A Master of Reinvention

Gord Ray, BCom’93, lives in London, England, works for Internet juggernaut Instagram, has a Swiss MBA, a South African partner, and has strong ties to a school in Zambia. This self-described global nomadic soul has studied or worked in eight different countries, and regularly reinvents himself to keep the challenges coming. (You’ll never guess what he does in his spare time.)
By: 
Shelley Pleiter
Issue: 

It was a cold and rainy Sunday in Prague, Czech Republic, when Gord Ray was greeted at the airport by a total stranger, his new boss at Saatchi & Saatchi, the global advertising powerhouse. It was January 1997, and Gord had arrived to start his new job as an Account Director for Eastern Europe. “I’d never been to Prague before; the job interviews had been done by phone, and I didn’t speak a word of Czech,” Gord laughs. “My boss handed me the keys to a temporary flat, told me he’d bought me some groceries since the stores were all closed, and that he’d see me at the office on Wednesday.” 

It was Gord’s first job in Europe, but hardly his first exposure to a continent that, twenty years later, continues to capture his imagination. “My parents were teachers, both full of curiosity and a love of travel,” Gord says, recounting a childhood spent in St. Catharines, interspersed with two- and three-year stays in Australia and Lahr, Germany, where his parents had landed teaching jobs. “My brother and I caught the travel bug from an early age.” 

That wanderlust was one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to go on an international exchange while in his third year in the Commerce program. “As soon as I heard about the exchange opportunity, I was all over it,” he says. The program was in its infancy and only a handful of students would be accepted, but Gord was determined to be one of them. He landed a spot at the Helsinki School of Economics, which remains an exchange partner in a program that has grown to attract more than 100 universities around the world and that now sends more than 85% of the third-year Commerce class on exchange. Helsinki continues to hold a special allure for Gord; friendships made there have lasted to this day; having a Finnish grandmother made the connection even more personal. 

By fourth year, Gord had a clear career plan. “I knew that I wanted to go into advertising. So I started checking out Marketing Week and Advertising Age magazines from the library. I wanted to work in one of those agencies responsible for creating all the fantastic ads we’d see on TV and in magazines.” 

Gord called on a contact he’d met in Helsinki, since relocated to Toronto and working at Ogilvy & Mather, to ask for help in learning about how advertising agencies operate. He landed an interview with Leo Burnett, the only ad agency doing on-campus recruiting at Queen’s that year, and was invited to follow-up meetings in Toronto, preparing studiously before each one. His efforts paid off. Of the hundreds of undergraduate and MBA students from Queen’s, Western and York Universities who’d vied for a position, only Gord and two others were hired that year. 

“To this day, I feel fortunate to have landed the job, especially with so much competition,” Gord says. “I don’t think my life would be what it is today if I hadn’t.” 

Gord thoroughly enjoyed his time in Toronto at Leo Burnett, where he worked primarily on the Procter & Gamble (P&G) account. After three years, he was open to a new opportunity, so when approached by a headhunter regarding the job in Prague, working on Saatchi’s P&G account, he jumped at the chance. “Being a 20-something Account Director, travelling throughout Europe, was an amazing experience,” Gord recalls.

Working in a country where he didn’t speak the language eventually took its toll. After a total of nearly five years in advertising, Gord was ready for a change, not only of venue but also in career path. “The Internet was in its early days, and it felt like it was on a roll. I wanted to be part of that,” he says. 

Career Reinvention #1

Gord resigned from Saatchi & Saatchi in 1997 and headed to London, U.K., where his language skills were almost — given his Canadian “accent” — on an equal footing with the city’s natives. He focused on learning everything he could about the Internet, surfing the Web at Internet cafés, which were starting to sprout up in London, and devouring every trade publication he could find on the subject. 

"I shopped myself around to recruiting agencies as someone with experience in advertising who wanted to work in the Internet space, and I worked in a lot of the jargon I’d picked up in magazines and online,” he laughs. “Imagine, I had no experience, and I became an Internet consultant!”

He landed a job in digital marketing at Publicis Interactive, a U.K. branch of a French multinational advertising and public-relations company, in its digital-business unit in London, working for such major clients as Renault, Whirlpool and several major airlines. He later moved to Wheel, a larger company also specializing in digital communications.  

After three energizing years, Gord felt the pull of another “calling”, this time a return to the world of learning. He left Wheel to pursue his MBA at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, which he calls “another great year of my life.” One of his course assignments turned out to be his entry to the next phase of his career.

Career Reinvention #2

As he neared completion of his MBA, Gord had three clear objectives for his next career move. He wanted to work in another foreign country in a business, as opposed to on the agency side, in either the luxury-goods or entertainment sectors. When working on a consulting project for one of his courses, he was assigned to Georg Jensen, the pre-eminent Danish silverware and jewellery company. (“What Tiffany’s is in the U.S., Georg Jensen is in Scandinavia,” Gord explains.) This brought him to the attention of the company’s CEO who, upon completion of the project, offered Gord the position of Global Marketing Director. 

