Our guest today is mci group’s President and COO, Jurriaen Sleijster.
Jurriaen is jointly responsible for the management and strategic direction of a global next-gen platform for marketing innovation and breakthrough communication in the digital age. Mci group’s platform combines the talent, technology, and creative power of their global agency network to transform brands and organizations.
Mci group is an independently owned company, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with a global presence of 60 offices in 31 countries, managing some 5’500 campaigns and activations annually.
Day-to-day, Jurriaen works on the strategic direction of the group, oversees the execution of their business plans, leads operational teams, works with their leadership to ensure the smooth running of their company, and manages the integration of new mci offices.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- How integrations into the company work and affect the company
- How to cross-sell products across business lines
- What are some struggles that have been overcome and the lessons learned
- How Jurriaen’s skills have grown and developed as a leader over time
Connect with Jurriaen Sleijster: LinkedIn
mci group – http://mci-group.com
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In this episode, we have the MCI group President and COO, Jurriaen Sleijster. Jurriaen is jointly responsible for the management and strategic direction of the global next-gen platform for marketing innovation and breakthrough communication in the digital age. MCI group’s platform combines the talent, technology and creative power of their global agency network to transform brands and organizations.
MCI group is an independently-owned company headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with a global presence in 60 offices in 31 countries, managing some 5,500 campaigns and activations annually. Day-to-day, Jurriaen works on the strategic direction of the group, oversees the execution of their business plans, leads operational teams, works with their leadership to ensure the smooth running of their company and manages the integration of new MCI offices. Jurriaen, welcome to the show.
It’s good to be here. Thank you, Cameron. Thanks for inviting me.
I’m excited about this because you and I have known each other for many years. I did some work with MCI years ago where I would come out to your annual meetings all over the world. I came to Berlin once, Montreal, Singapore and Amsterdam out on the coast. I was able to watch you. At the time, you were mostly a meeting and planning company running large events, meetings and conferences around the world. Has that changed? What is the platform that you’re working on building?
It has changed. MCI was born many years ago and it started as meeting logistics but over time, we grew, acquired companies, grew further and became international. Our internationalization started many years ago. We are in 30 countries and 60 offices around the world. We’ve moved on from logistics to content, marketing and what we call engagement strategies.
We help our customers to engage with their target groups, be they internal or external. Live events are still part of the mix but it’s not the only thing we do. We have marketing strategies, consulting, social media and all kinds of communication channels that we use to help our clients to be successful and communicate with their targets.
When did you add in the marketing, engagement and social side for clients? That’s got to be huge.
I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s funny. If you think about the pandemic or COVID, all of a sudden, a lot of meetings go digital. We’ve been doing digital meetings for many years before that. It’s that the uptake was not that big. People like to meet live and they do so again. We’re seeing this picking up again but marketing, social media strategies, communication plans and management of associations, we’ve been doing that for several years easily.
Do you operate as different divisions or separate countries? How do you operate?
There are probably two answers to this. What we have is we got MCI the agency. It’s part of the MCI group. The agency is the big brother in the group. It has given its name to the group. The MCI group contains several brands that are working together or extensions of each other. They’re like specializations. Some of them are audio-visual production and others are in measurement. Some of them are in marketing techniques, lobbying and helping organizations with their political agendas. Different organizations do different things but they’re extensions of each other in the MCI group. It’s like a 1 plus 1 is 3 idea. That’s how we work together.
As part of my role in the MCI group, I’m trying to focus on how I can help each of these brands and all of them together to work as effectively as possible. In MCI, the big brother within the group of brands works typically two divisions. We got the corporate clients on one side and more institutional and governmental clients on the other side. They buy and behave differently but they have a lot of similarities as well. That’s where the overlap and the skillsets between two divisions play a big role.
When you were doing all the acquisitions that you’ve done over the last years, when did the acquisitions change to being companies that were more integrated acquisitions? Were you acquiring marketing agencies, communication agencies, creating anything on the political side or were you buying more businesses that were very similar to what you’ve always bought that had more line extensions or products?
