‘Difficult decision’: Ottawa ad agency McMillan lays off majority of staff

Editor's Note

A follow-up to this story has been posted here.


Rocked by what its founder called a “perfect storm of circumstances,” Ottawa’s largest advertising agency has laid off more than half its workforce ​– including virtually its entire senior executive team.

Gord McMillan, who launched the ad firm that bears his name in 1996, confirmed to OBJ on Monday that the company issued pink slips to 38 of its nearly 60 employees last Thursday. While McMillan is staying on with the firm, the list of high-profile departures includes CEO Pierre Paul Sampson, chief creative officer Rob Hyams and president Theresa Forman.

“For McMillan, 2019 has been the perfect storm,” the firm’s founder said in an email to OBJ. “While we have had several years of consistent growth and an impressive roster of global clients, significant changes in the marketplace have left us with the difficult decision to reduce our size and restructure our business.”

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McMillan, who started the agency after cutting his teeth at firms in Ottawa and New York, said he will spend the coming months working on a plan to create a “more agile agency that can thrive in a marketing environment that is changing very quickly and where agencies are being asked to supplement increasingly more substantial internal client creative teams.” 

The firm’s founder said his former C-suite colleagues “remain committed to helping in any way they can to assure a bright future” for the company. Hyams, who has been with the firm since its second year, will continue to be a shareholder.

Known as a bit of an outlier in the Ottawa advertising scene for opting to eschew government contracts, McMillan built up an impressive international client list while evolving into a “global player,” as its founder referred to the company in 2016

The company’s blue-chip roster included the likes of Canadian Tire, cannabis producer Canopy Growth, French software and smart grid firm Schneider Electric and California-based electric carmaker Tesla. McMillan doubled in size between 2013 and 2018, and last year more than 90 per cent of its revenues came from customers in the United States and Europe. The firm recently was shortlisted for Strategy magazine’s Design Agency of the Year award.

The shakeup at McMillan’s Sussex Drive headquarters comes a year after a busy 2018 that saw it acquire a pair of local firms, marketing and design outfit Fancy Boys and video production company Crafted Stories.

On Monday, McMillan said the company needs to rethink its approach if it wants to remain a viable force in an increasingly competitive industry that regularly sees it battle for contracts with big-name agencies from New York, Los Angeles and London.

“We look forward to continuing working with our clients, suppliers and employees going forward,” he said. “Further updates will be provided as our restructuring takes shape.”

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