We’d like to stand on guard for thee, but have you seen what they’re paying down here in New York?
On the wall of his 9th floor office at Comedy Central’s SoHo headquarters in New York, executive vice-president of marketing Walter Levitt has created a tribute to his native country. He calls it the “Comedy Central Canadian Club.”
The ever-growing mural features pictures of Comedy Central employees who are either Canadian or otherwise have a connection—marriage, career stop—to the True North Strong and Free.
So far, Levitt’s Canadian Club consists of on-air talent like The Daily Show correspondents Samantha Bee and Jason Jones, Sports Show with Norm Macdonald’s Norm Macdonald, and a host of other behind-the-scenes employees.
The more I talk to people, the more I’m discovering all of these Canadian connections,” says Levitt, who enjoyed a high-profile career in Canadian media marketing with the former Alliance Atlantis and Canwest before decamping for New York in April. “There’s no question that Canadians find each other and look for each other.”
There’s a perception in Canadian marketing circles, however, that it’s American agencies and marketers—and not just their fellow countrymen—that are increasingly seeking out Canucks. And vice versa.
Levitt is the latest in a string of senior-level marketing and advertising executives who have left Canada over the past decade or so to pursue a career in the U.S. The list is long but includes the likes of Lori Senecal, now president, CEO and partner with Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners in New York; Ernie Johannson, EVP, customer strategy and integration at Fidelity Investments in Boston; Darryl Nicholson, VP, North America for Johnson & Johnson’s Global Marketing Group in New York; Erin Flaxman, senior VP, director of worldwide marketing and business development for Initiative in New York, and on and on.
Others, such as TBWA\Canada chief creative officer Jack Neary, and Maple Leaf Foods’ chief marketing officer Stephen Graham—who was ranked No. 1 in Advertising Age’s Power 50 list of top global marketers while leading marketing for AT&T in the U.S.—have left Canada for a time, only to return.
It is a phenomenon that has been tagged with the scholarly sounding epithet “human capital flight,” but is more commonly known by the far catchier expression “brain drain.”
It is not endemic to the marketing profession, although the industry’s tendency towards naval-gazing—combined with Canadians’ well-known inferiority complex—means occasional handwringing about whether Canada’s marketing industry is big enough and dynamic enough to retain the best and brightest talent.
Speak to enough ex-pats now working in the U.S. and several recurring theories emerge about the demand. We tend to be more conciliatory and less inclined towards braggadocio, more aware of the world at large, respectful of others, and resourceful (something about bigger bangs with much smaller budgets).
Of course it’s not like Canadian talent is being dragged south of the border against their will; they want a chance to gain more international experience and work in a more dynamic ad market; a chance to ply their trade in the “majors”; escape what they perceive to be a conservative advertising market, and, yes, the opportunity to make more money (although that wasn’t an overriding factor).
For his part, Levitt downplays any suggestion that Canada is bleeding top-flight marketing talent. “I don’t see it as a big issue or challenge that’s become a major concern,” he says. “People are always going to look for interesting new opportunities, and the fact is, the U.S. is a bigger market—there are many more opportunities by virtue of its size… and anybody managing their career effectively needs to be open to those opportunities.”
For a career media marketer like Levitt, the scenario was straightforward. When his former employer, Canwest, was acquired by Shaw Media last year, he made the decision to move on. But with the Canadian media landscape essentially controlled by a handful of companies, he was faced with a paucity of senior-level media marketing jobs.
“It’s a consolidated marketplace, there are fewer companies, and by virtue of the size of the market, there are certainly fewer senior-level marketing roles,” says Levitt.
When Comedy Central reached out to him, Levitt discovered a multi-faceted brand extending way beyond TV into everything from record labels to DVD sales and comedy tours—providing a marketing challenge unlike any he had encountered in Canada. “Comedy Central as a brand is larger than many of the multi-brand media businesses in Canada,” says Levitt.
“There certainly are more opportunities for the media industry [in the U.S.], and that was part of what the appeal was for me to come and fill this role,” he adds. “There are many Canadian brands offering a ton of opportunity for marketers to move around between companies [but] the media industry is so consolidated.”
But while Levitt’s departure for New York was in large part dictated by circumstance, others have left Canada in an attempt to achieve a specific career objective.
“I wanted to eventually work in a global role, and the only way you can do that is if you get exposure to the people in those roles,” says Initiative’s Erin Flaxman, who made the move to the U.S. in 2006. “It would have been very hard to get that role while still living in Canada.”
Flaxman spent the first 12 years of her career in Canada with agencies including The Media Company and Starcom MediaVest Group—as well as a brief stint on the client side with The Home Depot—before eventually leaving Canada for a position at MindShare’s Chicago office.
She ultimately arrived at Initiative’s New York headquarters as SVP, director of U.S. business development in September, 2007, assuming global responsibilities for the Interpublic network in September, 2009.
Since Initiative’s global headquarters are in New York, it afforded Flaxman the opportunity to meet people in a position to grant her wish to pursue her global ambitions. “People come here all the time, so I get to meet everyone, whereas when you work in a smaller market it’s very rare you get to the global head office,” she says.
Like Flaxman, Johnson & Johnson’s Daryl Nicholson left Canada to obtain more international experience. After spending the early part of his career with the media department of BBDO and as media director of the now defunct Ammirati Puris, Nicholson left Canada for New York in 2002.
But the Edmonton native was also frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of ambition and desire to experiment in Canadian media, a situation he says was created by media agencies and vendors alike.
