Media Player of the Year 2014: Blue Ant Media

A company building a model that makes blending the new with the old look easy

Chris Powell February 04, 2015

An improbable combination of pink pool noodles, wooden dowels and a pair of old-timey water skis, the aptly named “chair ski” promised the thrill of waterskiing with the comfort of a Muskoka chair.

Conceived by the endearingly goofball brothers Kevin and Andrew Buckles, it was one of several creations featured on the Cottage Life Television show Brojects last summer. Sponsored by lumber supply company Timber Mart—whose slogan, appropriately enough, is “You can do anything”—Brojects is definitely not your father’s how-to show.

Some of Brojects’ creations, such as an “amphibious” hot tub, are so outlandish it’s a wonder they got past Cottage Life’s legal team. (You can almost see the headline: “Local man perishes as homemade hot tub capsizes in open water.”)

Maybe, though, the Buckles’ endearingly bungled attempt at a simple fist bump in the opening credits is enough to convince viewers that these “brojects” be taken not just with a grain of salt, but an entire box.

Given its oddball nature, it’s not surprising that the “chair-ski” ultimately connected with audiences on YouTube, that vast online repository for all things weird and wacky. A four-minute video on Cottage Life’s channel has racked up more than 120,000 views since its June debut. Modest by YouTube standards perhaps, but significant for a 26-year-old media brand with print roots just beginning to make its way in the world of digital content.

While traditional media companies adapt to changing viewer habits by bolting new media solutions onto existing content, Cottage Life owner, Blue Ant Media, has been walking the “tradigital” tightrope as steadily and sure-footedly as Nik Wallenda ever since its 2011 inception. Blue Ant’s commitment to multi-platform delivery contributed to a 27% increase in revenue in 2014, largely on the basis of increased advertiser investment.

“From the start, Blue Ant has been committed to multi-platform execution, where content was restructured or adapted for each respective platform,” says Veronica Holmes, president of digital at ZenithOptimedia Canada. “They made early bets on HD and short-form TV segments, which is bang-on what digital-heavy consumers do and increasingly normal for all consumers.

“I think Blue Ant is making the right strategic moves to position themselves for the future.”

Sharon Brown, director of strategic media for Toronto agency Blue Hive Canada, worked with Blue Ant last summer to create a 12-part web series, Roadside Attractions, promoting Ford Canada’s 2014 Escape

Raja Khanna

Raja Khanna

The series featured TV host Tara Gaucher from Blue Ant specialty channel T+E visiting off-the-beaten-path locales that had been crowd-sourced via social media. Brown calls Blue Ant “a true partner,” noting that it takes content very seriously. “They are collaborative, put the client first, solution-oriented,” she says. “They are flexible and open to suggestions, a leading-edge content producer and distributor in the industry.”

With advertiser support increasingly difficult to come by for companies not named Google or Facebook, their continued faith in Blue Ant is validation of founder and CEO Michael MacMillan’s 2011 vision for a platform-agnostic content company.

“We think it’s a great time for creators and a great time for any player who can afford to bravely seize the opportunity,” says MacMillan, whose shoulder-length hair, grey-flecked beard and broad smile bring to mind fellow media mogul Richard Branson.

“I say it like that because I suppose if one were wedded to the traditional success of the status quo, one might be perfectly, logically, more reluctant to run across the street and see how that new world looks.”

Blue Ant not only crossed that street (again) in 2014, it marched across with purpose. Which is why, for the second time in its four-year history, it is Marketing’s selection as its Media Player of the Year.

It’s a week before the Christmas break, and MacMillan and his business partner, Raja Khanna, Blue Ant’s CEO of digital and television, are sitting in a boardroom at the former’s midtown Toronto office for a hastily assembled meeting with Marketing.

It is less than 18 hours since being informed that Blue Ant has been selected as Media Player of the Year. MacMillan can spare just 30 minutes, while a few hours from now Khanna will board a plane bound for India and a family vacation.

We’re on the clock, with a lot of ground to cover: Blue Ant’s international expansion; key hires including former AOL Canada director of marketing and communications, Laura Pearce, as VP, brand strategy and engagement; a new long-term partnership with the Polaris Music Prize; Cottage Life Media’s acquisition of Cottage magazine and its subsequent rebranding as Cottage Life West, followed by the launch of a new consumer show, the Edmonton Cottage Life & Cabin Show (the three-day event attracted approximately 45,000 people); and a possible future launch of a streaming video-on-demand service reflecting its content expertise, which Khanna calls a “big priority” for the company.

There’s also some brief chatter about Blue Ant’s mergers and acquisitions group. So just how busy is this group? “Very,” says Khanna. Any specific targets in mind? Khanna offers a smile, accompanied by a slow shake of the head.

