. Definitely changing kind of roles as well. I think assessing peoples’ skills too, right? So you’ve, if a person’s here for a long time they get kind of pigeon-holed in a certain way, I come in, I look at things a little bit differently, I think. So different skillsets a little bit, so.

Richard Banfield: Do you have a particular way that you might describe your style or philosophy to team culture and team management?

Neil McPhedran: I’m pretty hands-on. I’m part of it, and to get involved, to get my hands dirty, to assess things out. But at the same time, I’m not a micro-manager. I like to give people their space to be able to perform and to be able to either succeed or fail, I guess. Personally I’ve felt like I’ve carved out my own path and, because I’ve taken it upon myself to do it, so I kind of look to other people like that, so. I would rather have a team of people who are really, are capable to run with something with minimal check-ins versus micro-managing. I just, it’s not. We’re so busy we don’t have time to micro-manage, A, but B, that’s not my style anyway. I’d rather give the role to people to do their thing, to, and then let’s have check-ins, let’s do it that way kind of. I have installed a few things, so, some new practices for example, we used to have a weekly status where we would spend a good hour and a half kind of working through it and that was kind of it. We’re, I’ve moved us towards more sort of agile project management, so with a daily huddle at 9:17 we stand up and we do a quick round-the-horn of what everyone’s doing and the idea is that we’re all responsible for our own things and we know that. For me I could help people manage their time, I can hear a creative guy going this, this, this, and this, and like no, you’re not, it’s just impossible for you to do all of those. You can do this, okay, so let’s help everyone out, let’s prioritize, so. It’s a way that people can take ownership of their day, but it’s also a way that we can be accountable to each other. It’s been a great, I think a tremendous thing for us.

Richard Banfield: So it sounds like your leadership style is to be a catalyst to other peoples’ success, is that, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but…

Neil McPhedran: Yeah that’s a good way to look at it. Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think that there’s a lot of young, I’d say young teams, so I kind of look at it as everyone’s trying to forge their career. Not everyone’s going to stay here forever, right? So you know if some of them gets another opportunity I wouldn’t begrudge them for it, but at the same time, let’s help them with their personal career, but at the same time what’s best for us as a team and what are we, what are the pieces we’re missing and what do we need to fill them, too, so.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. One of the things that you discussed earlier was this idea that we’re starting to maybe don’t tell more, partially from domain responsibilities. How do you see the business part of that coming into peoples’ day-to-day work. Do they need to understand the running of the business more?

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, I think they do. Especially the creative people need to have a better grasp on that I think that’s what, you know, we’re working on that. At the same time, though, I think that the caveat of that is everyone’s doing everything and there’s too much crossover and so. At the same time I think our roles are becoming more hybrid, I’m also trying to work with people to go like, okay, well, you don’t need to be doing that right now. So, well who’s going to do it? Okay, well let’s figure that out and let’s figure that out, so. So, although I think our roles are becoming more hybrid, I do think we still need to create those boundaries around who has what and who’s responsible for what and being cognizant of certain people getting overloaded with stuff. They’re just going to do it because they feel like no one else is going to do it, well that’s not really fair to anyone else, so.

Richard Banfield: So much like you a lot of us who are in leadership positions in this digital space have come up through that domain. We know the stuff that is interesting, it’s new, let’s talk about it. That’s given us the opportunity to settle into some roles. What’s the next stage? Where is digital design, digital product creation, digital marketing, where does that all go from here? Because it seems like it’s matured to a point where it looks similar to an industry that has been around for a while. I know it’s not entirely there, but what do you think the next phase is for…?

Neil McPhedran: Yep, I think on my end of it, the advertising, I really think there’s a difference between, especially a true digital shop. A true interactive shop. I think you’ve got the ones that are sort of in the advertising world, I mean the ones that are in software world. And there really is a difference to it and how they project manage it and how you run it and they’re still different models, so. I think more of that software model, especially with what I’ve been talking about, agile development. More of that’s creeping into our business, I think.

Richard Banfield:  So some process methodology.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah and the pricing of things, too. I mean back to my comment about the economic model, I mean like, fee-for-service just doesn’t work, right? Like it works, but it’s not, I don’t think it’s for a long-term way forward.

Richard Banfield: What do you think is the way forward, then?

Neil McPhedran: I don’t have totality answer of an answer, I think it’s… yeah I think when it comes to social media content, for example, I think it’s more of a, it’s going to be more of a SASS model software as a service model. It’s going to be more of a monthly, not really retainer, because that’s the old model, but more of a monthly subscription. And it’s the bronze, silver, gold level. And with the bronze level I expect this amount of content and with you know. I think that’s kind of from a social media content perspective that’s where we got to go. But that doesn’t solve some of the production side of things and so on and so forth. So I think it’s more, it’s going to be more of a hybrid, I think, so we’re never going to get, well I shouldn’t say never, but it’s going to be a while before we get rid of charging by the hour. I think that we still kind of do that to a certain extent. How do you start pressing these other things, and I think in advertising we’ve always just come up with ideas and build and off they go. I think how do we kind of hold on to some of that stuff and own some of that stuff a little bit more so that, you know, so the other part of it is, how do you own things as if it’s a product? And then you sell it you sell it you sell it you sell it, so. So, something else we’re grappling with, trying to figure out. So if we’re going to build some app for a client, traditionally it would build a TV spot, and that’s what it is. The cost of it, off it goes kind of thing, but if we’re building an app how do you, you know is there a model that, well it’s going to cost X to build, but then we can resell it and resell it and resell it, so. It’s a number of moving parts, so. I think we’re still trying to figure out our spot and roles and how we can actually do it and then we can start figuring out how we price it I think, too, so.

