Devon MacDonald joins Cairns Oneil as the independent agency’s first president

Nearly a decade after launching, Cairns Oneil has hired its first-ever president. Agency co-founders David Cairns and Sherry O’Neil announced today that former Mindshare Canada CEO Devon MacDonald (centre) has joined the independent media agency as president.

MacDonald is the latest in a series of senior-level hires for the 40-person shop, joining a seasoned senior management group that in addition to Cairns and O’Neil is rounded out by managing directors Robin LeGassicke, Tim Hughes, and Pam Hill.

His appointment follows an extensive search process that started in February with a list of approximately 15 potential candidates.

“Over the course of a couple of months we really got to know each other really well and started to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit that is in some people, but not everybody,” said Cairns. “Devon seemed to be the right fit for us, both because of his managerial experience and his digital expertise.”

MacDonald also offered a combination of global agency experience and knowledge of the creative side of the business, having spent time in planning roles with agencies including DentsuBos and BBDO Proximity, and two years as VP, managing director of 360i, Dentsu’s integrated creative and media agency, which launched in Canada in 2013.

“Devon understands the value [of media] not only to our clients but also the creative agencies,” said O’Neil. “He really understands the importance of the relationship between media and creative. We thought that Devon would be the person to drive us into the next decade and really build on the principles David and I have held for the first 10 years of our business.”

O’Neil said MacDonald’s digital experience was paramount for Cairns Oneil as its clients continue to boost their digital marketing investment. The past 20 months has seen its business change markedly, said O’Neil, with clients increasing their digital spend to the point it now accounts for 70% of its total media investment.

“The amount of money being spent through digital channels has really grown exponentially as a lot of our clients’ businesses had to rely on ecommerce [during the pandemic],” said O’Neil.

MacDonald will serve as a mentor to the entire managing director team, said O’Neil, with a “heavy focus” on further developing its digital expertise. His appointment will provide LeGassicke, the agency’s managing director, digital, with a partner that can help expand the digital team and enable the agency to further expand its business, she said.

Cairns said the agency was carefully constructed around senior talent in order to address a gap in the market created by so many network agencies eliminating their middle and senior-level leadership.

“We thought that the work was being done by less experienced people, and we thought it was probably not providing the right kind of value to clients,” he said. “That’s how we structured the company, and we’ve always stayed true to that.”

MacDonald said he began taking stock of his career options after parting with Mindshare in January, and decided that he wanted to continue working in the media side of the business. “I really enjoy the space, and I enjoy the creativity aspect of it, and I wanted to work with people of high integrity and empathy. Those were my main factors,” he said.

He said that had always perceived Cairns Oneil as a “sleeping giant” among the country’s independent agencies, even as it sometimes pried talent (and clients) away from the larger network agencies. “I always had this special appreciation for them,” he said. “They really operated below the radar with a humble confidence.”

He said that he’s been impressed by the strength of Cairns Oneil’s client roster and strong organic growth. “It speaks to their ability to build relationships and really solve client problems.” 

This is MacDonald’s first experience working with an independent agency, something he’s enthused about after spending so much time working with multinationals. “I learned a lot within the holding companies,” he said. “I worked on some great clients and teams, and the scale and experience was tremendous, but I’m very interested in the independent world.”

Chris Powell