Our acquisitions started in 2002 or 2003. In the beginning, a lot of the drive was growing more geographical expansion. We wanted to cover more territory so we acquired companies that were more in our line of work and similar skills within new markets. It’s been focused on new skills that we need in the new normal. There is more technology, consultative, creative and marketing.
These are the things that we want to add to the group of skills that we have and that’s also where the market is going. We’re a service company. Services go through life cycles. What was expertise yesterday could be experienced today and there will be efficiency tomorrow. The services become commodities. You have to innovate and invent new things. That’s the beauty also of the group. We have a structure in place that allows us to refresh, bring new skills on board and integrate them with the other skills that we already have. It’s like moving forward in time this way.
With what happened with COVID and the industry that you mostly serviced, did it create a big hit for the company? How did you navigate through that? You’re too big of an organization to pivot. What did you do to get through it? My guess is you’ve come out of it probably stronger knowing you and the team.
Pivot is a popular word, yes. Before COVID hit us, about 2/3s of our revenues were from live events and engagements. At some point, you have to sit down and say, “That doesn’t work anymore. What you’re going to do?” Our clients still need to engage with their target groups so we need to help them with that. Other channels were given priority. It’s not something we hadn’t done before. It’s just that we had to shift a lot of our attention, time and material to those channels that were becoming very popular.
During COVID, if the statistics are correct, about 2/3s of our revenue up to 70% came from strategy, creative solutions, other engagement techniques, marketing solutions and anything that wasn’t an event live or digital. That’s balancing out. How do we come out? We come out well because we’ve built muscle where there was lean muscle before. We were good at certain services that we had in smaller proportions in the past but at the same time, live and engagement are coming back. Digital events are still popular. Hybrid, the mixture of live and digital, is coming up. If that grows back to previous sizes or even further, then MCI will be bigger than ever before.
That was my gut as well, understanding what you’d built into the business and the timing of it. As hard as it was to go through, it’s probably paid off well because it’s built that strong muscle that you can then share across all the different countries. Did you have those services deployed across all countries before or are you accelerating that because of COVID?
The purpose is not to make a perfect copy of every MCI or MCI group office in every country. The beauty of the model that we’re employing is also that you can hub certain things. You can have offices that are better at certain services than others. Therefore, provide that service for multiple offices. Our Geneva office, for instance, is very good at large international conferences. If the UK office wins an international conference, the logistics planning of that party is given out to the UK.
Whereas to Geneva, the UK might hold on to the community management or certain parts of the content or engage with sponsors. You can distribute and play on the strengths of the different offices. Sometimes it’s working account management through an office but the operations are done elsewhere. That’s pretty unique to MCI compared to many of our competitors. They tend to group all the skills in an office. Maybe if they’re in a country, it’s in 2 or 3 offices. We’re truly doing this globally and that makes it interesting.
Can you talk about the acquisitions that you’ve done? You’ve done and led so many over the years. Can you talk about what you’ve learned on the acquisition side? What makes a good acquisition process? The third is integration. There’s a lot there.
The first thing that you want in an acquisition is cultural alignment. You need to know what is the dream of the entrepreneur that you’re talking to. Are you talking about an acquisition or will you use the word merger? That’s probably important. There’s a lot of respect that we have for the people that we start doing this business with. We don’t tell them, “You are part of us. Do as we tell you to.”
What we tell them and especially this is part of the integration program is, “We have merged. This is great. Let me show you our kitchen. You can open every cupboard you want. You can take out the stuff and start cooking. We’d like to learn from you how you’ve been doing it. We are interested in you because you are good at this stuff. That’s why we’re talking to you so we can learn from you too.”
This is where the formula works well because in pretty much every acquisition we’ve done, we’ve picked up something that we didn’t know before, where they did it better than we did it. That means you can copy it and roll it out to the entire group. You can build on strengths. It’s sharing best practices and continuously improving your company because you learn from the best. Every office has a trick and a way of working, measuring, engaging clients and mastering profitability. You say, “I wish I could use that in more offices.” That’s what you try to roll out and that’s constant work.
