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Devon MacDonald is the President of Cairns Oneil, a full-service media agency specializing in strategy, insights, media planning, media buying, and analytics. As a seasoned leader, strategist, and marketer, he is passionate about helping clients achieve their business goals and reach their audiences. Devon has a background in technology, creativity, and media, which gives him a multi-faceted and builder’s mindset to problem-solving. Before Cairns Oneil, he was the CEO of Mindshare Canada, one of the largest global media networks, where he led the Canadian operations and built a culture of trust, provocation, and inclusivity.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • [03:40] Devon MacDonald talks about how he got into Cairns Oneil
  • [05:14] The experience of being hired as the President of Cairns Oneil 
  • [07:19] Devon’s advice for founders wanting to hire a president
  • [09:38] How to empower your executive team as a founder 
  • [13:36] The value of having shared visions and plans between founder and president
  • [16:15] Devon explains how they leverage AI to grow Cairns Oneil
  • [29:19] How can founders attract good executive talent to help run their company?
  • [32:42] The best practices for building exceptional company culture 
  • [38:30] Devon shares Cairns Oneil’s customer success stories

In this episode…

As an entrepreneur, managing a business at the top level alone can be an arduous task. In such a scenario, bringing in experienced executives, such as a president, can significantly enhance the operations of the company.

However, hiring an executive team as a founder is easier said than done. Most founders are reluctant to relinquish control of their companies, fearing that others may not possess the same understanding and expertise needed to run the business successfully. Fortunately, this was not the case for Devon MacDonald, the hired President of Cairns Oneil. He acknowledges that the founders’ decision to empower him, relinquish control, and align shared visions and plans, among other factors, facilitated a seamless transition, thus making his journey as the president much smoother.

On this episode of the Inspired Insider Podcast, Dr. Jeremy Weisz sits down with Devon MacDonald, President of Cairns Oneil, to discuss how founders can successfully hire and retain executive teams. Devon shares his experience of being hired as the president of an established company, advice for founders wanting to hire a president, tips for empowering your executive team, and the value of having shared visions and plans. He also shares how Cairns Oneil leverages AI to grow the company and build a greater culture.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

Special Mention(s):

Related episode(s):

Quotable Moments:

  • “Be open to advice and welcome the context.”
  • “For a lot of brands, the data that they have is one of the most valuable resources.”
  • “AI is an amazing additive tool for every marketer to put in their toolkit.”

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:15 

You are listening to Inspired Insider with your host, Dr. Jeremy Weisz.

Jeremy Weisz  0:19 

Dr. Jeremy Weisz here founder of where I talk with inspirational entrepreneurs and leaders today is no different. I’m here with Devon MacDonald of Cairns Oneill. And Devon, before I formally introduce you, I always like to mention other episodes people should check out of the podcast. And since this is part of the top agency series, there’s some really cool agency owners, Devon, I had on Kevin Hourigan, who’s had an agency since 1995. So he talks about the evolution, the services, they offered, the pivots, they went through the challenges, the ups and downs, really fascinating to hear. So check the one out with Kevin Hourigan of Spinutech. I also had Todd Taskey, on how Taskey has a podcast called the Second Bite Podcast, he actually pairs agency owners with private equity and help sell agencies he calls a second bite because when they sell sometimes, they make more on the second bite than they do on the first he walks through valuations, what the market is like, and kind of his evolution. So that was a great episode as well. And this episode is brought to you by Rise25. At Rise25, we help businesses give to and connect to their dream 100 relationships. And how do we do that we actually help you run your podcast. We’re an easy button for a company to launch and run a podcast. We do the strategy, the accountability and the full execution. Devon we call ourselves the magic elves that work in the background and make it look easy for the hosts in the company so they could run their business and develop amazing relationships and produce great content. For me, the number one thing in my life is relationships. And I’m always looking at ways to give to my best relationships. And I have found no better way over the past decade to profile the people and companies I most admire and share with the world what they’re working on. So if you’ve thought about podcasting, you should if you have questions, go to or email [email protected]. And I’m excited to introduce Devon MacDonald. He’s president at Cairns Oneil, one of Canada’s leading independent media agencies. Devon was named the media Leader of the Year in 2022 by strategy magazine is a past recipient of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his work in the community. And Cairns Oneil is a full-service media agency specializing in strategy insights, media planning, media buying and analytics. And Devon, thanks for joining me.