Mostly though, Blue Ant’s co-CEOs spend much of the hour extolling the importance of content. More to the point, they talk about their strategy for getting that content into the hands—and onto the screens—of the millennial audience so prized by advertisers.

“We’ve brought that focus on the content and the audience, rather than on the technology, to Blue Ant,” says Khanna, who in many ways is MacMillan’s opposite: tall to the latter’s short, and prone to providing measured answers that stand in contrast to MacMillan’s occasional stream-of-consciousness responses.

“A lot of big companies are structured and have processes that are really dependent on certain forms of delivery,” Khanna continues. “One of the advantages of being young is that we have a different perspective on how consumers consume content.”

Much of Blue Ant’s 2014 activity was centred on boosting its content capabilities, but after three years of building its Canadian operations, this was the year the company began looking internationally.

Michael MacMillan

Michael MacMillan

That was achieved largely through the acquisition of YouTube multi-channel network (MCN) Omnia Media, a deal that immediately provided Blue Ant with both size and scale in the burgeoning online video space. The L.A.-based MCN boasts 60 million worldwide subscribers and a reported 846 million monthly video views in key content verticals like music and style.

Omnia CEO, Tamoor Shafi, told Marketing at the time that his 18-month-old company had spoken with several other potential investors, but that Blue Ant was chosen because it closely aligns with its core music focus through brands like AUX.

“Given what Blue Ant has already established with its distribution outlets as far as digital magazines and television, it provides that additional distribution and revenue for the arts we’re working with,” he said. “They were the most relevant to us.”

ZenithOptimedia’s Holmes calls the Omnia deal a “great step” toward understanding the content consumption patterns of younger audiences, intelligence that can subsequently be used to refine and possibly recalibrate Blue Ant’s TV—and possibly even print—products.

To support the Omnia deal, Blue Ant opened a New York sales office and created a new international distribution arm, Blue Ant International, which boasts more than 1,400 hours of premium unscripted content (the division entered its first distribution deal, with Our House Media, to produce and distribute factual entertainment content including the shows Backroad Bounty and Paranormal Survivor).

Last year also saw Blue Ant launch a fully-equipped digital production studio for YouTube creators featuring a team of in-house producers, camera operators and audio experts, and a sales team to connect creators with brands for project development and distribution. It also committed to the creation of 200 hours a year of 4K nature and wildlife content to be distributed globally through linear and VOD services.

Blue Ant also added to its international operations with the purchase of a majority stake in New Zealand broadcaster Choice TV, which will become a destination for much of the high-definition content produced by Blue Ant. Judy Davey, executive vice-president of activation at ZenithOptimedia, calls it an “interesting” decision.

“They could have likely done a licensing deal for their lifestyle and entertainment content, but they chose the ownership route. It will be interesting to see how it pans out,” she says.

“It’s just the start,” says MacMillan, the onetime Alliance Atlantis Communications head who launched Blue Ant, back in 2011, some four years after orchestrating the sale of Alliance’s stable of specialty TV assets to a partnership of Canwest and Goldman Sachs, for $2.3 billion.

It’s easy in the media world to want to be everything to all people, thereby theoretically appealing to a wider swath of advertisers. Conventional TV networks did it for decades. Blue Ant has no such notion, remaining committed to small but devout audiences in a handful of core verticals: music, outdoor lifestyle, nature and style.

“We’re not trying to compete with everyone—we are experts in our categories,” says Khanna. “We do actually plan to be the best in those categories.”

Cottage Life, he says, is the perfect embodiment of Blue Ant’s approach. The brand provides advertisers with the opportunity to surround a coveted high-income group, from a print magazine and a dedicated specialty TV channel, to YouTube and Facebook and its consumer shows.

“We don’t think there’s another brand in Canada that’s better than us at talking to the people who own cottages or aspire to own cottages,” says Khanna. “That’s a very distinct group of people, attractive to advertisers.”

The key now, he says, is founding content that resonates with audiences around the world; the borderless nature of the internet has irrevocably changed the media business, he says.

MPCover “The world has changed, and we realize that [being beholden] to one platform or technology is not necessarily a great long-term strategy—particularly with the pace of change that we’re seeing today,” he says. “We’re trying our best to create a company that’s mostly focused on the content and the fan, and connecting those two through whatever means are available and profitable.”

“You need to look internationally to be a content producer and owner these days,” he says. “More and more, single markets aren’t capable of bearing the full cost of the creation of great programming; more and more, the business models attached to that piece of content are borderless—whether it’s on YouTube or SVOD.”

In other words, staying afloat in 21st century business requires a combination of luck and guile. Both are available, conveniently enough, on Brojects.

For a complete look at Marketing‘s picks of the year check out the February/March 2015 issue on newsstands now.