How a bad LSAT score pushed Mia Pearson to become a Canadian PR mogul

Sep 4 2019, 8:01 pm

Daily Hive’s “Something or Nothing” series features both up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs from around the country and asks them why they do what they do, their biggest failures, success strategies, and more. Know someone who should be featured? Let us know.

Mia Pearson had a plan.

She was going to go to Queen’s University, live in Toronto, and become a lawyer. So she went to Queen’s, majored in Political Science, and was on track to fulfill her dreams — until she wrote the LSAT and scored poorly.

At the time, she was devastated. Her life plan had been completely derailed. She graduated from University with a Bachelor’s degree and had no idea what her next step would be.

So she did what many 20-somethings do when they’re lost — she moved to a new city. She relocated to Ottawa and volunteered at the Human Rights Institute doing PR while moonlighting as a waitress. And after her first taste of PR, she never looked back.

Fast forward several years — Pearson is the founder of two successful PR companies (her first was acquired in 2000), the current CEO of MSL Group Canada, and a proud mother of two.

Pearson took the time to chat with us about her experience founding two PR agencies, what it’s like running a start-up out of a coffee shop, selling your baby, and what her take is on being a working mother.

Mia Pearson / Instagram

  • Birthplace: Fort Frances, Ontario
  • Place you consider home: Toronto, Ontario
  • Age: 52
  • What you wanted to be when you were a kid: Lawyer
  • Previous job: President at Fleishman-Hillard Canada
  • How do you commute: Lyft and subway
  • Favourite class in school: International relations
  • What you always have with you: Laptop and Samsung Note
  • Favourite vacation spot: St. Lucia
  • What time you normally wake up at: 5:30 to 6 am
  • What time you normally sleep at: 10 pm
  • Normal breakfast: Protein Shake
  • Reading/listening to right now: Not big into novels, regularly reading Harvard Business Review

What’s your elevator pitch?

We’re all about managing and growing reputation and brand for our clients. We’re not a traditional PR agency – we’re a PR social digital agency.

We manage everything from corporate communications and what their CEO says, to how that organization behaves, and even right down to the customer journey and helping with the acquisition of products and services.

But at the highest level, we play an important role in the understanding and the protection of the brand.

Why did you start North Strategic?

The industry was changing so fast and everything was moving to digital, while the traditional media landscape was shrinking.

Trying to move a large organization to a new way of thinking is possible, but it takes time. I thought that starting from the beginning and growing would be quicker.

I started North because I felt that at the time, we have a moment to start something new that was social by design. We wanted to disrupt the market, focus on social and digital, and just be very different from what a traditional agency was at the time.

Justin Creally and Mia Pearson / Instagram

How many people did you start out with?

My business partner Justin Creally and I started working out of my house — my kitchen table was our office, and then we hired two interns, so it was the four of us.

Then we won Canadian Tire right out of the gate, and we had a big portion of their business, so we needed to be at more meetings downtown. The Spoke Club on King Street became our meeting place and we would just bring our interns there and have them sit at a table for the day, while Justin and I would be out selling and doing new business. We’d come back for an hour and meet with them, then go back out again. It was a crazy time. One of those interns, Chris, is still with us today.

Six months later we won Samsung — we had to hire another eight or nine people in literally 30 days. That was a really big turning point for us. When we won that business, we had to get space, so we subletted some space and we moved downtown.

How did you win such giant accounts right off the bat?

The senior people at those companies had worked with us before and so the beauty of starting a company for the second time is you have so much reputation and brand with those people, and they trust you. And we had couple of additional key players on our team that they also knew and loved, which helped as well.

The second part of it is we’re super creative. We went in with irresistible ideas that they loved, and in order to execute those ideas, they needed to hire us.

And then a big learning for me over the first company to the second is we hired senior employees quite fast. What slowed us down with the first was that we were way younger, and we had really junior people working for us, so it was hard to scale fast.

With the second, we made big salary decisions and hired really senior people and that’s a bit of a risk for an entrepreneur — but it paid off for sure. I think that was one of the best decisions we made and one of the big learnings from company one to company two.

Have you raised any money?

Nope. We did it all our own.

The thing is, you don’t need developers in the back end, it’s not like a tech company — we aren’t creating an object. We were billing and creating revenue right out of the gate.

CN Tower / Instagram

How did Toronto play a role in the development of North?

Toronto is critical. I found that if you don’t have enough head offices, it’s really hard to start and build a company in the services sector. So you need to be where the head offices are, which are in Toronto and Montreal.

I’ve also lived here ever since I left my small town of Fort Frances, so my network is here.

What’s one of the biggest challenges of your team is currently facing?

It’s growth. Talent and growth.

