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ROB Lunch illustration. Nadal. Credit: Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)
ROB Lunch illustration. Nadal. Credit: Anthony Jenkins / The Globe and Mail (Anthony Jenkins)

The Lunch

A master salesman with an appetite for risk Add to ...

"I don't know why I'm telling you this," says Miles Nadal; but no matter, he's already five minutes into his opening anecdote and is still warming up; it would be rude to interrupt. For right now, Miles Nadal is doing what Miles Nadal does best, which is to say, selling - a story, a business concept, himself: sometimes all three at once.

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The story he's unpacking is about a young woman he met working here, at Mark McEwan's aggressively stylish One Restaurant in Yorkville's Hazelton Hotel. When he's in town, this is his regular breakfast haunt, by virtue of being located a few steps from the Toronto headquarters of MDC Partners Inc., the marketing services holding company he founded in 1980 and of which he is chairman and CEO. About 18 months ago, he was enjoying a drink with Chuck Porter, MDC's Miami-based "chief strategist" and the chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, MDC's best-known ad agency, when they began chatting with the young woman about her career aspirations. (Though Mr. Nadal reveals her name, it shall not be repeated here, for reasons that will soon become apparent.) It turns out the young woman possessed a masters degree in analytics, and Mr. Nadal, recognizing that he'd been impressed with her comportment during previous visits, said he'd like to get her an interview at one of his market research firms. She was flattered by the offer, but her response caught him off-guard: she turned him down, explaining that she recently had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, and was about to begin treatment.

"It really sort of smacked me," he says, hitting the table for emphasis. He picks up a wedge of lime and squeezes it into a glass of sparkling water, absentmindedly wiping his hand on the white tablecloth as he continues speaking.

"She sort of reminded me of one of my daughters. My eldest is 20. She had that sort of beautiful smile, lovely disposition, not a stitch of makeup, but looked like a person who was ready to take on the world," he recalls. "So I gave her a hug, and she couldn't see I was teary-eyed," he says. "I said, 'I won't get you an interview, I will get you a job. As soon as you're finished.'" A little over a year later, declared free of cancer, the young woman started work as a research associate at an MDC company where, he says, she is now a rising star.

Mr. Nadal may or may not know why he tells the story, but it's illustrative, nonetheless. For here is a (self) portrait of him as a canny talent scout, albeit an impetuous and sentimental one; of MDC as an organization that values people over the bottom line; of a young woman who embodies what Mr. Nadal most admires, namely an ability to overcome challenges and then draw wisdom from adversity. The tale also gives him the opportunity to use one of his favourite adages: 'One hundred years from now, no one will remember the car you drove, the house you lived in, for that matter how much money you had in the bank, but the world will be a different place if you make a difference in the life of the young.'"

Mr. Nadal is fond of such adages. Sit with him for a few hours, and you'll start to think he's the Deepak Chopra (or at least the John Bartlett) of the marketing services world. Gnomic nuggets are a regular feature of his Twitter stream, which this week interwove an update on the growth of online shopping with quotes by Winston Churchill ("Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.") and Kierkegaard ("Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.") One of Mr. Nadal's favourite quotations is attributed to the Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells: "You are what your record says you are." Mr. Nadal's record since he incorporated MDC in 1980 is a mixed bag. We're in the middle of discussing it - "I always had a challenge of managing my ambition," he's just acknowledged - when the waiter circles by again to see if Mr. Nadal is ready to order.

He hasn't looked at the menu, but he doesn't need to. Instead, he requests a large salad - "endive or whatever" - with some grilled shrimp, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, and whatever else the chef might have at hand. Informed by the waiter that tomatoes aren't in season, and there are no cucumbers in the kitchen, Mr. Nadal says with a touch of magnanimity, "Whatever you have is wonderful. And if you don't have shrimp, some grilled chicken would be great."

His dietary restraint is impressive, considering he also is fond of his doctor's quotation, "You can never outrun a cheeseburger." But the restraint is a medical necessity. "I had diabetes historically," he says, explaining that at one point his blood sugar level was about 600 per cent of normal. "I was literally in a walking coma."

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