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Recently, we sat down with Ian Madell, President and Managing Partner of Level5 Strategy Group, to discuss his perspective on Canada’s ever-evolving market and how Level5 helps our clients across various industries to deliver sustainable/profitable growth and a superior ROI by specializing in strategy and transformation through the lens of a brand


Ian, you’ve had quite a career in consulting working with both multinational and boutique consulting firms. What has led you to a career in consulting?

I have always had an interest in management consulting, which was partially driven by family members. Growing up, there were a couple of relatives who were consultants and I would hear stories about their work during the holidays. I was enticed by the problems they solved, the ability to constantly learn and to work with different people in different industries. I thought it would be an interesting career, but I actually arrived late into consulting because I thought it would be great to get operating experience after graduating from university. It was only after years in industry that I made the switch into consulting.


So, after working in industry, what triggered you to make the transition from industry into consulting?

At that time, I was an executive leading a large process reengineering project in New York and I was working alongside consultants who had suggested I go into the field. As I said, I had a strong interest in consulting previously and it was always in the back of my mind, so it became the catalyst for my move. It was not easy for me to find a position because I was already an executive and the door typically starts closing after you graduate. I had to find a position at the right level and, luckily, I was able to find an opportunity with KPMG Consulting in Toronto, which offered great projects and great people to work with.  I’m attracted to the intellectual challenge, variety of projects and working with clients – you just don’t get tired of it.


What and how did you decide to make a move to a boutique firm?

I left KPMG Consulting (at the time it was called BearingPoint) to become an executive at one of my clients.  I stayed there for four years, but my true passion was consulting and I missed it.  A few things attracted me to Level5: the value proposition we put to the market, the opportunity to be an entrepreneur and the leaders/people of the firm.  David Kincaid (Founder and Managing Partner), Matt Kelly (Managing Partner) and Hua Yu (Managing Partner) were all at Level5 at this time.


As the current President and Managing Partner of Level5, what do you think makes this firm unique?

Externally, to our clients, what we have are three things. First is our unique point of view, which is looking at organizations through the lens of a brand. Second, we are pragmatic in how we approach working with clients. We have a bias to action – it’s not about creating great decks, it’s about developing solutions that are actionable by our clients because at the end of the day, we don’t own our client’s firm. They own them and run them. Finally, we work hand-in-hand with our clients and prepare them to succeed on their own. We equip them with the right tools to be able to exploit the opportunity that we uncover together.

Internally, we have worked extremely hard to cultivate and maintain a special culture, which not only helps us recruit and retain top talent, but also to help us do really great work. We have been fortunate to attract great people who are all a pleasure to work with.  It makes it easy to come to work!


How would you describe this culture?

We have a philosophy, coined by David Kincaid, of laugh and learn everyday. If it’s not happening, our consultants know to come see us because something’s not working and we’ll have to do something about it. Our organization is flat, so we – the Partners and Principals – are accessible to all of our employees at any level. We also have a culture of apprenticeship, which allows our consultants to learn faster and to gain exposure quicker. As well, we have a culture of teamwork. We recognize and appreciate individual successes, but we believe you can stand out while working as a team and working collaboratively. We are here for each other; we help each other out no matter what level. We shun politics so it does not add stress to the environment we work in. As partners of the firm, we encourage our team to be candid with us. We listen and adapt as appropriate. This special culture is built around a core set of values, but we also believe we have the agility to change with the times. Each person influences the culture, so every person has an interest in helping us shape this culture.


You say the organization is flat, which allows consultants to learn more quickly. Do you feel you are learning from others as well?

Yes, of course. One of the things I love about our firm and culture is working with young professionals because we learn from them too. They may be attracted to working with the partners because we have 20-30 years of experience, but the reverse is that they keep us sharp and introduce us to new ideas and ways of thinking.


What would be your advice to your clients in how they can cultivate a culture like Level5?

You can only shape culture, you can’t dictate it.  So, you need to actively do things to shape it: having a clear strategy and point of differentiation; how you communicate with each other; how you engage your team; how you reward and recognize individuals and teams; how you have fun together; and more. You have to be attentive to it all the time; it’s not just a box you tick. At Level5, culture is something the partners are constantly aware of and ensuring that it is moving in the right direction.


Since you have joined Level5, how has the organization evolved and where do you envision it going in the next 10 years?