We have incredible retention, which is amazing. We have an 8% turnover which is unheard of in the industry. So we have an amazing culture.

But we just grow fast and a lot of growth can put stress on an organization and it means that you always have to be bringing in new talent. As you keep scaling, you’ve kind of exhausted your personal networks of people and then you have to headhunt.

High growth is not the easiest situation for people to be running in. But I’m used to it — my business partner and I thrive in that kind of environment, but it’s not always easy for everybody.

Knowing what you know today, what do you wish you knew eight years ago when North started?

Hiring really strong operational talent early.

We hired all this great talent at a senior level we could work on clients. But I learned that hiring for the operational side is equally as important. It’s hard because it’s not a revenue driver, so sometimes you don’t value it enough. But you need to. Those things have a cost to the business if you don’t move fast enough.

As an entrepreneur, what do you feel is the biggest pain that you’ve had to overcome?

Trying to scale culture.

When you start out small, you have a clear understanding of culture. Anyone who has worked really closely with me over the years knows exactly what I see as a strong culture and what that looks like and feels like and how to behave.

As you get bigger, you lose control of that.  Many people start holding the reins on culture because it’s not just a couple founders anymore — it could be 20 people, and every single person’s behavior impacts culture.

And so the biggest thing that I try to spend time on is making sure that I have enough time to be visible, open, and approachable. Even moving around the office and trying to sit in different pods helps with this.

What are you learning right now?

I’m learning a lot on pure digital.

That’s an area that I do a lot of work with on the corporate and reputation side, and I’m learning a ton in terms of where that’s moving and how our industry’s evolving.

We’re hiring a lot of people in that area and I love learning and seeing data and the work they’re doing.

And then I’m learning a lot around what it’s like to be part of a global company. We sold to Publicis, so now we’re a part of that. We recently had a global meeting in New York, and it was great to learn from everyone else and see what they’re doing around the world. It’s fascinating.

What’s it like building and selling companies, and still being a part of one after?

We took a lot of time to find the right company.

We had multiple parties in both scenarios wanting to buy us. It took about a year to make sure we were selling to the right company.

I think in both situations we’ve made good decisions and we’ve sold to great partners that gave us the autonomy to continue to do all of the things that made our company so desirable in the first place.

And then the other part of why you sell when you get to those certain levels is that also need to be able to provide your team with those opportunities and training. You get to a certain point as an entrepreneurial company, you can only provide so many opportunities outside of Canada for the team.

It’s part of why we retain people. Because if we continue to grow they’re never hitting a ceiling as there’s always opportunity to move up, and being a part of this bigger network means they’re being tapped when opportunities arise.

As an example, we recently launched something on the influencer side which all the group’s companies around the world will be taking part in. And someone from our team here in Canada is part of the three people globally leading that initiative.

A few members of the Team at North / Instagram

What goes through your mind as a founder when you’re selling your company?

First, you’re very protective — it’s no different than you are with your own children. This team built this with us, and we’re incredibly protective and invested in safeguarding the things that made us unique.

You have to be protective and you have to be willing to walk away from a deal if a company isn’t going to give you the autonomy you need and enable you to keep sacred those things that made your company so amazing to them in the first place.

The other part is excitement.

You grew this as your baby but at the same time, we see that these others are seeing it as something valuable that can help their company or companies learn from and grow and do things differently.

How do you prevent burnout?

Having children puts everything in perspective.

I’ll be super busy at work and go go go, but then there are moments where I get a phone call or I come home at night, and I realize that my kids are oblivious to that side of my life. They’re teenagers and don’t really care about it all that much. Or they make me laugh and realize you need to stop being so serious. They help keep me grounded.

Also, Pilates is really important to me. I do it in the mornings, and I feel like that is a moment where I’m very focused, and I love that.

I also have a place on the lake that’s so grounding. When I drive there, I come over this hill when you can see the lake, and there’s something so calming about that. I grew up on the lake in Fort Frances, and so there’s something about that for me that takes me away from everything. I think if I stayed in the city on weekends, I would burn out.

I’m probably there 70% of the weekends in a year. So a lot. I still work when I’m there, but it feels different there. It’s a different pace.

What is the biggest failure that you have experienced?

Probably, at the time, when I didn’t get into law school. I was devastated.

Now, I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But at the time, that definitely felt like a failure.

What does being an entrepreneur do to your personal life?

Being an entrepreneur is very all consuming.

I speak a lot at women’s conferences and they say to me, “I feel so guilty, I’ve got these young kids and I’m not at this and I’m not at this,” and I said, “Oh my God. Do not feel guilty.”

