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Chuck Porter (left) and Miles Nadal in Los Angeles. (MICHAEL LEWIS for Report on Business magazine)
Chuck Porter (left) and Miles Nadal in Los Angeles. (MICHAEL LEWIS for Report on Business magazine)

MDC's challenge: 'Everything you know about advertising is going to be useless on Monday' Add to ...

Scattered about the New York headquarters of Miles Nadal’s advertising conglomerate MDC Partners Inc. are monuments to technology: a pile of out-of-date TV remote controls; a telegraph key; a 1939 Truetone AM/shortwave radio.

“They are there for inspiration,” says Bob Kantor, MDC’s head of marketing and business development, gesturing to an ancient Mac and a Commodore PET computer entombed in the corner of the company’s boardroom.

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The tribute to obsolescence is apt: MDC is happily surfing the digital tsunami that has turned the media and marketing worlds upside down. “We were able to lean into the change,” says Kantor, boasting that 65 per cent of MDC’s revenues come from digital work–roughly double the industry standard.

That makes MDC exceptional. But there are other ways that it stands out, too. It’s from Toronto, for one thing. For another, there’s the firm’s creator, Miles Nadal. He’s the antithesis of slick, a corny guy who keeps proving high-browed doubters wrong.

“Twenty years ago it was, ‘Who the hell is MDC?’” says Arthur Fleischmann, chair of Canadian industry association the Institute of Communication Agencies, and a partner at Toronto advertising agency John St. “They’re long past the days where you could sneer at them.”

But here’s one more distinction: MDC may have more than 50 firms in its roster, but as advertising holding companies go, it’s a pipsqueak next to the “Big 4” global giants: WPP PLC, Omnicom Group Inc., Interpublic Group and Publicis Groupe SA.

All of which makes one wonder: How did a university dropout from Toronto build such a singular company, capable–despite its size–of attracting global clients like Samsung, Budweiser and BMW? And what are the odds it can keep it up?

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Advertising is all about the Big Idea, the light bulb that goes on in an adman’s head and fulfills a client’s ambitions–even the ones they didn’t know they had. Miles Nadal, on the other hand, borrows others’ ideas. His conversations, e-mails and tweets teem with inspirational quotes–from Albert Einstein, from Vince Lombardi, from Oprah Winfrey.

As much as they spend their lives spinning stories, many top-level creatives are allergic to blarney. Nadal, however, is effusive, loud and goofy. He hugs people in meetings. Staff across the MDC network occasionally receive e-mails with pictures of his golden retriever, Truman.

If he’s not a classic adman, Nadal is certainly a classic entrepreneur, forever looking for the next deal.

It all started with $500 borrowed on a credit card in 1980, which he used to start a photography business in a little office above a leather supply store on Bathurst Street. His first employees were his parents, Irwin and Renée. He calls himself “unemployable”–with the satisfied grin of someone who rakes in a multimillion-dollar salary anyhow.

His debut in the world of high finance did not exactly portend great things. In MDC’s Toronto offices hangs a cartoon of Nadal, marching blithely out of his underwriters’ office door holding a cheque for $3-million. Just behind him, emerging from the shadows, a monstrous clawed hand reaches for his head.

The drawing commemorates Friday, Oct. 16, 1987–the date Nadal chose to take MDC public on the Nasdaq. It was also the last business day before Black Monday, when the U.S. stock market saw its largest one-day drop in history to that time. “So I got my cheque, and the stock price went down 80 per cent in the first day,” he says.

Nadal keeps the cartoon as a “funny reminder that success is but a fleeting moment,” he says. “Things are fragile. It teaches you humility.”

In its early years, the idea of MDC as a creative hotbed would have been laughable. The bulk of its money came from businesses that now look like dinosaurs: It printed postage stamps, airline and event tickets, and cheques. (It swallowed rival cheque-printer Davis & Henderson in a $50-million deal in 1996.) MDC also manufactured credit and debit cards for some of the Big Five banks.

Toward the end of the ‘90s, however, the company pivoted. Under pressure from shareholders to find a focus, MDC grew its smaller interest in marketing. The company had purchased firms like advertising and public relations agency Colle & McVoy. Now it did an about-face, selling the other businesses. Marketing subsidiary Maxxcom, which had been spun off, was folded back into MDC.

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