Our firm’s strategic plan calls for greater growth and expansion. We started off as a strategy only firm and we have moved into transformation as well, which has really fueled our growth in the last couple of years and will continue to do so. We have only scratched the surface because, under transformation, there are many more areas where we can work in, such as customer experience, which is one of the fastest growing areas for us. Opening up our service offering allows us to maintain deep relationships with the clients we already have and continue to help them in new ways. We are also looking at passing the baton to the next generation of leaders at our firm and working with them to define what that growth will look like.


As the firm’s service offerings shift to include transformation, what advice do you have for leaders when making significant organizational changes?

There are three things that come to mind:

  1. Be bold – if you think your organization needs to transform, then incremental change is not enough. You really need to understand how transformative you need to be, set goals around that and ground them with a clear strategy of how you will take your organization where you want to go. Also, you need make sure you are surrounded by the right people who will make the leap with you.

  2. Be fast – often leaders do not make moves fast enough. You need to balance how much the organization needs to change and at what pace. Too much change causes the organization to focus too inwardly – you still need to be market-facing because you’re running a business. However, if you don’t take big enough chunks, then you may lose momentum to make the changes you want.

  3. Be public – leaders in the organization need to be out there engaging with employees and leading the change management effort. You can never communicate enough, so keep doing it. And it isn’t just about talking about the successes, but the failures too. Leaders need to both listen and talk to their people at townhalls and other similar events. Shareholders need to be involved throughout as well.


Failed transformations are typically a blend of all three things. The thing that really holds it all together and allows you to succeed is to stay the course. If the plan is well thought out and well planned, stay the course! If you hit a roadblock, acknowledge it, learn from it, and make changes and continue forward.  


With your deep experience working with retail clients, where do you see Canada’s retail industry heading? How will it change in the next 5 to 10 years?

I’m more of an optimist about Canada’s retail industry. It is undergoing drastic change, but it will always be here. The general consensus is that e-commerce will continue to grow and will be 25%-30% of sales and brick-mortar being 70%-75%. However, these two channels will not be siloed. It will be a fully integrated, functional, dynamic omnichannel – it needs to be seamless.

Retailers also need to be more disciplined in truly understanding their customers through user research and data analytics – instead of being product-focused, be customer-focused. Consumer power will only get stronger, especially with consumers having more choice. Successful retailers of the future will readjust their business model to make sure it is truly consumer-facing. To do that, organizations need to ensure their organization has the right competencies around understanding consumer data, how to turn it into strategy and how to execute.

There will be a fall out for organizations that are not making the changes or not fast enough. Canada often gets the halo effect of the US – they were highly overstored with way too much investment in real estate. However, Canada doesn’t face the same problem. In fact, we were under stored in some cases, but the press picks up what’s happening in the US even though it’s not always applicable.


To leaders across Canada, what would be your advice to them to help them succeed in this ever-changing world?

Again, be bold – you can’t be too passive. The marketplace doesn’t allow you to be slow. As well, leaders need to play to win. Don’t be afraid of these changes. At times, I feel that Canadian leaders don’t necessarily play to win –  we play to do well. We need to face these challenges head on and work to be at the forefront rather than following the pack.


If you had to look back at your 20-year-old self, what advice would you have as you start out in your career?

Consulting is still a very exciting and vibrant place to work, but it’s not for everyone.  You need to be prepared to work long hours (not all the time, but it does happen) against time and quality pressures; be able to sort through a lot of data to find unique and meaningful insights and tell a story; be service forward – driving yourself to add value to a client’s business. Helpful skills are to be a life-long learner, be curious, well-organised, take initiative, be a true team player and be personable.  Choose consulting if you want the intellectual challenge and apply it to help your clients be better.



Ian Madell is the Managing Partner and President of Level5 Strategy, one of Canada’s leading boutique strategy firms. His role at Level5 is diverse. In addition to advising CEOs and other senior executives concerning their business strategy, he is responsible for the management and operations of Level5.  Prior to joining the firm, Ian gained extensive industry experience. He began his career at Nabisco Brands (now Mondelez) and then moved to Gannett – one of America’s largest media organizations where he led a re-engineering initiative based in New York. As his knowledge grew deeper, Ian became a Managing Partner at BearingPoint (formerly KPMG Consulting), where he led the North American post-merger integration practice and was also active in broader business transformation assignments. At his last role, prior to Level5, he was the Senior Vice-President of Marketing & Design at Teknion – one of the world’s leading office furniture manufacturers.

He is currently Vice Chair, Board of Trustees at the Royal Ontario Museum – Canada’s largest cultural institution. Ian is committed to giving back to his community. Previous roles include Governor of Junior Achievement of Canada and Director of the Canadian Club – Toronto. In an effort to share his wisdom with the future generation of business leaders, he has been a lecturer and speaker at various universities across Canada. We are proud to call Ian a member of the Level5 family.