My kids are 19 and 16 and I’ll tell you I was not at every parent-teacher meeting, I was not at every game or every play or every school thing. But they are strong independent children that respect me and I think they look up to me. So you don’t have to be at all those things. You think that you’re disappointing them but you just have to be there for the most important things and you also have to be there for them in crisis, obviously. And you’ve got to drop work for that.

How has the PR industry changed over the past 5 to 10 years?

I think the biggest changes have been social media and the brand risks that companies are up against because of it.

As an example, take the airline industry. You have a customer front line employee situation that can evolve into a massive reputational crisis, which has an impact on the company’s stock price. All because some front line person does something and it’s not on brand. So how things have changed is that, as PR professionals, we’re definitely at the table more often now and brought on earlier to contribute not only to marketing and advertising campaign, but also to advise on business decisions.

I’ll get calls from CEOs saying, “We’re going to do this. How does that feel?” And I’ll be like, “Do you want me to tell you what a couple of headlines might look like?” And then you impact the changing of business decisions because they’re so focused on brand now.

You’re much more a strategic consultancy now, and there’s so much that wasn’t part of our kit back in the day. We do training for front line employees, executive branding, external branding like social media channels, public speaking, internal comms, and more. It’s this consultancy at a very strategic level that’s exciting and I love doing, and I spend a lot of time myself on that kind of work.

Toronto Office, North Strategic / Instagram

So do you think that the industry as a whole is better today than where it was a decade ago?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

It’s way more strategic. The media market has shrunk, so we’ve been hiring senior level reporters and they have such a critical view on brand. They have that external view and when you bring individuals like that, you combine that with people who have been doing corporate communications for years and then you bring in these former journalists and you start talking strategy, it’s incredible in terms of where you can go. It’s such an exciting time for our business.

Some agencies haven’t evolved to that and they’re still doing tactical — let’s PR the ad campaign. And that’s not exciting.

Everything a company does is public – it gets leaked to the media or posted on social media. And so that idea of preparing them and helping them before it goes out versus having to react and fix it after is a big part of our job. It’s just way more strategic and I think important in terms of what we do today than what we used to.

Is there a quote or a line that changed the way that you approach business?

There’s a T.S. Elliot quote, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

I think that the more risks you take, the more open you are. I always think, “Why don’t more people do this?” It just seems like the right thing to do. But it’s not that easy for everyone — it just feels that way to me.

What do you think the most surprising part of your job that people wouldn’t think is part of the day-to-day?

I think people would be surprised at how hands-on I am.

I don’t know if it’s that surprising. But when I do talk to people, they’re like, “You’re still doing that?” For example, if we’re trying to recruit and we’re hitting a wall I’ll reach out to seven people I know and then get some meetings and ignite that. So there’s something about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there as an entrepreneur that you’ll do no matter how senior you get.

Do you have any mentors?

Yeah, I do.

His name was Rick Anderson when I was 27 – 28 years old and working a job before I started my first company. He gave me opportunities way beyond my skill set and helped me grow.

And then I really feel like I’m learning a lot from some of the people that I mentor. There are some people who have just started, they’re right out of school and they’ll ask if I’ll go have coffee and I’m like, “Sure.”

And I end up learning so much because I’m learning how to manage the next generation. You can’t keep managing the same way. So they give you incredible insight. So that’s also important.

What do you think of the trends in the industry right now?

I think Instagram’s going to be around for a while. I mean, Facebook’s a whole different thing and that’s dying and my kids are not on that, but Instagram is definitely going to be around for a while, judging from the behaviors of my kids. And YouTube is where they get all their content.

I would disagree that influencers are going to be dead or not important — I think they’re just going to clean up the industry, and I think they’re going to hold them more accountable. I think it’s a bit of the wild west and it’s hard to know where brands are struggling with, where do we see impact. But what we’ve been seeing with campaigns we do is that when you’re using influencer content or earned media content, it is outperforming brand content. And our clients are doing AB testing against that all the time and it outperforms.

So I don’t think it’s going away.

How do you want people to remember you personally?

I want them to think that I was their biggest cheerleader, their biggest support. I want people to look back on their time working with me here as like the best time of their career.

I want them to think they were pushed, they did great work, and they were supported. That I had their back but I pushed them, and I helped them.

I like to be thought of as a visionary, like an empowering visionary. Like I can see the vision of what we want to create and then I want to bring and help everyone else see that and be a part of that.

Interview edited for clarity


PS. When I asked Mia what her favourite campaigns have been, she named two: Tim Hortons’ “The Away Game” where they brought a Kenyan hockey team to Canada, and Canadian Tire’s ice truck to showcase a battery that would start in the coldest weather.

Get in touch with Mia on Twitter and follow North Strategic on Instagram at @NorthStrategic.

And if you know an entrepreneur that should be featured, let us know!

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