Richard Banfield: And what’s the role in that transition with the client? So the client’s obviously feeling some tension as well around some of these new ideas and older model as you say. What are you hearing from there? Is there anything that they can contribute to the process? This transition?

Neil McPhedran: Well I mean I think on the client’s side, what’s changed I think in the last decade is procurement’s involvement, so it’s a constant grind and constant question of this. So if it’s all based on hours, there’s a constant questions of what those hours and if we’re making our money off that way, then. A good example is what Oreo did in the, the Oreo in the Super Bowl last year when the power went out. So what is the value of what they came up? I would argue that that little ad that they posted when the power went off garnered more earned media than probably any multi-million dollar spot. It was one of the most talked about things, so. You know, what, that take an hour to do kind of? So what’s the value of that to the client? What’s the value of that and how do you price that versus what’s the value of a multi-million dollar Budweiser ad where you pay millions of dollars to post the, to get the ad out there and, but the agency makes all that money off of the development of that 30-second spot right, so. And you know I don’t think the clients have that answer right now either, too, so.

Richard Banfield: But they’re probably looking.

Neil McPhedran: Definitely. Definitely. They’re hearing it from all different kinds of new ways of doing it and agency models and for sure.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. Maybe the conversation will end with this: Tell me a little bit about the role of culture in team and product creation and campaign creation. Fascination with that soft subject is, being a scientist myself is a bit scary. Tell me a little bit about how you maintain cultural, is that something that you do even consciously or…?

Neil McPhedran: To be honest it’s something that I really got to work on. I confine myself getting caught up in the grind and sometimes it’s like you know you get some other team will be like, let’s go for drinks after, and I’m like that’s a great idea, you know that kind of thing. It’s a constant, it’s something you got to be, I personally have to be cognizant of and think about that. So, I think a big chunk of it is one is just constant conversation and dialogue and communication of where we’re going and what we’re doing and it’s just those little moments throughout the day when I’m just having fun with what we’re doing, so. I think one of the hardest things for me is if I’m feeling grumpy or something like that to check myself and go, like okay, well if I’m exuding some grumpiness, it’s going to be, especially with us, we’re not a big team here, it’s just going to permeate. So it’s how do you keep the fun going? How do you keep the laughs going? And if someone’s feeling like really stressed out here, to kind of like, you know, it’s advertising, we’re not dying here, so…

Richard Banfield: Right.

Neil McPhedran: I had an old boss whose voicemail was, it snidely was, you know I’m out of the office blah, blah, blah, blah. But if you’re having an advertising emergency, you know if we have advertising emergencies, right, like, yeah our client sometimes will just get like all over us and we just feel like, just under the gun and you got to perform and, you know, and maybe it’s a mistake or whatever, but we’re not dealing with lives here. We’re not. It’s not world peace, it’s an ‘effin ad, or like a stupid piece of content or something like that so. It’s just, we keep reminding ourselves of that. We chose to be in this field because we like creativity. We like the fun. Or at least most of us. We like to build things and it’s a fun industry, there’s nothing wrong with profanity and you know. There’s always lots of after work drinks and things like that so it’s not a dry thing. So we got to kind of remind ourselves of that, too so.

Richard Banfield: So it sounds like you’ve found some work-life balance there. Obviously, slow round-off easy to of sorts…

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, it’s a young person’s industry, there’s no question about it. I think you know, I’m one of the few people here with kids and I’m definitely older than a lot of folks here, so. It’s just, just keeping young I guess. I don’t know. I mean I feel like when we were just talking about the challenges, it’s what’s kept me excited I think in this business, is that it’s going through such an evolution and I want to be, I don’t have the answers, but I want to be part of figuring that out, so. I’ve gone through a whole bunch of years where I’ve gone to a smaller shops that weren’t part of some of the big WPP network or on-the-com network, which I have, kind of thought for a long time that that’s where I wanted to go because I feel more entrepreneurial, I feel more of a builder and, enjoy coming back into this, the WPP, the big beast actually. Because I feel like I can still be the person to, I can be entrepreneurial, and I can build because I think as an industry we’re still trying to figure it out. But I like the infrastructure, I guess. That is in place. Like it’s that, that’s great, so I can follow that. You know, that’s definitely in play.

Richard Banfield: Entrepreneurial.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, right, yeah. So. I mean also I enjoy coming here where I’m in, I think something that’s. I mean I’ve struggled with it and I think a lot of other folks do is that when you’re the digital person and you’re being looked at to provide digital leadership, but you don’t really have a digital team of people? That’s tough, versus I’ve got a team here, I’m a leader, so I’m a leader of people, I’m a leader of a centered excellence, I guess, as well too. We’re going through it, so. I think there’s been a lot of people who have had a difficulty going to an agency environment and they’re leading from a, only from a skill-set. Or leading from a sort of, he’s the expert, you know bring him into the room. There’s not a team kind of back you up almost. Yeah, I know something that I have struggled with a couple smaller shops where it’s, you’re the leading guy, you think, per say. Right, like a leading, leading a practice and an expert in something that I wasn’t actually leading people kind of to, so. So that’s what’s been great about coming back here to this environment. You know, back to what we were saying at the beginning, like I think a tough part about the job is the HR side of it, but I guess I kind of still, you still got a team, you’re driving the team, you got the pieces, you can play with the pieces and figure out what do we need, and what are our holes, and it’s… like this isn’t a widget, it’s people, right? What we’re creating every day is not widgets, but we’re creating creativity and so it’s about the people. So.

Richard Banfield: Okay. Thank you very much for your time, Neil.

Neil McPhedran: Yeah, no problem.

Richard Banfield: We really appreciate it. Some really nice insights there.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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