Devon MacDonald  0:22 

Jeremy, thanks for having me. It’s good to be here.

Jeremy Weisz  2:48 

Talk about guild the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. What did you do there?

Devon MacDonald  2:54 

Sure. So a good place to start, which is about 20 years ago, where I was running a company that provided technology services to charitable organizations across Canada, hardware software, working, what is the internet? How do we do that? How do we raise money? How do we market ourselves? And I was able to work with a few 100 different organizations across the country. And in recognition of that, and timed up at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee anniversary of her being the queen. I was fortunate recipient of a community Award, which was that metal?

Jeremy Weisz  3:34 

Amazing what brought you to Cairns Oneil.

Devon MacDonald  3:40 

Okay, so I mean, 20 years ago, I was in the technology world. I started in technology, I was a data programmer in the previous millennium. And then all of my clients along the way, working for consulting firms or whatnot, ended up being sales and marketing departments. After spending too much time on the plane, working for those firms, I decided to get a real job, which I thought it’s time which is to go agency side. And I was in the creative world first. I’m running a couple of teams and starting another company there. But realized that all the data and information was in the media side. And I left creative, we can go back to talk about a couple of those things, but to join and run a operating company for the global holding companies. But wanting to get to an independent to flex some more of an independent mindsets and some building capabilities and some entrepreneurial or thirst that I had. That led me to Cairns Oneil and I’ve been here for just over two years now and thrilled to be here.

Jeremy Weisz  4:55 

Talk about the dynamic between there’s two founders talk about the dynamic between bringing in a president, like what was your expectations? What was their expectations coming in?

Devon MacDonald  5:14 

Really good question. Thanks for the easy ones to start. So David Cairns and Sherry O’Neill founded Cairns Oneil coming up to 13 years ago, excuse me. And they are noted veterans and respected leaders within the media world in Canada, and unrecognized a void in the market, where brands could usually only be serviced by large operating companies from holding companies, or by smaller independents that didn’t often lacks the scale or technology to provide service. So we provide service to midsize marketers. And brands in Canada that I call they operate with autonomy, oh, they’re sharing theirs, David, that’s for sure. And they have had a lot of success with their agency. And we’re looking to do more, and wanting to bring in a president to help them run their company and bring it into the next space. I am that person and again, had been with them for two years now. And trying to add some of my capabilities and ambition to the existing teams and clients which are quite strong. But my background adds a different level of support and innovation to their company.

Jeremy Weisz  6:43 

What advice do you have Devon from, let’s say a founder is listening to this. And they’re like, I really want to bring on a president. Okay, what is the easiest way? Sounds like the transition was great when you got on. But I don’t know, I think sometimes working with founders is not so easy. I can speak for myself, maybe not so easy to work with. But what advice do you have for founders bringing in President in onboarding them, and transitioning to kind of relinquishing, maybe control.

Devon MacDonald  7:19 

So, coming into this, I’m well aware of a number of stories of failures. This success does not happen often. Because your company is your company, you have made it, you’ve decided in the name, you’ve decided the logo, you have lost sleep, blood money over for years to get to where you want to be every founder has gone through this. And we’ve been successful in this transition. And my advice to other founders, one, make sure you know what you want. Make sure you are ready to give up some control. Because the person you hire, you want them to do what they’re good at. You want them to activate their skills, you want them to activate their network. And if you don’t, they’re going to quit. And they’re going to leave. So be sure you’re ready. And then be sure you empower them. And then the way that you do those, both of those things, I think, and where we’ve had a lot of fast myself and David and Sherry, we’ve been very upfront with each other from before I started with the role and going through the interview process, then testing me on my plan, and me testing them on their plan to understand if there’s a good fit for how we think and what our shared ambition is for this are distinct paths, but shared plans for the future, how do they line up. And I’m very fortunate to have such strong-minded founders that were committed to the plan that have stuck to it. And I think because of that we’ve had a tremendous amount of success.

