Never taking NO for an answer!

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Legendary Leadership Series: Marketing Trailblazers


Meet Sharifa Khan, Rem Langan and Bryan Pearson as they discuss what it takes to be the first in their respective industries and transform categories.

Sharifa Khan is the President and CEO of Balmoral Multicultural Marketing, the oldest multicultural marketing agency in Canada. She leads a team of seasoned ethnic marketing professionals to service corporate, government and non‐profit organizations.

Rem Langan is the former Chief Marketing Officer, McDonalds and President, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada. As President, CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada, he set the strategic direction of the organization leading all internal and external fundraising initiatives.

Bryan Pearson is the former Chief Executive Officer of LoyaltyOne Co. Under Bryan’s leadership, LoyaltyOne was recognized repeatedly as a leading employer, a most admired corporate culture, one of the greenest companies and one of Canada’s top employers for millennials and women.

Jacob Kessler, Vice President, AMA CMHOL steered the conversation forward with the powerhouse trio, as they discuss their journey that makes them the marketing trailblazers. The excerpts have been captured below:


Q: How early in your career did you know that marketing was your true calling? What have been some of the turning points in your career that led you to where you are right now?

Sharifa: When I came as an immigrant young woman, I saw that newcomers were contributing economically, socially and culturally and yet major brands did not have them on the radar. It sparked a passion that turned into a conviction and I made it my life mission to be able to ‘Build bridges of understanding’, helping brands and companies to look at the immigrants and connect with them. I jumped with both feet and here I am- I found my home.

Bryan: Freshly minted out of an MBA college, I was attracted towards marketing. I liked the way marketing sat at the centre of purposeful organizations that represented the consumers. It was the holy grail from where insights and strategy arose and I wanted in. Later, the passion turned into real advocacy when I discovered the real power of customer information to form strategies and measure results. I still carry that passion every day.

Rem: I was a young man, just looking for a job and I happened to meet a fascinating person from the advertising industry. When he talked, all I could see was his love and passion for his work. And that was the moment for me. I fell in love with my career from day one.


Q: You are trailblazers in your respective industries. What was it like to build a territory and what were the struggles you faced when you started out? Is there any experience that became a defining moment for you?

Sharifa: Thirty-three years back when I opened my agency doors, Multicultural marketing was almost non-existent. I knew from my own experience that the new immigrants were not understood well. For instance, my well-meaning colleagues would often exclaim that I spoke good English; they simply did not understand my ethnicity that I came from colonized Hongkong. My trailblazing way stemmed from those experiences. I felt that I have a responsibility towards the Canadian immigrants. This drive and personal conviction have always been my north star. I knew that the journey would be rough, but I am a very resilient and obstinate person. And here I am!

Rem: When I started with McDonalds, I realized soon that the social marketing side of branding was not that well understood. I was really interested in trying to get back to doing something for the communities. George Cohon, who started McDonalds in Canada had a real flair for looking after the folks in the community. I still remember that time in the 1970s when the Santa Clause parade was cancelled. He brought it back for those kids who waited to witness the parade every year. It was remarkable to see how people’s response when we gave them something beyond just a hamburger. My journey to build the social side of the company has been very rewarding and I found meaning in that.

Bryan: For me, the Air Miles award program was the first one that set my path. Launching one card that collects all points and redeem it for free flights, democratized free air travel which had been the purview of only business travellers. Knowing that you are creating value for every participating brand through these common group of blue cards holding customers was quite an experience! I remember a renewal meeting with one of our large sponsors; the CMO was not fond of us as we were consuming a good chunk of the marketing budgets. So, when the CMO wondered if we had come with a few surveys and data results from 100 interviews to build our case, I said, “Actually this is based on 678,312 of your customers”. And that set the tone for the meeting. I realized that information has power- analysis of pre-post program behaviour, customers’ spending habits, how you measure results helps a company understand their business.


Q: Those were some great moments! How important was mentorship in guiding your way? We, at AMA also have a mentor exchange program to connect mentors and mentees. What are some of the advices you would give to the youngsters towards building their career?

Rem: There is a saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Mentorship like branding is all about relationship. As a person, what is your brand and vision? Find that, make promises and keep them. Selling a promise can go very deep. I have been lucky to have people guide me throughout my career, once I realized that all I had to do was connect with people, not prepare speeches, things became simpler and more rewarding.

Bryan: Mentoring is very rewarding; finding people you connect with, supporting them and getting their ideas to life is something that keeps me excited. I work with a bunch of entrepreneurs, boards, mentoring CEOs, and it is very rewarding to help people find perspectives and discover answers that they have, you just help them navigate and find those answers. My suggestion to youngsters- go out there and network.

Sharifa: Mentorship has been invaluable for me. My father was my first mentor. I met champions and mentors throughout my career. In my field, there are a lot of young professionals who are coming in as marketers; they are scared, and lack confidence, so I step in to provide that support. In the Multicultural marketing genre, it is the conviction, your belief as the marketer that will help you in your career. Young mentees have to take out time and be out there, to be able to network with people who make decisions, who are the influencers.


Q: As marketers we often hear NO to our ideas. As trailblazers, you must have heard many NOs. Any advice on how do you turn the Nos into Yes’s?

Bryan: It is very important to understand where does the organization stand w.r.t you. Sometimes you are just ahead of the curve, so try and find companies who are ready for the change, who can resonate with your vision. Read the organization- does the brand create an environment where the consumer feels connected to the values that the brand offers? Does the leadership team care about training people and building the culture based on those brand values? The journey from No to Yes happens, when you listen, absorb, and find people who share your vision. Also, ask for feedback when you fail and then go back and make a better pitch.

Sharifa: I definitely have had my share of NOs. When you get rejection, read the room-do they understand you, do they have enough information, is it because they don’t have enough budget or is it that the culture of the company has not arrived yet? Then go back to the drawing board, do your homework and pitch them again. Also, be candid with your clients because you are not there for a one campaign project, but for the long haul. Be truthful to your clients, tell them what doesn’t work instead of wasting energy, money and time on trails and errors. It goes a long way.

Rem: No to Yes is a journey depending on how well you connect. Listen to what people are trying to say, and be honest. Understand their archetype because customers open up when they connect and then they open their wallets too. It broadens your horizon when you network, work with charity, and volunteer. Finding a company that fits your vision will have an impact and the passion will fuel you to design your path.

You will eventually find your calling.

This interview excerpt has been summarized to the best of our abilities to accommodate all the questions and the POVs of the esteemed speakers and participants.

Written By- Shreya Parashar. She is the founder of Culture Opus, a Toronto based content agency and is the Content Director at AMA Toronto.

Our special thanks again to our Presenting Sponsor: ITWC, Event partner: Walmart Connect, Chapter Sponsor: Mission Hill Family Estate, Data Technology Partner: Q One tech, Official Media Partner: The Globe and Mail Media Group.

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