Marcie Pollack-MacMillan is CB’s November Entrepreneur-in-Residence
It’s safe to say that not since the recession of 2008 has the employment sector faced as much rapid change as during these COVID-19 times. Marcie Pollack-MacMillan—the founder and self-described “President of Chaos” of Toronto’s Marketers on Demand and Executive Talent on Demand—remembers 2008 well, and was uniquely well-equipped for the pandemic’s upheaval, especially with a financial boost from BMO.
A noted visionary in the talent-placement space, Pollack-MacMillan (and co.) are known for sourcing workers for brands and agencies close to home in Toronto as well as far-flung locales like Miami—surely an agile godsend in a time of reduced budgets, hours, headcounts and overall HR uncertainty. In conversation with Mike Bonner, BMO’s Head of Canadian Business Banking, Marcie speaks to finding her niche, her personal guidelines for talent curation, and finding inspiration from her own life for her unique title.
First off, can you explain why you call yourself the ‘President of Chaos?’
Everyone has different degrees of chaos in their life, but I’ve got four kids and a dog, we just bought a couple of bunnies, I’m working full-time and there’s obviously extra chaos during COVID. So I think everything’s just exaggerated right now, with everybody. I’m trying to have somewhat of a controlled chaos, which I think is key for me.
Take me through your entrepreneurial career. What made you want to carve out a niche for yourself, rather than streaming into someone else’s company?
I was working with a competitor for a couple of years, and I opened up their creative and marketing divisions. We just didn’t see eye to eye. A lot of recruiting firms are more generalists, and they just send [clients] as many resumes as possible. They don’t really have the touch points, I think, that I like to have. I realized there’s a gap between having specialist agencies versus generalists, so it made sense for me to carve out that space to focus just on marketing talent. I also understood what [clients] wanted, as opposed to taking roles for something totally out of my realm of expertise.
What issue did you set out to solve for your clients?
I opened in April of 2008, and two weeks later the recession hit. We had to change our business model—intended to be 90 percent permanent placements—to mostly contract. Unlike with COVID, there was no full-time headcount but they always had budgets for contractors. So we started looking at placing contract marketers; people still needed to get their message out there. Two years later, budgets opened up again, so we opened up channels for contract and permanent.
How has the pandemic changed the nature of on-demand temp work, in your opinion?
The initial panic from clients was in trying to find other opportunities for people they had to let go of. A lot of people were counting on having one- or two-year contracts, and then all of a sudden, they had to find somewhere else to go—and we had to help them. It was really, really challenging. And then, as things opened up again—and all the panic kind of subsided—a lot of people on CERB didn’t want to work until the pandemic ended. The clients were also being really, really particular: manufacturing and consumer goods were booming, so it was hard to shuffle people from B2B to B2C, and vice versa. A big change is that a lot of people are looking at going back to the office only a couple days a week. I probably speak to about 14 people a day, and nobody wants to go back full-time.
What qualities in yourself make you such a successful entrepreneur?
Listening. I think a lot of recruiters look at the client first and foremost, because they’re the one that’s paying the fee. But without the talent, we wouldn’t have a placement. I think it’s my combination of being able to listen to both sides, and also not putting somebody into a position that they’re hesitant about. The key is being patient and understanding, and making every talent feel important.
What have been your proudest and most challenging moments since starting your businesses?
Having repeat clients is probably the proudest of all my moments, when someone comes back to you to ask you to build their team. That’s saying we did a really good job, and they love the person that we’ve placed. Our relationship with BMO, for example, has been so symbiotic—they were on our side for the past 13 years through recessions and, now, the pandemic—and we’ve loved having them as an ongoing client. Retention of employees, for us, is another. People who stay show a lot of respect for the company, and they want to treat it as their own. The biggest challenge is us having to cut ties with a client not that long ago—they weren’t very respectful of our time. Obviously that means a lot of lost revenue, but if they’re not going to be respectful to us, my recruiters and my talent, then I choose not to work with them.
You’re a talent curator of sorts for other firms. What kinds of talent do you look for in your own staff?
I believe that you can train somebody to be the best version of themselves, but I look for personality. We haven’t always been 100 percent successful with internal hiring; we have gotten it wrong. But the majority of time, it’s about finding somebody that fits in well with us. We’re a bit of a crazy bunch, but Linda, my VP, has been with me for 13 years. One of my directors, Mark, has been with us for seven. I also like to hire people that I think are smarter than I am.
How do you stay inspired? Do you look to certain mentors, read certain publications, etc?
I wish I could say jogging or something. As I look outside my office, I see my Peloton sitting there with running shoes beside it—and nobody’s using it but my husband. I used to be really regimented that way. Now, I would say my source of inspiration is my internal staff, and the kind of passion that they still bring after all of these years.