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Episode 3: Managing Your Brand as an Asset

How can an organization successfully extract value from its brand after realizing it is an asset? In this latest episode, David Kincaid reveals the answer to this critical business question. He identifies two key traits that allow CEOs to think about and manage their brand as an asset. Using fascinating examples, he discusses how to define a brand’s competitive frame of reference to ensure its sustainability in the marketplace. As David says, “It’s your brand that allows you to think differently” – watch the video to find out why!

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Working at Level5 this past summer was an unforgettable experience. From Day 1, I was surrounded by an immediate sense of family and support, which made my introduction to consulting seamless and immensely welcoming.

I enjoyed the fact that, during my internship, no two days were the same. Unlike many organizations, at Level5 you get the opportunity to work on multiple projects simultaneously, giving you both breadth and depth of experience. This unique work structure accelerated my learning as I was immersed in several different industries. During my four-month internship at Level5, I was part of the strategic visioning process for a start-up; helped conduct a two-day strategic planning workshop with a healthcare regulator’s board and executive team; built a risk management engine for a major public safety regulator in Ontario; and conducted a competitive analysis and communications audit for a clear aligner company. It was exciting to work on multiple projects at one time.

While creating solutions for clients in a number of different industries, I constantly laughed and learned. There is an incredible amount of support and moments of celebration at L5, ranging from monthly socials after work called ‘Level 5 After 4’, volunteering at the Waterfront Neighbourhood Centre summer camp, and even visiting a cottage offsite. There are countless opportunities to get to know the culture and bond with everyone.

My summer was not a coffee-running internship. It was a deep dive into what consulting looks and feels like, filled with client meetings, building slide decks, and even working offsite with clients. It was inspiring to be a part of high-impact projects where I constantly felt a sense of ownership with the ability to add value. I even had the unique opportunity to interact with clients in Spanish and French and engage with board members during a two-day strategy workshop.

At Level5, you can also gain exposure to other areas of the business by participating in ‘Strategic Imperatives’ where you dedicate some of your time to help with non-client activities, such as joining the marketing team or participating in recruiting initiatives. These imperatives keep things exciting because you get to collaborate on fun and engaging projects, get to know more L5’ers, and help shape the firm’s success and future direction. This is a unique opportunity for interns that’s generally exclusive to smaller firms. For my ‘Strategic Imperatives’, I developed corporate videos featuring interviews with C-suite executives and training videos that outline L5’s toolkit. Contributing to the firm’s ‘Strategic Imperatives’ allows you to build other skill sets. These learnings, along with the opportunity to collaborate with an amazing team and get client exposure, have helped me grow significantly this summer. I enjoyed getting to know and truly understand the L5 team and culture; the lessons that I learned will last a lifetime. Thank you to Level5 for an inspiring summer filled with laughing and learning!

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The College of Nurses Ontario (CNO) has recently engaged Level5 for their strategic planning exercise. In this video, Kevin McCarthy, Director of Strategy, Anne Coghlan, Executive Director & CEO, and Cheryl Evans, Council President, discuss their perspective on Level5’s unique value proposition, their first impressions and expectations from this engagement. Thank you CNO, we look forward to continually working to meet and surpass your expectations!

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“I’ll grind for 2-4 years maximum and then go into industry.”

This was the golden plan – the plan that I told friends and family the moment I secured the consulting role I had been working towards.

After all, that was the typical consulting path, wasn’t it? Living out of a suitcase Monday to Thursday; working 14-hour days; eating takeout in an empty hotel room; and soaking up all the knowledge you possibly can until you burn out and move on to greener pastures.

Boy, was I wrong!

While I was in fact on the ‘consulting path’, I quickly realized that my particular path was nothing like the one that I had previously imagined . . .

The accelerated learning curve, diversity of experience, and more-than-occasional long nights were certainly ahead of me. But they were complemented by a welcoming family of colleagues and a culture of openness, sincerity, and mutual respect that is typically not associated with a consulting firm.

To top it all off, the path that I found wasn’t the rigid and defined one that I expected. There was a fruitful field of opportunities in front of me and a group of incredibly smart and talented people to help me along the way.

After a few years, I came to the realization that perhaps I didn’t have to leave to find the ‘greener pasture’.  As it turns out, I was in one of the greenest pastures and it stretched endlessly into the distance.


To this day, the accelerated learning curve I was looking for hasn’t tapered off.

Many of my friends have already switched jobs, once or twice by now, in search of re-energizing their careers with new opportunities, and they’re always surprised that I haven’t. My response is simple: I have.

