Dose: the making of a youth daily

As the story goes, during a Canadian Newspaper Association convention in Vancouver in the summer of 2004, Rethink partner/co-CD Chris Staples gave a speech which sounded the oft-repeated death knell of the relationship between newspapers and young readers, aged 18 to 34.

As the story goes, during a Canadian Newspaper Association convention in Vancouver in the summer of 2004, Rethink partner/co-CD Chris Staples gave a speech which sounded the oft-repeated death knell of the relationship between newspapers and young readers, aged 18 to 34.

Staples’ rant happened to fall on the ears of a few bigwigs from CanWest including Dennis Skulsky, president, Pacific Newspaper Group and publisher of the Vancouver Sun, who had already been mulling an idea that aimed to address that trend.

So, Skulsky, who had known Staples for several years, arranged to meet with him and Tom Shepansky, another Rethink partner, to talk more seriously about ‘creating a new product’ that spoke to youth. Staples, a bit of a news junkie himself, was keen. ‘I knew that they got it,’ says Skulsky. Soon thereafter, the agency was engaged. So were the beginnings of what would become Dose. What follows is how in a matter of six months that little idea was conceived, designed, marketed and launched to become a brand.

July 2004

* ‘I got involved in it at the very beginning of this project,’ recalls Pema Hegan, who was an account manager at Rethink, but would later become the paper’s editor-in-chief. Staples puts together a creative team (including Jeff Harrison, ACD, design; Rob Tarry, ACD, advertising; and Lisa Chen-Wing, AD) along with Hegan, on the account side, to start the brainstorming process. Rethink, and newly engaged youth consultancy group Youthography in Toronto begin researching the media habits and overall lifestyle of youth.

August/ September 2004

* Rethink works on initial ideas for names, content and brand identity. The entire office generates roughly 500 names, says Tarry, including random offerings like Dash and Bikini. But they don’t settle on a name.

October/November 2004

* Noah Godfrey, who had graduated from Harvard Business School about six months prior, is hired as publisher. He shows up at the Rethink offices in Vancouver a few short days into the position for a meeting with execs from CanWest to discuss the vision for the pub.

‘Noah and I found ourselves sitting around a large ping pong table at the Rethink offices, which had 15 people in their late 40s and 50s,’ says Hegan. ‘I think there may have been some blue, double-breasted jackets. That’s not to say there weren’t some incredibly smart minds at that table, but when you’re putting a product out which really speaks to youth in a new and interesting way, you want some youth working on it.

‘Noah started the meeting by debunking every piece of research which had been done on this project so far. One, for example, said only a small percentage of youth had ever tried smoking marijuana. Noah said that was complete horseshit.’

Surprisingly, the reaction is ‘very positive,’ says Godfrey. ‘If there was resistance I didn’t hear it. [The goal] was a product for young Canadians by young Canadians.’

* Vague prototypes are tested in focus groups, organized by Youthography, across the country. Ideas about the Web site and mobile service, which all agree are key to speaking to the tech-savvy target, are also tested. ‘We found that people who experienced more than one [product] felt much more strongly towards our brand,’ says Hegan. They were also asked a range of other questions including: what other media and products they consumed, which brands they feel strongly about, and what would they name a new media product.

Some key learnings, says Godfrey, include: They don’t like to be stereotyped, as skaters or hip-hop heads, for example; they do care about politics, but not how it’s presented; they feel like an underserved market and want content that’s free and addresses their interests; their lives are fused seamlessly with multiple media (cellphones, Internet). The biggest surprise, says Godfrey is ‘we underestimated the importance of news.’ The target does want reliable, current information.

After about eight hours of focus groups one night in Toronto, Godfrey and Hegan take a break. ‘Noah and I found ourselves standing outside in the rain and that’s when he first introduced the idea of me coming to be involved with Dose as editor in chief.’ Hegan, originally from New Zealand had a lot of media and ad experience, including work as a media planner and buyer in the U.K. and in media strategy/content planning for five years before his time at Rethink. But watching him handle, understand and converse with the focus group was the clincher, says Godfrey. ‘[He was] like a lighthouse on a dark night.’

November 2004

* Hegan accepts the post but continues to work at Rethink in Vancouver to avoid disrupting the flow of work. ‘I would fly to Toronto to create prototypes of what we wanted Dose to look like and fly back to Vancouver to work on the marketing and advertising [with the team there],’ he says. He wouldn’t officially start full time at Dose until January.

* Godfrey contacts school chum Mark Shedletsky who is working in MTV’s marketing department in NYC. He pitches Dose (still unnamed) as an exciting brand with great potential and offers Shedletsky the top marketing post. Shedletsky accepts.

* A few potential names, including Lunchbox, Dash and Grape, make the short list. But Dose is tested and comes out as the leader. It reflects the brand’s evolving identity: compact, daily and necessary.

Dec. 20 2004

* Prototypes – with Rethink’s logo and paper design and the name Dose – are shown at a focus group quickly organized by Youthography just a few days before Christmas. They test very positively, but dummy advertising is frowned upon for not being real. The main learning was ‘the importance of being authentic,’ says Godfrey. Also, the page-three disclosure that reads: ‘Today’s magazine didn’t cost you a cent thanks to the help of people at:’ then lists the names of advertisers also scores extremely well. ‘The understanding there was that you always have to be real.’

