In a move that comes as no real surprise to industry watchers, Kevin Johnson has been named CEO of GroupM Canada. The veteran media executive succeeds Stuart Garvie, who departed the company in October after four years as its chief executive.
Johnson will now have oversight of the GroupM media agencies Mindshare, MediaCom, Wavemaker, Essence, and m/SIX, as well as its programmatic arm, Xaxis. He will also serve on GroupM’s North American leadership team, and retain his roles with two diversity-focused initiatives: MediaCom’s Global Belonging Council and the WPP Inclusion Council.
The moves completes a seven-year rise to the very top of GroupM’s Canadian operations for Johnson, who first joined its MediaCom Canada network as chief client officer in 2014, becoming CEO the following year. “When I joined MediaCom, looking at what we were going to be in the future was probably the most challenging and most rewarding part of my career ever,” he said. “I look [at that time] with great fondness.
“Did I have aspirations to become a CEO? Absolutely. Did I have aspirations to become CEO of an [operating company]? Not necessarily. But here I am, and I’m certainly blessed. And I look forward to seeing what we can achieve together.”
“This is an exciting moment in our industry as it’s undergoing transformational change with a renewed focus on data, intelligence, and outcomes,” said GroupM North America CEO Kirk McDonald in an email statement to The Message. “With that, KJ is the right person to lead GroupM and enable us to meet current and future client needs and accelerate the next leg of GroupM’s growth in Canada.”
Johnson will continue to hold the title of interim CEO at Mindshare, while Urania Agas has been promoted to president of MediaCom Canada. Johnson laughed when asked how quickly he’d like to find the next Mindshare CEO and remove the interim title. “We’re definitely not going to rush it,” he said. “We’re going to find the right person that fits the culture of Mindshare. Period.”
Today’s appointment also makes Johnson one of the very first Black CEOs in North America media and marketing (McDonald, also a Black executive, was appointed GroupM’s North American CEO last year) at a time when there has been pointed conversation about the industry’s lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles.
Johnson penned a personal column last year about being “the only Black person in the room,” and said he knows his appointment will be important to the Black advertising community.
“I definitely feel the weight of that, absolutely,” he said. “I know that within my community as this news is shared, there will be a lot of encouragement and warm wishes.”
People may point to his accomplishment as motivation for others, particularly younger Black people in the industry. “I want to use this platform to encourage the next generation to go after what they want, and attain all types of success. It’s heavy, but at the end of the day I’ve said to many people ‘If not me, then who?'”
Johnson said he intends to introduce KPIs for the company around representation for racialized and LGBTQ+ communities, and where it is today with regards to its hiring practices and current workforce. “We are being very intentional, not just on a local basis but a global basis,” he said. “I will definitely be leaning into that, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s something I’m extremely passionate about.”
His appointment also comes at a pivotal moment for the media industry, which is currently grappling with a host of capital-C challenges, including the need to support Canadian-owned media; a responsibility to support and respect Canada’s racialized communities (and the media owned by those communities); and questions around recruiting talent and the future of work post-pandemic.
“I don’t think there’s been a time when we’ve had so many very big topics of concern that we need to tackle,” he said. “But I’ve always said that this has been the best time to learn as a CEO or a leader. There are going to be Harvard business case studies written on Covid and how we got through this. To be able to go through this in real time and learn on the fly has been extremely challenging, but I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to do so.”
Johnson admitted he’s not great at celebrating personal victories (“it’s something my coaches have told me I need to work on”), and said his first thought upon being informed he would become GroupM Canada’s next CEO was to ponder “how to win” in the position.
“But now I’m actually thinking about how I just stop and celebrate for a moment before getting into the work,” he said. “With what we’ve gone through with the pandemic, we’re definitely more thoughtful about things in life, so this weekend I feel like I’ll take some friends out and treat them to dinner, just to be thankful and… celebrate what I think is a really great achievement.”