The cultural alignment is the first thing you want to get right. You want to make sure that your dreams are aligned with the people who join you. Why is a company interested in joining MCI? Is it because they’re hitting a glass ceiling in their region and they can’t break through? Is it because they want to get to clients that they couldn’t get to before? What’s their interest? What does the entrepreneur want to do?
We wouldn’t be interested in an acquisition if the people who own the company want to get out. They need to continue. That’s part and parcel of the deal. We’re into the relationship economy. It’s services. You deal with people. You need these people to stay on board at least for a while so that you can integrate them properly.
The integration process is something that I work a lot on myself. It’s fascinating. Integrating is like building bridges between two companies. You have to get the people to go over the bridge on both sides and get interested in the other side of the story. When you bring a new company on board, the rest of your company is already busy. They have clients and services. They want to get on with what they’re doing. You have to make the new company interesting to them.
One of the plans we have is this 100-day plan. We say, “In the first 100 days of the acquisition becoming formal, we have to have a win of some sort that is the result of the two companies working together. The one or the other.” You probably not have pulled this up but if you can work together and win something, serve as a client better and win a big project, then tell everybody you’ve done it. Everybody will say, “That was a good idea, that integration. That merger of companies worked well. Here’s the win.” People get on with their business and things are fine.
It’s the humility that you have in what you’ve built. I say you cognizantly because I know that you and Seb are still there. You’ve been such a strategic operational focus on the business. I’m lost for words on the humility that you carry with these integrations and acquisitions. I love what you said that we can learn from you too and going into every acquisition like wanting to learn stuff that they’re doing well. How have you kept that as a cultural norm for MCI? I don’t mean to say this and I’m Canadian but I don’t think an American company would do that. They would come in with the ego. Is it a Swiss thing? Is it a Dutch thing? Is it a Jurriaen thing? What is it?
It’s the culture of our company. It’s all about people first and then strategy. We believe in our values. We were driven by our values. There’s no reason to be bragging in our industry. It’s hard enough as it is. We have good competitors in different fields. You have to respect them. You work for clients. You try to work in partnership so human relations are important and that means that you have to work together.
As my favorite management guru, David Meister, always says, “You have 2 ears and 1 mouth, use them in proportion.” I learned from the integration programs that you cannot walk in and start telling people what to do. You first have to listen. People don’t listen to you until they have been listened to. It’s a psychological thing. It’s a human thing and it’s important. You want to work together.
I’m a Dutch national. I live in Switzerland. I’ve been working in five different countries. I’m fascinated by the diversity of the human species, the cultures, the way people interact with each other and what they bring to the table when you work with people. I love traveling, meeting clients and meeting my colleagues in the offices. If you have that mindset of wanting to listen, learn and discover, then you can build a lot of bridges and merge a lot of organizations and journeys.
As a leadership team, are you still on the road traveling 200 days a year? Has that subsided a little bit?
When the airplane stopped flying, we stopped traveling a little bit. Now, it’s less so it makes you think. We’re coming out of COVID here. I’m based in Europe and Europe is doing a lot better it seems than Asia in 2022. The US has opened its borders. In the Middle East, we can do pretty much what we want. It’s coming back. We got a big meeting in Spain. We’re going to Madrid and this is a meeting we’ve all been looking forward to where we will see each other again live.
Live is an important part of our mix and we’re doing it as well. We’re meeting 200 people, the executive team, the global management team, the managing directors and the leadership team. It’s a week-long of meetings, listening to each other, working workshops, exchanging knowledge and having a lot of fun because the evenings are fun-filled. I can promise you that.
I want to go back to a question from years ago. The transition from when the Founder, Roger Tondeur, passed on the business to his son, Sebastien, to let Seb take over as President or CEO. Was that around 2007, 2008 or 2009?