Jeremy Weisz  9:12 

I love what you said there too Devon, there’s two things one, empowerment. And two, having a shared plan and vision. Talk about empowerment when you came on, because I know we’re going to talk about how you that’s a big initiative for you with the team in general is empowerment. But how did they empower you when you first came on and then beyond?

Devon MacDonald  9:38 

A couple of ways. So first of all, we’re able to really establish trust with each other early. And through transparency through good discussions through getting to know each other, having a coffee, simple things. And it was during the pandemic so some of those things were difficult where, yeah, we want to meet face to face. Okay, it’ll be in a park and a lunch chair, that’s great. Let’s do that takes some humility and trust to get there. But they allowed me to take over their company, excuse me to prepare a plan and to execute it. They had feedback into it, they provided me context and advice, I’m open to the advice, I welcome the context, every bit of information that they have around people, or clients, or history helps me do my job even better. So I think what has happened in a lot of other founders cases is the main hire, somebody comes in and thinks I have to change everything. Well, that’s not going to work, you’re going to repel, you’re going to have the people rebel against you, the clients leave you, you have to fit into the system, while complementing it. So that trust went a long way for them empowering me and building that vision together. And then we’re also fortunate to have some early success with bringing in new furnaces and bringing new clients, my method would be different than theirs, everyone works differently than everyone else. And early success allowed us to build further trust, which led to further empowerment.

Jeremy Weisz  11:30 

You can’t go wrong with new services and new clients. Right. So how did you start that relationship? Were you in charge of a certain initiative? What was the kind of impetus of starting the service and new clients?

Devon MacDonald  11:47 

Well, for me in enjoying the agency, and agreeing to come on as President to help them transform, need to understand what do we have to start with? And where are we so let’s look at some outputs of some reports and look at some outputs of some strategy. What is a base technology that we’re using to empower the decision-making. And with my background in technology, and working for different operating companies, that helps me understand what we should do next. And while it was a great service, and offering that was uplifting at the time, I knew how to level those things off, how to get buy in from the team, other business cases, and how to sell it into clients in a great or simple value proposition for them, that maybe made it easy for them to buy. So that’s the thing with transformation is I do believe more in incremental improvement than complete turnaround, especially with a company that has such a great history and heritage in the market of Cairns Oneil does. It’s not a turnaround, it is the eternal star, if you have to choose between those two things, we are an internal startup. So incremental improvement in technology is how we did that.

Jeremy Weisz  13:11 

So with the empowerment side, and then talk about the plan side. How did they test your plan? And then how did you test theirs? Start with yours. And was this before you started? Did they say come up with a plan? Like walk me through it in detail as they come up with an X amount month plan? How did it actually work from the beginning?

Devon MacDonald  13:36 

Yeah. So I have to do two plans. This is in the discussion phase after the first coffee. We’re serious about each other. Okay, well, what would you do in the first 90 days? And what would you do in the first five years. And I don’t want to say the 90 days was easy, but the 90 days was tested and true. There’s good books and processes and methods out there about what to do in terms of evaluating in my consultancy background helped me go through that and to break things down in big pieces. The five year was difficult and harder. Because I wasn’t sure exactly what I have. And what exactly good or bad was with the agency. Happy to find many good things. And I always hope for the worst but plan for the best in that. It requires a good balance of honesty and pessimism with optimism to get there. And so simply though, the way I look at it the way I look at media in our position in the industry, we, because of our size and scale, we can operate as fast as we want to, we can change faster than our competitors. And that gives us such an advantage. So my five-year plan was based on change, and how to amplify the strengths that an agency like Cairns Oneil had.

Jeremy Weisz  15:32 

I want to talk about the 90 day and five year for a second, and I’m guessing the answer, but I don’t know. In the change, right, in that five-year plan was AI, in that plan at all? I mean, at that point, when you started, I mean, AI wasn’t huge or anything, obviously. Now, it’s a hot topic. Was that even in the realm of your thinking, at the time? Is a five-year plan?

Devon MacDonald  15:58 

Not in the way that we’re using it today? No, not at all.

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