An Instagram exec on the evolution of social media and how the MBA shaped his life
A conversation between IMD MBA Dean Seán Meehan and Gord Ray, Brand Development Lead EMEA at Instagram
Gord Ray has followed an impressive and winding career path that has seen him spend time in Europe, North America and Africa. He has reinvented himself four times in completely different industries without any prior knowledge of his new sector.
Prior to earning an MBA at IMD in 2002, Ray, a Canadian worked in advertising in Toronto Prague and London.
After completing his MBA, he worked for Georg Jensen in Copenhagen, took a career break to help build a school in Zambia and was the managing editor of Wallpaper Magazine.
Today, he works for the photo-sharing social media behemoth Instagram, a platform which has hundreds of millions of active users with a large percentage who are under 35.
He recently returned to the IMD campus to address the current MBA class and talk about the company he works for at the Chief Marketing Officer Roundtable.
Ray caught up with his former Dean, Seán Meehan, to discuss his current role, his time at IMD, and the best piece of advice he’s ever been given.
Seán Meehan: Welcome back to IMD. Tell us about what you do at Instagram.
Gord Ray: I am constantly out in the business community trying to help companies get the best out of Instagram in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. We often say that I am the voice of Instagram to the business community, but also the voice back from the business community to Instagram.
So how can businesses benefit from Instagram?
Instagram brings you closer to the things and people that you love; that’s our mission and vision. Now that the platform reaches one billion monthly active users, we have grown a very large community and are helping them experience their interests together. Ninety percent of those users follow a business. Businesses are at the heart of Instagram.
How is Instagram evolving? How did it grow so quickly?
One of the reasons is because it’s an image-based platform. It’s based on the idea that our brains can process images more quickly than words. We recognize the emotions more quickly. You don’t even have to speak a specific language. The world likes to communicate through images. Emojis and gifs are so popular now. The app has evolved from being a photo sharing platform into a community of people who come together around a particular interest area. There’s a lot more dialogue than has happened in the past. The creativity that takes place in stories as well as shopping are also new developments. Like any business, many of our new features have come from listening to the community about what they want. That’s the cornerstone of any company. This is the community; give them what they want.
You completed your MBA at IMD 17 years ago when social media didn’t exist. Do you still use any of the learnings from the program?
Absolutely. I use so many things I learned from here. One of them is having experienced the international nature of the class. I almost take it for granted now to always respect and recognize cultural differences within a group of people and what that means for business interactions. That started at IMD and has been part of my career ever since.
Knowing about the different points of view people have, the different way they approach problems and the different ways they come up with solutions and communicate all started here. I still use the presentation techniques I learned here.
One of my closest friends is someone I met at IMD. I still have so many contacts with people from my time at IMD. The network is hugely important. It’s such a part of my life that I have to remind myself that it’s not a part of everyone’s life to have such a global network.
It was the best and most challenging year of my life. You can really do anything if you go through that program. It gives you the confidence to believe that, and it’s been part a huge part of my career. It has fundamentally changed my life for the better and I’ll always remember that.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
It was that we can absolutely do anything we want to do if we learn the path to achieve it. It’s more than ‘putting your mind to it’. I’ve lived in eight countries and have been fortunate to experience many different cultures. I changed jobs four times in completely different industries in different countries without any experience of either. Each time I decided that’s what I wanted to do and I was able to find my way. I don’t remember who gave me that advice but it has been part of my life. Also when I do anything personally or professionally, I want to make sure that my interaction with someone is the best part of their day. You won’t always be the best but if you can be some of the time, that’s a great way of walking through life.
What is your advice for potential MBA candidates?
You should be clear in your mind why you want to do it and be open to evolve as you learn more about the programs that are on offer. Is it about improving your analytical skills, broadening your network, and personal improvement? It is important to say in your mind, I am here for these reasons. You should also know that may change. I was looking for a break and a career shift. I wanted to learn about the core skills that any business program focuses on. I also wanted to attend a global program, not something that was necessarily Canadian or American.
One thing I didn’t know would happen would be walking away with so much more confidence after the year, since you are faced with so many challenges every single day.