Five heady years followed, entailing travel around the world to open stores selling the firm’s sleek Scandinavian, high-end wares. While Georg Jensen silverware continues to grace the royal houses of Europe, during Gord’s tenure the focus shifted to the firm’s growing jewellery and watch business. “I really loved the role and loved my time in Copenhagen,” says Gord. “But after five years, I was ready for something new.”

Career Reinvention #3

Georg Jensen was a regular advertiser in Wallpaper*, the glossy design magazine founded by Canadian Tyler Brûlé and loved around the world by fans of design, architecture, travel, art and lifestyle products. It also happened to be one of Gord’s favourite publications. When he learned that its Publishing Director was leaving, Gord put his name forward. Numerous meetings with executives at parent-company Time-Warner followed and Gord was offered the job.

“I knew nothing about publishing,” he laughs. But his new role was akin to that of a managing director of the business side of an enterprise, and his business background and prior experience in related sectors stood him in good stead. 

As the five-year mark of his tenure approached, Gord was ready for a new challenge. “I knew I wasn’t a career publisher. I’d had a wonderful time, and was fortunate to have had exposure to the world’s top brands that advertised in Wallpaper*. But I knew that being immersed in an environment of such luxury wasn’t representative of the
real world.”

It was time for another pivot, this time a complete about-face.

Time Out

Gord plays a ‘Who can jump the highest?’ game in a remote village in Zambia, where he took a career time-out to help build a school.
“I went to a little village in Zambia to help build a school,” Gord says of his decision to go to Africa, until then a continent largely unfamiliar to him. “I worked as a labourer and helper, surrounded by amazing kids.”

He returned to his London home, determined to do more, and set out to raise funds for the school. His efforts ended up paying for school uniforms and supplies for the Chipakata Children’s Academy’s 100+ students. “I learned so much about their culture, about the challenges the people faced, and I was extremely impressed by the children’s spirit.”

Career Reinventions #4 & #5

“I decided to join two friends in an entrepreneurial venture,” says Gord of his role as a co-founder of SideStory, a travel site that connects cultural enthusiasts with local tastemakers in London. Thanks to his extensive network of "cultural insiders", Gord and his two co-founders are able to offer personal tours of London with top interior designers, a TV-chef, artists, academics and photographers, among many other local experts.

It was a huge undertaking and, as any entrepreneur of a start-up knows, “You still have to pay the bills,” says Gord. More than that, a potential new opportunity materialized when Gord came across a posting on LinkedIn for an opening at Facebook. After 11 interviews, he landed his current job, that of Brand Development Lead at Instagram for Northern Europe (see the sidebar for details). He joined Instagram in May 2015 but continues to be involved with SideStory as a labour of love. 

In their spare time, Gord and his partner of four years, Lenn Thirion, a South African ER doctor, enjoy — what else? — travelling the world. Both are avid cyclists, and Gord also fits in regular ski holidays and biannual visits to Canada. 

“I’m one of those annoying Canadian expats,” he laughs. “Wherever I’ve worked in Europe, I’ve always had a small Canadian flag on my desk. During the Olympics, I display an even bigger flag! Every summer I return to Ontario cottage country to visit with friends and I’m always impressed by the natural beauty of the region. I often dream of having a place on a lake somewhere in Ontario." He pauses, as if picturing himself on a dock overlooking a pristine lake, before adding with a laugh, “But there’s so much more of the world that I want to see first!” 

Spreading the Instagram Gospel

Instagram is a photo-sharing app loved by smartphone users around the world, 600 million of them at last count, says Gord Ray, Instagram’s Brand Development Lead for Northern Europe. It made headlines in 2012 when Facebook acquired the company — and its staff of 13, including its then 26- and 28-year-old co-founders — for $1 billion in cash and Facebook stock. 

Gord’s role is to represent the Instagram business with his Facebook colleagues, who serve clients of all the big brands, in every industry and vertical market. “From entertainment to financial services to retail to fashion — every industry has a Facebook core team that works with a particular sector to demonstrate how the company can help brands grow their business,” Gord explains. So while his Facebook colleagues extol the benefits of that platform, Gord demonstrates to potential business users how Instagram can help them reach their target audiences, whether millennials or moms, grandparents or teenagers, and every demographic in between. It’s more than just a place for sharing selfies and posting travel photos. Gord explains that market research shows approximately 60% of people surveyed claim to have learned about a business or product on Instagram. 

As for the all important revenue question, online ads introduced on Instagram within the last few years are having an impact, not only on its bottom line but also on those of business users. “A company may have an Instagram account that has several thousand or even hundreds of thousands of followers,” says Gord. “But if a brand uses Instagram as an advertising platform, it can reach millions very easily and effectively.”

Vancouver-based Herschel Supply Co. does this well, says Gord, citing how its products are showcased to great effect, like the post of the satchel shown above.

Gord's Instagram

We've included just a sample of the arresting images Gord has captured over the years.

Follow Gord’s Instagram.