Best Advice from Serge Rancourt

“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry.

This week Best Advice talks with Serge Rancourt, founder and CEO of No Fixed Address, a rapidly growing alternative to traditional ad agency models. After only two years, NFA has grown to more than 80 people and offers expertise across the entire communications grid. Serge is the former CEO of Publicis Canada and DS+P.

What challenges did you have early in your career? 

I got my start running the General Motors business for MacLaren Advertising in Quebec. It was my first job and I spoke only French. We developed a ground-breaking campaign for GM directed by the amazing Quebecois feature film director Claude Jutra. It caused a sensation in Quebec, and GM loved it so much that MacLaren moved me to Toronto to run the account.

I remember struggling with the language, and after one presentation at the agency I apologized for my broken English. Doug Murray, the agency managing director, wrote me a note afterwards that I will never forget: ‘We didn’t hire you for your language. We hired you for your smarts. No need to apologize.’

Fighting through that cultural and language barrier was extremely difficult, but it taught me a few invaluable lessons. For one, I learned to truly appreciate what people from other cultures go through as they assimilate into our society. I also learned about the value of perseverance—the ability to take it on the chin and just keep going.

Any other early lessons? 

As an account guy, I had a fairly conservative style. Clean desk. Always on time. Business attire. No surprises. And at first, I expected everyone to kind of be the same, or at least close to that. But then I realized the great value of diversity and difference. I saw the power that comes from seeing things differently, and that a broad perspective is wonderful and liberating in a sense. In this business, you need to embrace differences, otherwise you might as well join the army.

Who was your mentor? 

The guy I leaned on most in my early days was Frank Anfield. He was from Vancouver and eventually became one of the few Canadians to be promoted to a top multinational position as head of Young and Rubicam in New York. Frank taught me great values and the fundamentals of how to build solid relationships with clients.

Whenever he met with a client, he always had a pad and a pen with him. It was more than just a way of recording information. It became a symbol, a way of demonstrating to the client that he was paying attention and that he was genuinely interested in the client’s business. Frank taught me that the most important elements of the client relationship are confidence and trust, and that this must never be taken for granted. It must be earned and constantly reinforced.

What do you tell young people entering the business? 

My best advice to people coming into the business today is to jump in with both feet. Get involved. Go beyond expectations. The people who succeed in this business, especially early in their careers, are those who don’t sit back and wait to be asked, or told what to do. The future stars are the ones who seize the initiative and just go ahead and do it. You need to be passionate, curious and be ready to run with it on your own.

Do you give them any warnings? 

I think young people should be wary of being lured into this industry by the glamour. Make sure you have a true passion for the product and a point of view on what you believe good product to be. You will need that passion and that belief to sustain you through the inevitable ups and downs that you will experience. Yes, there is a glamorous aspect to the business, but it can also be tough and very demanding. If you don’t have a genuine passion for it, you will be devoured.

What is Serge’s Golden Rule?

Ask yourself every day if you are indispensable. Is it because you own client relationships? Or are you doing great work? Or are you key to winning new business? How are you indispensable? Ask yourself that, because there are so many others waiting in line to take your place.

And maybe most important, be kind. And enjoy the ride.