The Inside Story

The Len Kahn legacy: Building teams with humour and kindness

By Andrew Douglas | 2 min read

Len Kahn built three different marketing agencies from scratch and sold each one. The secret to his success is a kind heart and a shocking sense of humour.

I kept a wrongful dismissal file on my desk throughout the time I worked for Len Kahn. And no one was a more enthusiastic contributor to the file than Len himself.

Len has always said things that I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to say. And he’s said what’s on his mind regardless of the people in the room. Over the years I worked with Len he would say something shocking and then remind me, “Dougie, write that one down. That’s a good one for the file.”

Len is always Len. Whether there’s a client in the room, an important guest, or it’s just the team hanging out at a bar after work, he doesn’t filter. Ever. He says what he thinks, which usually leaves everyone laughing. A lively sense of humour is a crucial tool in the stressful environment of a busy agency. He doesn’t need the limelight… although he doesn’t mind having the last word.

But there’s way more to Len than his wicked one-liners. He is a deeply kind person, seeing people clearly and drawing out the best in them.

He can work with almost anyone, mining their best work while gently addressing the other stuff. He tackles issues head on while being quick to apologize when he’s made a mistake. He strongly believes that in business, your good name and reputation is everything. The rest will take care of itself.

But to me, Len is more than his professional reputation. He hired me when I was still new to marketing. He talked me up more than I deserved. He called out the best in me and gave me opportunities I didn’t see coming. He taught me about business. He taught me how to bring the farm into the boardroom, respecting both.

For 30 years, Len has thrived in the competitive agriculture advertising agency marketplace. His most recent company, Kahntact, has a bevy of clients, including some large players. Three times over his career he’s built an agency from scratch into an enterprise valuable enough that he was able to merge or sell to a larger group.

I learned a lot from Len. I remember one evening we were working late in the office. Len and I were bent over a phone on a conference call, trying to convince a client to enter into a partnership with a large tech firm. We knew the tech brand would be a nice glow over the image of the Fortune-500 client we were representing. We’d pitched our idea up the ladder and it was up to the head of marketing for North America to give the final approval.

We pitched the plan and then we waited… and waited. I couldn’t take it. I was opening my mouth to speak when Len jammed his finger down on the mute button and said, “Dougie, if you say anything I’ll #@A?!!.”

I kept quiet.

The seconds ticked by. Finally, the client spoke next. She agreed to the plan. We were off to the races.

After we hung up, Len explained that sometimes a negotiation reaches the point where you have to clam up. You’ve done your pitch, you’ve sold it… it’s time to let them buy in.

It was a good night – both for our client and for my education. I think of that story often and the power of quiet and not filling the void with more words.

Len was awarded the Canadian Agri-food Marketers Alliance (CAMA) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022.

Thanks Len. You deserve it.

Andrew Douglas, founder of Story Digital Marketing.

Andrew Douglas

Andrew is the founder of Story Digital Marketing. He has 30 years of experience in journalism and marketing and is passionate about the written word.