Watch Out For The Blue Ant

After a few years away from the business, Michael MacMillan is back and building another media company

Michael MacMillan is back and building another media company

If there’s an up-and-coming company broadcasters need to watch closely – and maybe even get sweaty-browed about – it’s Blue Ant Media.

Why follow a company that (as of press time) doesn’t even have its own website completed? For starters, it was co-founded by Michael MacMillan, the former head of Alliance Atlantis (which was bought by then-CanWest for $2.3 billion in 2007) and one of the country’s most respected personalities in the media landscape.

He’s starting all over again, back in the game when many media execs are spending most of their time pondering how to make sense – and a few dollars- in a media landscape that imploded a few years ago and to which no order has returned. The world in which MacMillan built a $2.3 billion company (and became a very rich man in the process) is gone. Why not take his money and do some good, like start a charity? Or have some fun and build a winery, or something?

Well, he did that. And he liked it. But now, at 55, he’s back anyway. Re-energized by all the changes, MacMillan’s got a new company and he’s not afraid to expand it. Fast.

Why? What’s his plan in this TV-is-dying-and-everything-is-unproven era?

MacMillian is on a mission to build a company that, yes, distributes content, but also creates and owns the content. “We want to be in the business of controlling content and of being able to present it to users,” says MacMillan. (Want to play a media drinking game? Take a shot every time MacMillan says “content;” you’ll be buzzed in no time.)

His use of the word “present” rather than “broadcast” is presumably deliberate. Blue Ant does much more than broadcast programs on TV, after all. Still a young company – MacMillan incorporated it with long-time business partner Seaton McLean in Toronto in January 2011 – Blue Ant is well on its way to reaching the elusive “technology agnostic” descriptor for which so many media companies strive. “We want to be relatively indifferent as to how people use what we offer them, whether they do it on a tablet, in a magazine or on a small handheld device or a TV screen,” says MacMillan.

Not only that, all of Blue Ant’s deals to acquire majority or minority ownership in varied media companies show MacMillan is focused on some powerful, advertiser-friendly niches, including lifestyle, music and comedy. “We don’t want to just have individual pieces of content,” says MacMillan. “We want to be deep experts in a handful of categories.” The man who was a founding producer of CSI, one of the most popular TV franchises of all time, is setting his sites on much smaller audiences, but with lots of content, across whatever touchpoint viewers choose.

And while the common thread that ties the seemingly disparate niches isn’t immediately clear, when you look closer at the audiences Blue Ant is targeting – cottage owners, music lovers, globetrotters – they have some serious advertiser appeal built in. They’ve got deep pockets, whether the money is their own or their parents’.

Take the various brands operated by GlassBox Television, an integrated media company with online roots that Blue Ant became a majority shareholder of last year.

Launched in 2005, GlassBox owns and operates specialty networks Bite TV (with a comedy focus) and Aux TV (music-themed programming). When MacMillan learned that the small Toronto-based company had a deal to buy Travel + Escape from CTV, he felt there was an opportunity in the travel category and that it would work on all platforms. “It’s a category that is very, very interesting to advertisers and it’s a category that can be as mainstream as we made Home and Garden and Food Network.” (Did we mention that MacMillan is Canada’s original king of speciality TV? Read “A Five-Minute History Of Michael MacMillan“)

Last July, Blue Ant kept the acquisition momentum going by buying a minority interest in Quarto Communications, the Toronto-based publisher of Cottage Life, Explore, Outdoor Canada and Canadian Home Workshop magazines.

Rounding out the year, Blue Ant added to its growing pool of niche-content expertise by acquiring High Fidelity HDTV in December. High Fidelity’s four non-fiction HD channels are Oasis HD (for nature lovers), radX (for adventure seekers), eqhd (global cultures and ideas) and HIFI HD (music and art).

Even more recently, the CRTC approved an application for a broadcasting licence from Blue Ant’s GlassBox Television for a national speciality news service. Despite the bold move, MacMillan says that the news channel is “not on our list of things to do anytime soon.” Perhaps, but that move shows just how deep Blue Ant at least envisions building up its arsenal of niche properties.

There are bound to be some bumps along the way. Take Aux TV, GlassBox’s national music channel. It’s got a huge following online, but the TV channel hasn’t broken through in the same way. By playing music videos, event docs, live performances and entertainment news, the TV side may not be doing as well as its online counterpart “because it’s trying to be too many things to too many people,” says McLean. “It still has to find its niche.”

The content plays aren’t about massive numbers of followers, but passionate ones, says MacMillan. “I like to be in categories where there are fans of it… where you have that odd attraction that doesn’t make sense.” He uses cottage lovers as an example. “Owning a cottage is not a rational thing. People love it and have a family connection to it and… are psychologically bound to the idea of the cottage, but it doesn’t make any sense otherwise and that’s a pretty neat attraction.”

Still seem a bit nichey? It is, but the niches under Blue Ant’s umbrella complement each other. Cottage fits well adjacent to travel, for example, says MacMillan. And as with the GlassBox and Quarto brands, the High Fidelity channels are also “nice and precise, and since they’re documentary channels they are at least in the same general quadrant of programming,” he adds. “They’re similar to some degree to the travel or cottage category.”

And therein lies potential power. Building scale around the related areas in which GlassBox, Quarto and High Fidelity specialize is an exciting opportunity for Blue Ant, says Bruce Neve, CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group Canada. Neve, former president of MEC Canada, which was an early advertiser with Bite TV with Molson, says the travel stream, for instance, can also involve lifestyle, food and culture. That means Travel + Escape, Cottage Life, Outdoor Canada, Explore and eqhd can all fit under the broad travel umbrella for interested advertisers.