“I feel like the leadership of the [media] community was not very progressive or really interested in pushing the boundaries of innovation,” says Nicholson. “A lot of it was very status quo.
“What I think about the media industry in Canada is they’re good at tearing people down instead of building people up—and I think it’s really unfortunate,” he adds. “I think there’s a new generation of leadership in some of those agencies, and hopefully they’ll change that, but I feel like the last generation of media directors didn’t do such a good job of building up that industry as far as salaries, as far as responsibility and opportunity.”
Nicholson says that was compounded by a lack of innovation and experimentation on the part of Canada’s media vendors. “More than ever, media companies need to be about disruption, about getting consumers’ attention—and it’s harder and harder to do. It was a big challenge to get people to rally around that,” he says. “When I came back five years later [he returned to Canada in 2007 to run the J&J business for M2 Universal], I’ve got to tell you, some of those media companies did not like to have the boat rocked.”
The problem, he says, is that Canadian media is far too consolidated to foster an environment of risk-taking. “They don’t really have to do that much to get your business and keep your business,” he says. “Not that there aren’t huge conglomerates like Time Inc. [in the U.S.], but the competition is much fiercer. It’s a more dynamic marketplace.”
What is notable about accomplishments like Flaxman’s, Nicholson’s and people like Senecal is the degree to which they have distinguished themselves on not only a North American stage, but globally.
“It’s not like we’re just going down there and filling shoes, we’re actually being very successful,” says Twist Image president Mitch Joel, who has watched with a mixture of pride and dismay as Canadians have earned formidable reputations in New York and elsewhere.
“These people are performing very well, and it should force us as a marketing industry to stop and say ‘Why are we letting people this good go?’ I think we need to do what we can to ensure our talent is gainfully employed in our country.”
Joel theorizes that Canuck marketers—the vast majority of whom have grown up in close proximity to the U.S.—are likely to buy into the mystique of Madison Ave. Like Sinatra said, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
“If [Levitt] goes down there and does a great job, after that he can write his own ticket,” says Joel. “There’s something about being able to say ‘I ran all marketing for Comedy Central’ versus ‘I worked at a network in Canada.’ For a lot of people it’s like being called up to the majors.
“If Walter stays on as CMO at Shaw for 10 years and does this amazing work and goes to the United States, people would say ‘What’s Shaw?’ If he does an amazing job in three years at Comedy Central and says ‘I ran Comedy Central and moved up The Daily Show [in the ratings] everyone goes ‘Holy crap.’ They know exactly what that is.”
Levitt agrees—to a point. “I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that there isn’t an excitement as a marketer of working in the biggest marketing environment in the world,” he says. “Canadian marketers given a chance to play in that ball field are going to be excited, but I think marketers from anywhere in the world would love a chance to play in New York.”
Jack Neary, who in 2008 was lured to New York to become executive vice-president/executive creative director with BBDO Worldwide—with global creative responsibilities for Procter & Gamble—also likens the U.S., and New York in particular, to baseball’s major leagues. “I used to imagine what it might be like to work in the proverbial and mythological Madison Avenue,” he says. “There is kind of a feeling that ‘Wow, I’m in the bigs.’”
But for all the chatter about Canada losing qualified workers to the U.S, a 2006 Statistics Canada paper bearing the somewhat prosaic title “Emigration from Canada to the United States from 2000 to 2006” indicated that the number of Canadians living in the United States has continued to decline since peaking at 1.3 million in 1930.
The report noted that the number of individuals who left Canada to live in the U.S. on either a temporary or permanent basis dropped from 113,000 in 2000 to 73,000 in 2006.
David Smith, executive vice-president and partner for Toronto based executive search firm Mandrake Management Consultants, says the migration of Canadian marketing talent to the U.S. has slowed to a relative trickle over the past decade or so.
“The last real brain drain was 1998, ’99, 2000, before the dot-bomb,” says Smith. “In the U.S. [at the time] it was all about anybody with digital experience. If you had all four limbs and no criminal record, they’d give you a Green Card.”
According to Smith the current slowdown is largely because of a dearth of employment opportunities; there are, he says, currently about 5,000 agency personnel unemployed in New York (Neary says he personally saw “hundreds” of staff cut at BBDO alone when the recession hit).
While those who spoke to Marketing said that salary wasn’t the biggest factor in their decision to leave Canada, an increase in pay does tend to accompany any move to the U.S.—and particularly to New York. While Smith says that salaries for less senior positions, such as copywriter or art director, tend to be similar in the U.S. and Canada, the gap widens significantly the further up the corporate ladder someone progresses.
A top creative director in Toronto, for example, might earn between $300,000 and $400,000 a year, says Smith, while the base salary for the same position in New York is likely to be closer to $1 million. And if a firm is offering a 30% bonus on top of that base salary, the disparity increases exponentially.
“The bigger the job, the bigger the discrepancy,” says Smith.
“The salaries in the media are definitely better in New York,” agrees Nicholson. “The compensation that I make, I would never make in Canada; it wasn’t the only deciding factor, but it certainly played a part.”
Nicholson says that U.S. companies are willing to pay more simply because they’re operating in a more competitive and dynamic marketplace. “I feel like in Canada there were a lot of gentleman’s agreements about what they were going to offer people and how far they were going to push the needle on salaries,” he says.
“I think we’re kidding ourselves if we say money isn’t a factor when you start playing in a pool like New York,” adds Joel. “Offers come in that you probably wouldn’t see if you were sitting in an office in Toronto, Winnipeg or Halifax.”
From the June 13 issue of Marketing