While my business card remained the same colour, my role has changed plenty of times and will continue to change going forward.

I started my career at Level5 as an analyst. My life revolved around seeking out and synthesizing information; the tools of my craft were PowerPoint and Excel. I loved it. There is no better feeling than when you finally find that one missing data point that you had spent the better part of the day (or week) looking for.

But as soon as I was recognized as a great analyst, I took on more responsibility and my job changed. I became a project manager.

In this role, my singular purpose was keeping clients happy by ensuring that projects were delivered on time, on-budget, and at the quality clients came to expect from Level5. The projects themselves had a far wider range than I had ever anticipated. In one day, I could work on the strategic plan for an NHL team, a new product development and market entry strategy for an insurance company, and a restructuring for a retailer. There was more than enough variety to satisfy my intellectual curiosity and hunger for new experiences.

My shift in perspective towards looking at consulting as a career continued over the years as I grew and took on the additional roles of people manager, brand champion, and salesperson.

As my role evolves within Level5, my perspective continues to shift toward the bigger picture, particularly in the form of firm and thought leadership – a focus that not only opens doors to fresh opportunities, but also allows me to challenge myself and pave my own path forward.


When new teammates start at L5, I always encourage them to make the most out of the countless opportunities ahead and help create the firm that they would be proud to work for.

Most people start in this industry knowing that they’re looking to learn and experience as much as they can through the ‘outside-looking-in’ opportunities that lie before them (which is a great mindset to have). That said, the successes that I’ve found most rewarding over the years are those that come from igniting my entrepreneurial spirit to challenge the current thinking and create something new for my clients, team, or firm.

There are very few places where you can work with established companies on iconic brands while continuously learning, growing, and placing your thumbprint on your firm’s culture and strategy. Some people spend a lifetime looking for a career and workplace like this; somehow, I got lucky and found one on my first shot.

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Episode 2: The Value of a Brand

A brand is the value of a promise consistently kept. In this episode, David dissects this definition looking at how each part drives success in the market. In doing so, he highlights the source of a brand’s measurable value; identifies the key to creating a sustainable competitive advantage; and reveals a common mistake that can affect the value your brand generates.

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Hosted by David Kincaid, Founder and Managing Partner at Level5, this brand-new series provides an in-depth discussion on the most misunderstood and underleveraged asset – your brand – and the value of a promise consistently kept. 

Episode 1: Brands and the Role of the C-suite

In this episode, David Kincaid explores the loneliest job in the world – the CEO. He examines the plethora of challenges that a modern-day CEO faces, in particular, searching for growth opportunities. Through examining the value of a brand, David highlights the key strategy for successful brand management and growth. 

Subscribe to the Level5 Newsletter to read our insights and keep up to date on industry news

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Author, Matthew Kelly, Managing Partner 

John Schwartz of the NY Times recently challenged readers in his latest article to consider if the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing could be a metaphor for the type of effort required to galvanize governments, corporations and humanity into successfully confronting the most fundamental issue facing our existence – “the grinding destructiveness of a warming planet” – climate change.

For the American space effort that was competing neck and neck with the Soviet Union for supremacy, it started with a clearly defined and inspiring goal: Land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

John Schwartz references John Logsdon, a space program historian, who noted four conditions were required to land on the moon, arguably humankind’s greatest achievement.

1. Powerful stimulus – a “singular act that would force action that you could not ignore”

2. Leaders empowered to direct the necessary resources to meet the goal on a “war-like basis”

3. Deep pockets – people, financial, technology

4. An objective that was “technically feasible”

The metaphor can be easily extended to any fundamental change or transformation initiative confronting a business leader or organization. What is your moonshot and what is your approach to achieving your goal?

Subscribe to the Level5 Newsletter to read our insights and keep up to date on industry news

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What happens when customer experience, digital, omnichannel fulfillment, dynamic supply chain demands and a retailer’s brand promise all collide? How do you mitigate the issues and learn from the best? Join Claude Ricks, Managing Partner at Level5; Ian Madell, President and Managing Partner at Level5; Rob Gizzie, Director at Level5; and Mike Doherty, Partner at Demand Clarity – a supply chain strategy house – as they discuss the answers to these important questions. 

Related articles: If you liked our podcast, read our latest perspective paper "Customer Centricty" 

Subscribe to the Level5 Newsletter to read our insights and keep up to date on industry news

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In this episode we talk to Managing Partner and President of Level5 Strategy, Ian Madell, to discuss how technology will continue to force adaptation for retailers.

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