January 2005

* The Don Mills, Ont. office is open for business. A total of 70 staff is hired, including distribution and sales in five markets: Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

Thirty-five of those hires are editorial/creative. An editorial vision including a new thinking about the relationship between editorial and advertising is an about face from typical church and state philosophies.

‘[The target] doesn’t see the lines between content and advertising,’ says Godfrey. ‘They live their lives through brands, they identify with brands more than any other generation.’

[An example to come in the months following: Client Warner Bros. wants to push the launch of the movie Batman Begins. The result is an entire issue dedicated to the legend of Batman, with articles that look at the history of the franchise, giveaways to the premiere, a big tie-in on the Web site - even the crossword puzzle is Batman-themed.]

February 2005

* Shedletsky focuses on how to promote the daily, versus the Web site or the mobile platform. Talk about the launch strategy starts to take shape: ‘Were we going to talk about the fact that we’re free and daily, or Dose’s unique content?’ he says. ‘We were going back and forth trying to figure out what were the most important communication pieces for the audience. It was a source of debate. It was very important to define ourselves clearly from the beginning.’ They decide to highlight the fact that it’s a free paper and that it’s for and by young people.

* The prototype, similar to what Dose looks like now, gets good feedback during a focus group in Toronto. Sub-branding pages like Fix, the entertainment page, or Rub, the celebrity page, however, don’t elicit the same response. But Hegan is committed to keeping them. ‘Those didn’t necessarily test phenomenally well, because they weren’t brands, but he felt very strongly [about them],’ says Shedletsky. ‘I think he was completely right, it was a nice differentiator – it helped to give the paper a different look and feel.’

March 2005

* On the editorial side, the team has four weeks of dry runs in which they operate as though publishing daily.

* Launch plans have been confirmed, including a splashy launch event – working with Toronto’s Capital C – with both domestic and international talent. The main act is hip-hop group D12. ‘We had them locked, contracts signed,’ says Shedletsky, ‘then we realized a couple of guys couldn’t get over the border. They had visa issues. A month before the launch we had to look into new talent.’ Socially conscious rapper Talib Kweli is quickly signed.

* An idea for the launch TV media campaign is agreed upon. ‘We really wanted to nail that first because the lead times were a little bit longer,’ says Shedletsky. Print creative would flow naturally from TV creative, they figured.

End of March 2005

* Execution on TV production begins. Talent is tracked down, scripts finalized, but there’s a glitch. ‘We had gone into it expecting to produce 30-second spots,’ says Shedletsky. CanWest lets them know that to ensure maximum exposure across all the company’s properties, a bank of 15-, 10- and five-second spots would be a good idea as they can be slotted in as filler space between shows. ‘The challenge went to Rethink a day before the shoot and they wrote scripts on the plane, came out and squeezed it into the production day.’

* TV buys on CanWest properties across the country, outdoor transit ads and wild postings are secured. The postings are targeted to urban areas like Toronto’s Queen Street. Space on the Web site canada.com, which has, says Shedletsky, upwards of one million hits from 18-34s, is also secured. FSAs are mapped to where their audience lives and distribution is targeted there. ‘If you were seeing an outdoor ad, you were obviously close to a box,’ he says. Ads would run for eight to 10 weeks.

* Production for the TV spots is completed two days prior to when they have to be submitted. Teasers run on-air two weeks prior to the launch.

* The mood at this time is really calm. Surprisingly so. ‘We had a documentary filmmaker [Marc Lostracco] following us two-and-a-half months prior to launch,’ says Shedletsky. ‘You have a bunch of people in their 20s and early 30s launching a new media brand and doing it fairly independently so we thought it would make a great story. The truth is, and I haven’t seen [the film] so I’m commenting in a vacuum, but I don’t know that there was compelling footage because there wasn’t a lot of conflict. Sure stuff was down to the line, such is the case with every launch, but we were all fairly calm.’

April 2, 2005

* The Pope dies. Plans for the conceptual art cover focusing on the ambitions of Canadian youth are dashed to go with the timelier story. ‘We had an extremely stressful April 3, basically deciding how we were going to redo all of our launch content plans around the death of the Pope,’ says Hegan.

* Distribution boxes show up on street corners across the country over the weekend.

* The Web team works 48 hours straight to get the site up and running.

April 4, 2005: Launch

* 320,000 copies of the paper are distributed in the five cities, and dose.ca goes live.

‘With our audience the belief was, if you tell them about [the launch] too far in advance, you really can’t sustain a level of excitement for too long. Especially for a product they don’t know about,’ says Shedletsky. ‘So we really just wanted to hit the ground running. Tease it for a couple of weeks, but really not be out in a big way until we were out on the ground and people could touch the product.’

Champagne and cake all around. ‘Then of course, there was the harsh reality of getting up at six o’clock to do the whole thing all over again,’ says Hegan.

April 20, 2005: The event

* 1,500 readers and 500 VIP attend, including current and prospective advertisers. ‘The goal was to put a show on for our readers,’ says Godfrey, ‘[and to] show [advertisers] that we ‘get’ our readers.’

Today

* According to data released by Ipsos-Reid, Dose’s readership figures are off to a strong start with approximately 250,000 daily readers. It also reveals Dose is reaching its core audience: 22% of 18-34s read it weekly and almost one in 10 18-24s daily. Also, 71% of 18-34s are aware of Dose. And while Godfrey thinks the paper has improved, he’s not entirely satisfied. ‘I still don’t think it’s perfect,’ he says. ‘There’s lots of room to get better.’