MSL Group’s Mia Pearson on how she built two agencies, and an early retirement

In two weeks, Mia Pearson is retiring as CEO of MSL Group. Still just 53, she is leaving the industry with the unique distinction of having built and sold two agencies in Canada in 20 years.

First it was High Road in 1996, which she sold to FleishmanHillard in 2000. Then in 2011, she launched North Strategic, followed by Notch Video a year later. They were sold to Publicis in 2016.

In 2015, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women and named RBC’s Female Entrepreneur of the Year. Her long time partner and North co-founder Justin Creally compares her to Wayne Gretzky: “She makes everyone around her better.”

Before she left the agency world for the ski slopes and an early retirement, The Message spoke with her about her career in the hopes of gleaning a better understanding of how she did it. First, some background….

Mia Pearson grew up in Fort Frances, Ont. and studied political science at Queen’s University. After graduating, she took a PR program at Humber College, and got her first job at Continental PIR (which became Weber Shandwick) where she started working on technology clients.

She did well, and eventually Hill+Knowlton recruited her to lead key parts of the Microsoft Business, including the launch of Windows 95 in Canada. “I worked with Bill Gates. I was 27 years old, on stage with Bill Gates doing Q and As. It was really an amazing experience.”

But despite that early progress, and still not yet 30, Pearson wanted to start her own business.

Why did you leave Hill + Knowlton to start your own business?

It just wasn’t quite the agency that I saw as the future. And at that point, tech was taking off. It was 1996 when we started High Road, and we saw this huge opportunity to create an agency where culture was really at the centre of everything that you do.

You say you started High Road with culture at its core. What did that mean?

Creating a culture where you really invest in mentorship and training, and you remember what it was like to be an intern yourself, even when you’re CEO. You really give [employees] opportunities to feel trusted, and empower them, then they stay.

At High Road, Justin came in as an intern, and one of my proudest moments is when he became president of High Road when I took over as CEO at Fleishman.

You sold in 2000. Were you shopping the agency to holding companies?

They were all coming knocking—we had three offers—because of tech. We were 100% a tech boutique. And we were growing fast.

If the vision for High Road was about tech, what was it for North?

It was all about being social by design. So that was 2011, and a lot of agencies were saying ‘we need to retrain our team.’ And our vision was that even a PR idea needed to live in social.

So not only did we need people who are good at social and learning digital at the time…they also needed to look at how a PR idea would live on social so that it would move way beyond traditional media and news. And we really believed that the right way to do that was to build it from scratch, and the opportunity was there.

What pushed you to do that? You were established at FleishmanHillard, so why take the risk?

The reason is I just love it. I love PR, and I love our industry, and I love the strategy and the brand work. But what I love more than anything is being an entrepreneur, and starting something from scratch and building it.

And at that stage of my career, I felt like, ‘Okay, I have another one of these in me.’ And I have the energy and the time and the vision to do this. And an incredible partner, who I’ve worked with since almost the inception of highroad.

I always say to young people… I started North when I was 43. And at 43, you can begin a whole new career, and something really exciting. So I try to reinforce to people that your career is long, and you have lots of opportunities. You have lots of opportunities to keep reinventing yourself and doing the things you love.

You weren’t scared to walk away from Fleishman Hillard and start again?

No. I mean obviously you pick the right time and you think it through. But I wasn’t scared that we wouldn’t be successful.

Was that about confidence in yourself, or that you thought the vision was so good?

I think it was both. I just feel like confidence was instilled in me at a very young age. And so that that has always been there. I think that’s contributed to it.

And then I do think the vision: you can see something and what it can look like. And even the vision of the growth—we envision that kind of growth, we create growth culture.

How do you create a growth culture?

Celebrating wins and making that important, and bringing people in who have that experience.

You could bring in people who are good at client work day in and day out. But you need the combination of people who can present and grow. There’s a different fire in an individual that drives growth culture. They show a different kind of initiative, and they get excited by winning and growing as a result. And we look for that when we’re hiring.

And I really, truly believe that if you don’t drive a growth culture, you’re going to lose talent. There’s a lot of agencies that maybe hit around 20 people, and they can’t get bigger. Then people are going to just hit a ceiling. And there’s no way for them to grow but leave.

So I believe that you have to create a high growth culture, and win big new accounts, to give all your high performers opportunity to keep going up and developing their career and moving up into new roles.

So this is a real retirement?

I’m never starting another agency. I mentor some startup companies. I’ll continue to do some of that and invest potentially. I’m talking outside of our industry.

I’m on the board of Enactus. It’s an entrepreneurial organization [where] we drive entrepreneurial leadership at the university level. There are clubs across universities and colleges across Canada. And I love snowboarding and winter… so I have a big part of my life that exists on a more personal side outdoors, so I’ll just be doing all the things I love.

And I’ve done a lot of work with the Judy Project around personal branding for women. If I am going to do something in the future, I could see doing more around that: How do we help woman to have the confidence and the comfort with an external brand?

A lot of male CEOs, they ask me to help them with their brand, and it’s important for the company. And women still struggle with seeing the value of that.

We were surprised to hear you’re retiring.

So many people keep saying I’m too young. But you know what, you’ve got to do it while you still can enjoy the other elements of life.


David Brown