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Talking with Creative Leaders: The Importance of IRL Connection, Consensus & Curiosity

An Interview with RJ Pauloski, Former Country Manager at Reddit

From iconic businesses like Myspace and MSN Messenger to community-rich social platforms like Reddit, RJ Pauloski has played an important role in ensuring the success of these brands in Canada (and more) throughout his long career. Oh, and he’s also built and sold a couple of his own businesses as well.

We highly enjoyed sitting down with Pauloski to chat about his past experiences and get his point of view on business given the many hats he’s worn. His charisma and positivity are infectious and we hope you can feel it come through the below interview. Enjoy!

Tell me a little bit about you.

For the last 20 years, I've been working within the Canadian digital media ecosystem, predominantly as an early hire or a co-founder of digital media businesses. In the early part of my career, I co-founded two digital media companies, one in the late 90s and another one in the early 2000s, both of which exited via sale.

Through that experience I was able to deeply learn about starting a business, funding rounds and all of the rapid growth that goes on within a start-up. As I looked to my next opportunity I recognized that at the time my experience was very focused on start-ups. I realized that I needed to continue to build and round out my experience and that I could do that by learning how to operate within large, complex technology and media businesses. I decided as a next step that I wanted to work within a large multinational company versus a high-growth start-up. That’s when I began work with 20th Century Fox on their digital unit called Fox Interactive Media. They owned a business called Myspace and I was one of the first hires in Canada for the company. It was a lot of fun because it was right when social networking and social media were just getting rolling. This was before Facebook was around and unlike many tech companies being headquartered in the Valley, they were headquartered in Los Angeles because they were also an entertainment company which meant access to musicians, actors, and all the great pageantry of Hollywood.

This experience opened the door for me to work at Microsoft in their Canadian advertising business. They were about to launch MSN in Canada and needed experienced leaders to help rapidly scale and grow in Canada. I stayed for nearly 8 years and progressed up through the organization, being involved in everything from sales, product, operations and working cross functionally across marketing, account services and finance to really make sure that the business was growing. Microsoft’s ad business became one of largest digital media companies in the country.

After Microsoft I returned closer to my entrepreneurial roots by launching the Canadian outpost of a French ad tech company called Teads. Teads was an early leader in programmatic advertising by partnering with traditional news and magazine publications. Building the Teads brand and offer in Canada tapped into my start-up DNA and large organization experience and we became one of the most successful and respected ad tech vendors in Canada.

Most recently, I joined Reddit about 15 months ago as their first Country Manager for Canada. I was responsible for all of the cross-functional activities that go on within a satellite market for a big international social media company. A lot of it was focused on growing the consumer audience (having more people use Reddit here in Canada) and localizing communities and product solutions for Canada. At Reddit, we partnered with Canadian media, entertainment and sports organizations to ensure that they were on the platform and participating in our communities to help grow the brand and help Reddit feel more Canadian for Canadians.

A few weeks ago, Reddit and I parted ways and I have been enjoying spending time with my 3-year-old daughter and wife as we have family time to catch up on after me being very busy over the last few years. After some travel, I am looking forward to diving back into impacting the digital advertising and media industry in a meaningful way.

Exciting! Looking forward to hearing what that next opportunity is.

Looking back on your varied experiences, how do you feel like digital media and marketing have changed, especially in this past year or two?

I think the evolution in digital media marketing has really been one of personalization. There was always this idea that digital would allow one-to-one communication between marketers and consumers and that wasn’t possible until the last 5-7 years. There was a lot of infrastructure that needed to be built to allow that type of one-to-one communication at scale. When you think about what goes on behind closed doors – showing different types of content to different people -- whether it's an ad or a video on TikTok or on YouTube, or even just an article, the amount of real-time processing that needs to go into that personalized decision is substantial. This capability simply wasn't there 10 years ago. Now with cloud computing, artificial intelligence and algorithms, it’s all possible and really powerful for brands. It’s going to be really exciting to see how it continues to evolve because brands are much more ubiquitous now because people are now their own brands (aka creators and influencers).

What do you think some of the biggest challenges are for senior marketers and digital media professionals today?

