Justin Creally, the co-founder of North Strategic and chief executive of MSL Canada, is retiring at the end of June, with Jessica Savage taking over as CEO.
Publicis-owned MSL Canada includes the PR agencies MSL and North Strategic, as well as Notch Video. Along with the promotion of Savage (left in main photo), Nadia Beale (centre) has been named president of MSL Canada, and Sarah Stewart-Browne (right) has been named president of North Strategic.
Creally’s departure comes just months after being named CEO of MSL following the retirement of his long-time partner Mia Pearson. The pair launched North Strategic in 2011 as a PR agency custom built for the emerging age of social media.
They followed that up by launching Notch to meet a growing client appetite for video content. Their vision for the quickly changing landscape of PR and media proved prescient, as the shop quickly emerged as a top agency in the country before being acquired by Publicis in 2016.
“I just feel really lucky,” said Creally, who started working with Pearson at her first PR agency High Road in the mid ’90s. “I’ve been in the right spot at the right time, and been surrounded by some some amazing people obviously, from being business partners with Mia to partners with Jess and Sarah and Nadia.”
Creally, who will remain CEO until the end of June, said his plan to leave has been in the works for some time. Management has putting the right pieces in place, with the new three-person leadership team assuming more responsibilities. “Let’s face it, I’ve been coasting for a while,” Creally joked.
“Succession planning has been important to us, and it’s been a lot of trying to find the people with the same core values of a growth mindset,” he said.
Savage has been with North since 2012, and worked with Pearson and Creally at High Road before that. As CEO of MSL Canada, she will oversee the PR, earned media, and influencer offerings for North Strategic and MSL, as well as Notch Video, and she’s also part of the Publicis Groupe Canada leadership team.
“Jess is a total leader,” said Creally. “There are a lot of great PR people out there, a lot of great counsellors, there are a lot of great people who advise clients. But taking that and then being a leader is a whole other thing, and that’s what Jess is. A leader with empathy and caring, and of course great business sense.”
“What I’m excited about is taking all of the learnings and the amazing example that both Mia and Justin have given us, and continuing to grow,” said Savage. Pearson and Creally long prided themselves on their employee retention and fostering a culture of growth. That focus laid the foundation for this transition to a new leadership group that has been with the agency for years.
“We have an amazingly talented team, some of whom have been with us since they were interns,” said Savage. “And they continue to grow their careers with us, so that doesn’t change, that fundamental of growing talent growing great teams.”
Stewart-Browne has been with North Strategic since 2013, and is also joining the Publicis Groupe Canada leadership team, while Beale has been with MSL since 2007. MSL also promoted Lauren Thomson to vice-president, PR, while Megan Page has been promoted to vice-president of social and digital.
“I love the idea that we are very kind of fierce female leadership team now,” said Savage.
Creally said he’ll miss the energy and excitement of the industry, and he’s stepping away as the agency is picking up momentum—with a number of significant wins in 2021 and brands are becoming more active after a tough 2020.
“It feels like COVID put a lot of RFPs on hold, and put a lot of things on the back burner,” he said. But activity has picked up in 2021, and MSL has picked up a number of new clients and assignments since January. “There’s a lot of runway ahead of the agencies,” he said.
“I have always had a very entrepreneurial spirit, and recognizing opportunity I think is one of the strengths I have,” said Savage. “I know that we have the team in place that also feels the same. So we certainly won’t be resting on what we’ve been doing.”