“So suddenly there’s this whole opportunity around that content stream,” says Neve. And it’s not just existing content, he adds. Blue Ant’s properties are “creating a lot of original content and they’re open and friendly to brands being involved in that development.”

March of the Blue Ant: A short timeline
A Five-Minute History of Michael MacMillan

So much so that Simon Foster, SVP of digital publishing and business development at GlassBox, says the company’s content team “loves” – yes, loves – working with its digital sales team. “We built the team with very specifically in mind that we wanted to avoid church and state between content and sales… they sit side by side and content is constantly pitching sales on ideas and sales is pitching content on ideas.”

This daily collaboration gives GlassBox the ability to work with marketers and create original ways to integrate their brand into content. GlassBox’s content creation capabilities “are what sets us apart from Bell and Rogers and all those other competitors,” says Foster.

Take last summer’s Aux Bacardi Together Tour. Part of a large-scale campaign with several components, the collaboration started with a branded entertainment web series where an Aux crew was sent to film big music festivals around the world. Turning the typical media model of “make show-have TV premiere-toss footage online-figure out social media component” on its head, GlassBox and Bacardi premiered the web series on Bacardi’s global Facebook page. It later ran on Aux’s website and then was posted on YouTube. The last component was a special one-hour documentary that aired on TV.

Premiering original, broadcast-quality content on the Facebook page of an advertiser? It may be a foreign concept to leadership at most ad agencies, but Foster says it works. “Because we have great original content across all these different platforms and because we don’t have these barriers [between content and sales], our focus is figuring out what the right platform is for a brand to make the content available.”

McLean, too, likes to talk about Blue Ant as “an alternative to the Rogers and Bells and Shaws of the world… We’ll pick up smaller accounts looking for a more radical approach to marketing. Being a boutique-sized company, we’re able to respond to the needs and tastes of smaller outfits.”

Starcom’s Neve says there’s also value in Blue Ant’s own small and nimble size. “They’re going to look for a small group of partners to partner deep with them at a level of innovation and exploration that you wouldn’t get from a major player because [larger companies] have to deal with so many different clients.”

Plus, brands under Blue Ant’s umbrella are going to get more undivided marketing love. “The Travel + Escape channel that existed as one in a huge portfolio for CTV never got attention, really, in terms of either quality of content or selling or merchandising it,” says Neve. “So now with a company of this size they’re really going to focus and raise the quality of the content.”

'It's not bad to have a contrary view to the mainstream view - as long as you're right.'

Blue Ant is also, with the weight of MacMillan’s name behind it, enjoying a growth curve that will make other media start-ups insanely jealous. Providence Equity Capital Markets, for example, provided additional financing to Blue Ant as part of the High Fidelity HDTV acquisition. And Torstar Corporation took a 25% ownership stake in Blue Ant in December. “It took 15 years to raise our first $35 million and this time around it took us 12 months,” says McLean.

He’s known MacMillan for 35 years—since their time together at Queen’s University—and has partnered with him on other business ventures, including Atlantis and Closson Chase, a vineyard and winery.

While McLean says Blue Ant won’t likely be going the “public” route in the near future, he doesn’t discount the idea further down the road. Neither does MacMillan. But MacMillan’s still pretty coy about growth plans for the company, only saying he anticipates it will be “substantially larger than we are today” and that the intention is to “grow the business relatively aggressively.”

So aggressively that it could perhaps become one of Canada’s major media players? Much like what MacMillan helped build before? “Usually it’s different and risky to make predictions like that,” he says. Still, he notes that he never could have predicted when he started Atlantis that it would go on to have more than 1,000 employees.
For the time being, McLean says it’s exciting to raise capital and acquire elements like GlassBox and High Fidelity. MacMillan’s reputation certainly helps on that front, says Neve. “His involvement with [Blue Ant] certainly lends a lot of credibility to the venture. He’s a brand for sure.”

GlassBox’s Foster has witnessed the “MacMillan effect” in person. “It makes a huge difference walking into any meeting where if there is uncertainty—and there almost always is in launching new digital products—there is a far greater likelihood that we’ll all take this leap of faith together because there is someone in the room who has done it before and was very, very successful,” says Foster.

Leonard Asper, who was president and CEO of CanWest when it acquired Alliance Atlantis, believes “Michael’s presence will certainly drive growth in those companies, particularly in terms of strategic guidance as that is his forté.”

And while MacMillan is proud of what Blue Ant has accomplished so early on, he’s quick to point out that it is still a small enterprise. “We have to be very careful that we don’t imagine that we are some gigantic, established big deal,” he says. “We’re just gettin’ going.”

He is excited about the future, even dubbing himself an optimist, though he knows it’s not the prevailing mood given what’s happening economically, geopolitically and in the media world. “It’s not bad to have a contrary view to the mainstream view – as long as you’re right,” he says.

And as long as you’re nimble enough to make things happen quickly. Which brings us to Blue Ant’s name. The idea came from McLean, who was inspired by Canadian author William Gibson’s books. “In some of his novels, Blue Ant Media is the company of the future,” says MacMillan. “It’s a nod and wink to that.”

Blue Ant is actually more than just the company of the future in the books, though. To quote from Gibson’s book Pattern Recognition, Blue Ant is an agency that bills itself “as a high-speed, low-drag lifeform in an advertising ecology of lumbering herbivores.” So, lumbering herbivores, watch MacMillan’s Blue Ant closely. 

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