Consumers are being exposed to marketing messages across so many different channels, making it harder to stand out. Attention is harder to capture and attention spans are shorter than they’ve ever been. A lot of the platforms we are on train us to have short attention spans as the algorithms are about the velocity of consumption and quantity of consumption of content versus real deep engagement and that makes the jobs of marketing and media professionals even more difficult.

And aside from the state of marketing, internal structure and communications between teams has also shifted drastically. What are some of the changes you’ve seen in the last couple of years?

The workplace is adapting to be effective while working remotely. This shift didn't really happen until we were forced to do it because of the pandemic. We have moved towards a world where offices are available to go into, but remote work can be the default. There are significant benefits to this, for example this shift allowed Reddit to hire people from anywhere in the world, depending on where the best talent was. This shift can mean there are no longer geographic restraints for finding the best talent.

There is, however, a risk with being fully remote all the time as well. When I think about myself, in early parts of my career and even in later parts of my career, there was a lot of learning that went on by being in the room with people who have either different experiences or more experience and there is so much to be learned through osmosis and watching them operate and engaging with them. I was able to learn and upskill myself as a contributor just by being around these individuals. I worry that without that in-person experience people who are early in their careers, or people who just want to expand their ability to make an impact, are going to have a lot more of a difficult time. The informal transference of knowledge and skill is harder to do when you're remote.

It also depends on what role you’re in. If you're an engineer or a developer and you’re probably okay being more with the pendulum swung on remote than you're in sales or marketing where you need proximity to your customers and partners. Some things like brainstorming, ideation and collaboration still are most effective when done in person.

What do you feel companies today have the most trouble with:

Generating Ideas

Prioritizing Ideas

Or Actioning on Their Ideas?

The biggest challenge that companies face is getting a strong consensus on what ideas need to be generated and then what those ideas actually are. The best ideas in my career have come from getting people in a room and whiteboarding and I've yet to find a nice elegant solution for doing that remotely. I still think there's a value in going into a room and sequestering yourself from distraction and saying, “Okay, here's what we're trying to solve for,” instead of “what's the solution?” You need to identify the market, customer or internal problem clearly first and foremost.

I read that in-person brainstorms generate around 30% more ideas than virtual brainstorms which seems pretty substantial.

I believe it! The insidious thing about that is that you don't know if the best idea is in that 30% that is only gained by being in person. The highest-quality third of ideas could be gone simply by the mechanism of how we decided to brainstorm. That’s why it’s important to set structure and process around how high-quality ideas are generated and always checking in to ensure that they address the high-priority problem.Diversity of thought adds to the effectiveness and the end result.

How important do you think creativity as a soft skill is today?

I don't think there's a single role within a company where creativity is not expected to be a part of what someone is doing - whether you’re an engineer, in leadership, or you're dealing with customers. Building that creative muscle is an important thing for organizations to be continually thinking about. How do we ensure that our teams are creative, flexible and adaptable? What tools are we giving them to be that way and how are we instilling it?

Creativity starts with being curious, asking a lot of questions and then trying to take that curiosity and work with the tools that you have to affect an outcome. I know people often talk about thinking “outside the box,” but sometimes all you have is what's in the box. We have to make sure that we're forcing ourselves to operate within the real-life constraints that are present. At the end of the day, the goal is to act on ideas. If you're not able to act on an idea because it's totally outside of the box, you're going to be at an impasse. There needs to be a balance between the two.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?

I’m excited about getting back and seeing people in person again and spending time at industry events, customer meetings, and being social with colleagues. Again, I think we've been tremendously adaptable, but it's been a long three years and I'm just really excited to be getting back and doing things in person again and together. I really miss that. I feel like there's a little bit of pressure and urgency, at least for me, around re-establishing the depth, quality and caliber of professional relationships. I am excited to have more opportunities to get together in a room and brainstorm. Whiteboarding is my favourite thing in the entire world!

In the fall of 2020, I went to an online conference. It was 5 days long and I was logged in 10 hours a day. Needless to say, it was really hard. Going to Dx3 in-person last month was great, IAB events have been sold out and Collision Conference will be awesome to go to again and so will C2 in Montreal. I’m looking forward to seeing people in person!

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