That was in 2009.
What was that like for the company to go through that transition? It’s a rare one to talk about. Do you remember what that was like and how you navigated that?
For Seb, it was always in the cards. He wanted to do this. He used his first years in the company to get to know the business and different aspects of the business. He focused very much also on the corporate division of the MCI agency. He was very good at that. His approach to the job is quite different from his father and it was a very good transition.
Roger, the father, is still active in the company. He’s the Chairman of our advisory board but Seb is running the base on a day-to-day basis. He’s the CEO. He has a very strong vision and clear vision of where he wants to take the company. He’s brought very different skills to the table. It was at exactly the right moment because we were getting bigger. The machine was getting bigger. We’re more international with more offices. You need to start focusing on certain processes and thinking hard about being consistent with your image and positioning in the market.
Seb is very good at marketing and finance. He’s got a very good strategic vision for the company. That became the predominant approach rather than what we used, in the beginning, a lot was the network. “Who do we know? Who can we build the future with? Whom can we merge with?” Seb brought the MBA management a very reflective approach to the company and that was good. It was a blessing and it’s proven to be a success. We must have tripled in size, on the top of my head, since Seb has taken over. It’s been very successful.
A lot of companies struggle with cross-selling. If they have a division or a country that’s strong in one product or service, they struggle with selling that product across the rest of their business lines or the businesses. How have you folks been able to do that? How have you been able to sell the products that are maybe great from one new acquisition you brought in and start selling it across the rest?
It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always work. When you learn something from an acquisition, it might be a product or a way of managing the company. These management techniques are usually easier to copy. When it comes to a product, we buy a company that’s very specialized in measurement, for instance, to make that success in other offices. You have to explain what it is, what it does and where the synergies are and teach the people.
If people see an opportunity, they will come to that new acquisition and make it work. Not every office is a perfect copy of the other so you don’t aim to copy every service into every other office. What we’re particularly strong at and I’m pretty proud of what we’ve built there is what we call our MCI Institute. We have a learning and development approach. I haven’t seen this in any other company in our industry.
We have people who run our institute. We organize academies and training programs. We have live and online training. All the time, there’s development going on and lifelong learning. There are courses about technical skills, how you run your computer, manage a team and what is entrepreneurship. Also, a lot of training programs about what we do and the services we provide, how it works, the effect on clients and how you can upsell things. You can learn all day long and all the time about what we do. That’s been a very good element in spreading services and knowledge amongst people.
We have these learning weeks that turn into learning months where people give courses about all kinds of topics. Anybody can sign up and they run them in different time zones so that people from different offices can participate. It’s very interactive. We have follow-up sessions on it and networking teams that are being built on it. We use technology to connect people in groups and work further on topics. That is the strength of what we use to share knowledge between offices.
Where are you struggling as an organization? Where does MCI struggle? What are you working on?
You start as a certain type of company and evolve. You need to constantly work and communicate with this new position, skillset and capabilities that you have. Maybe they’re not new. Maybe they’re just growing. They’re more prevalent than before. Some of our customers that we’ve worked with for a long time see us as excellent logisticians. We’re good at logistics but we wouldn’t be the first person they would call for a design problem or a creative concept.
Other companies that we’ve been working with for only a few years think that creativity and design are what we do or what we need. For some of them, we have organized congresses forever. Would you ask for advice about how to manage my association? Others only know it as association management because that’s where they come on board. They will buy us for that service. That’s to consistently manage the perception that your clients have of your brand is an ongoing piece of work. That’s the challenge.
It’s almost like a GE. General Electric many years ago had its power and building.
The medical appliances. It’s the example I use, GE. When I train my people, I tell them about how in the 1980s, under Jack Welch, things have changed. One moment, it’s cleaning products and then it’s medical appliances. You’re selling insurance. You move with what your clients need. You try to anticipate their needs and may be provided based on either because your channels are there, you have the right context or the skills in-house. We need to evolve. Innovation is part of life. Things cannot be the same. That’s very strong in MCI.
I want to go on a strange tactical question but on the integration of any of these companies when you’re merging and bringing them on board, are you forcing them into changing over their software and systems? If you do that, is that part of the integration?
There are certain things we do. What I do have is a very simple and old-fashioned process. In the integration, I have a number of checklists for every department, be it the front office, back office or even middle office. I have checklists of things that we think we should talk about and then I give them priorities 1, 2 and 3. The ones are where we need to align.
If our system is best, then they align with our system. If they have a better system, then we align with their system. They innovate with us but typically, on finance and financial reporting, they follow our model. We have dashboards, details, breakdowns and ratios. It’s incredible. That’s a strength of our company. We can measure and forecast based on past behavior. That’s what we do.
We’ve invested a lot in technology because our biggest clients expect us that we are in the safest possible way of working GDPR-respected. We’ve invested a lot in this. We find that a lot of companies are not at that level so we bring them into our setup and cloud. It also makes collaboration much easier because we have our internet and software for people to talk to each other night and day. Every colleague is only two clicks away.
That’s where we typically set standards and the use of the brand. That’s also a very important alignment issue. People need to talk about the brand, the services and the company in a certain way. We do teach them that we want them. If you join MCI, you become an MCI company, you’re not another brand. You need to learn how to talk about MCI.
I can’t even imagine the differences in the countries, the cultural differences and the operational differences in merging companies in 30-plus countries. Have you noticed any stark differences like where it’s so different?
Yes. People are different but that’s not the main challenge that you’re providing, for instance. We’re an international and global company so we like to do business with companies who have global interests or large regional interests. They usually look for a solution that can be rolled out in multiple countries in similar ways but there is no point talking to Chinese customers the way you talk to German customers. They are different.
We do need the differences. We need differences in our Australian team. They need to act differently and talk to the clients differently than the people in Germany or Sweden because that’s what our client expects. You need to be able to help your client to bring their message to the market in the way that the market expects it. We have maybe accounting principles that are the same and technology that is integrated. We teach our people in the same way. They do need to bring the local touch because that’s the most efficient way of rolling out a strategy in a certain month.
Where is the 9:00 to 5:00 business? Do you base all the time zones and meetings around Geneva? How do you do that?
Geneva is what we call the headquarters office but not everybody who works for headquarters is based in Geneva. The number of people that sit in other offices has a headquarters role. Don’t take it too strictly. We’re a global organization. It’s quite integrated like that. Typically, if a CEO would do a town hall meeting for the company, he would run one from Geneva, one at 10:00 in the morning and one at 4:00 in the afternoon. In the same session, he does it twice.
People can connect live and ask questions online while he’s presenting. You can interact with him. A typical solution is to try and match time zones from Vancouver to whatever point you can find on the other side of the planet. These are the extremes where you have to manage it but for us, we’re in Europe so we’re up. The Americans wake up a bit later but Asia is already going to bed. We manage that. We have typical two time slots where people know that’s where you can talk to everybody.
Which countries are dealing with most of the inconvenience for the management meetings or the business meetings? Is it Asia that’s working in the middle of the night all the time?
In fairness, it’s Vancouver because it’s pretty far away. These are the ones that are lost and our Asian friends in Australia, go to bed first. They are dealing with most of the inconveniences but for America, Europe and the Middle East, we get it at reasonable times, early in the day or late in the day.
I was living over in Italy for about six weeks and working from over there. It was simple because I would work from 1:00 until 7:00 PM and then no one in Europe goes for dinner until after 7:30 anyway so it was easy to work later. I tried to do a call with Hong Kong. I’m like, “Forget about it. It’s 4:00 in the morning for them. It doesn’t even make sense.” How have you grown? How have you worked on your skills as a leader? Have you had to substantially in the last few years? It’s probably all been the same, hasn’t it?
No, I’m very much a believer in lifelong learning. I eat management articles and books for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I love that stuff. I’m in love with my job in the sense that I love organizing the company. My biggest passion is we have a vision, an idea and a goal. How do you translate that into action on Monday morning? What other people are going to do on Monday morning? That’s something that gets me going. I love to read about service companies. I do courses and go to business schools.
Every now and then, it’s time for a refresher. You pick up a business school whether it’s in the US, UK, France or Switzerland. I’ve done a lot of those courses. I read my books. I get my Harvard Business Review. I’m online on blogs all the time. My job is not a 9:00 to 5:00 job anymore. Ninety-five percent of my emails come from inside the company. It’s interesting. It’s not so much with clients anymore. It’s inside the company trying to help people to move forward, align and get ready. I have a management system that I firmly believe in, which is about goal setting and measurements and holding people accountable for measurable KPIs.
All the head office departments but also the regional responsibility, I meet with them regularly, monthly or bimonthly. We go through there and be like, “What are your goals? What are the issues you’re working on? What are the actions you’re taking to address the issues? What are the KPIs by which you measure the actions?” It’s a bit of what John Doerr does with his OKRs. I read that book and thought it was fantastic.
It’s very similar to what I’ve always been doing but I learned a few things from him so I fine-tune my system. I run my departments and colleagues with that. It’s the sergeant’s major approach to keeping people focused on the task. Seb sets a vision for the company. We break it down into departments and operational areas. I asked them to write their priorities based on how will they help the company to move forward.
Two final questions. You’ve been with the company for decades. You look like you’re 35 years old still. How do you keep yourself happy and balanced? You have the same demeanor as when I first met you, the happy, almost like the young boy who’s intrigued with everything. How do you keep that young, fresh life during all this stress of business?
Curiosity. I love meeting people and discovering how things work. I’m always marveled at the world and how it goes on. This is my natural hair color, blonde. Things move a bit fast for me. I like to take my time but seriously, it’s in total interest in people. I’m fascinated by what goes on around me. For the rest, I have a life discipline. It’s not work-life balance. It’s work-life integration, as Roger always likes to say when he taught us. I believe in that. I don’t have working hours. I work when I can and when I must but I also do my daily sports. I eat healthily. It’s a discipline I picked up from when I was in the Army. I keep on applying that in my life and it makes quality of life very easy.
This has been intriguing for me. I’ve seen a side of you that I don’t think I saw and I was showing up not as curious as I should have been over the years but I’m blown away by the depth of your talent and strengths as a leader. It’s strong. If you were to give yourself some advice as a 22-year-old, you’re starting in your career and maybe coming out of the Army, what advice would you give yourself that you know to be true now but you wish you’d known at 21 or 22?
It’s a piece of advice that Roger once gave me when I joined MCI. He said, “Jurriaen, try doing things at 95% instead of 100%.” It’s this old saying, “Perfection is the enemy of good.” I have the energy and the drive. I want to do things perfectly. Sometimes it’s okay to do it right for 95% and give the people some space. I can be a bit of a hard drive. It probably fits with the role of COO being a bit of a sergeant major type of person with discipline and the recurring business and how does an idea translate into action because otherwise, it’s a dream.
I could have picked up on that. I enjoy that part of letting people say, “They have a great plan. They have the energy, I should let them run.” My motto is, “Get them the tools, get them the vision and get out of the way.” Leadership is about making people grow. Sometimes they go wrong and that it’s okay. If nobody kills themselves, that’s a lesson learned and we’ll do it again. It won’t harm the company too much and this is a great way of learning what your limits are. I had to learn it myself and I’ve learned how to give a little bit more space to people to get on with that. That’s an advice I would give myself early on. Give them some space.
I was excited that you’d said yes to me on this show. This is genuinely one of the strongest episodes we’ve done out of 215 episodes. Jurriaen Sleijster, thank you so much for sharing with us, the President and COO of the MCI group. I appreciate the time. Say hi to Seb for us.
I will. Thanks very much, Cameron. It was a real pleasure.