Rock solid: Labatt’s Stéphane Boulay

Charting new territory doesn't faze Stéphane Boulay. From launching his own business fresh out of university to testing old-fashioned flipbook techniques on Montreal's Métro for Budweiser, Labatt Canada's marketing integration manager for Quebec injects his entrepreneurial spirit into whatever he's doing. 'I don't like always doing the same thing,' says Boulay, 36.

Charting new territory doesn’t faze Stéphane Boulay. From launching his own business fresh out of university to testing old-fashioned flipbook techniques on Montreal’s Métro for Budweiser, Labatt Canada’s marketing integration manager for Quebec injects his entrepreneurial spirit into whatever he’s doing. ‘I don’t like always doing the same thing,’ says Boulay, 36.

Since joining Labatt in 2002 as brand solutions manager for Bud in Quebec, Boulay has helped it attain its spot as the number one beer in the province for the last two years. Also under his leadership, the Quebec activation of the 2005 national relaunch of Bud Light truly resonated with Quebecers, and helped the brand boost its sales by 100%-130% this year. ‘He knows the Quebec market very well,’ notes John Gallagher, EVP at BBDO Montreal. ‘He’s got this sixth sense about what will work.’

Much of Boulay’s drive to know the Quebec market and try new things can be credited to his four-year stint working with a partner to launch and run their own tour business right after Boulay graduated from Université de Montréal with a business administration degree. They were taking on competitors like Air Transat but made a significant dent in the market share, even winning a Tourism Gold Award from the Quebec government in 1999 for best marketing/sales actions in international markets.

Boulay says a big lesson he took from the experience was accountability. ‘When you make a decision when you have your own business, it’s on your shoulders.’ After deciding he wanted to move to a bigger company, Boulay joined Club Med as a commercial director, where Labatt was one of his clients. After a year with Club Med, he jumped to Labatt because he thought it would be a great challenge to work in such a competitive category.

During his four years managing the Bud and Bud Light brands in Quebec (he now has a more senior strategic planning role for all of the Labatt brands in Quebec), Boulay focused on grassroots initiatives to make the iconic American brand relevant for Quebecers, like sponsoring university football teams and sports shows on RDS. And, when it comes to the big stuff, like leveraging the brand’s North American sponsorship of the NFL, he makes sure to customize it for the market.

‘With the Superbowl, we did 250 executions in the field in Quebec, with some retail on top of that. The brand is really active,’ he says. His boss, Rob McCarthy, director, core premium brands for Labatt Breweries of Canada, says he’s impressed by Boulay’s entrepreneurial spirit. ‘He has an incredible drive to get things done. He never says no, and he always delivers.’

McCarthy points to Boulay’s efforts leading the Quebec activation of Budweiser’s sponsorship of Montreal’s Grand Prix du Canada as particularly well executed. Boulay faced a unique challenge when he first signed on for 2004 because, along with Bud Quebec sponsoring, Budweiser International, was sponsoring one of the F1 teams, BMW Williams. ‘The challenge was to find a good balance between…a local brand sponsorship for an international event in Quebec, and an international sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch for an F1 team, which was also another good opportunity for activation,’ Boulay recalls.

He wound up spearheading an integrated eight-week effort with a traditional ad campaign including OOH, TV, radio, online, POS and PR efforts, as well as on-premise promos leading up to the event. At the Grand Prix itself, Budweiser had an impressive experiential presence, including a Budweiser F1 beer garden, a Budweiser ‘Big Rig’ (a ‘party on wheels’ featuring live music), and promos at the Crescent Street Grand Prix Festival.

Boulay’s plan has since been used at the 2005 and 2006 Grand Prix, and Anheuser-Busch is using it as a best practice example. ‘I won my challenge with F1. It’s now considered by Anheuser-Busch and Labatt as the example to follow in our business – the way it was activated in tune with the brand positioning, the multi-channel executions generating sales and the experiential side,’ notes Boulay.

Another successful Quebec activation led by Boulay was leveraging the 2005 national relaunch of Bud Light. ‘It’s a brand that has been the little brother of Budweiser – we decided to put the gas behind it and make it a brand in itself,’ Boulay explains.

One particularly bold move was his decision to muscle in on Molson’s territory and try to associate the brand with the NHL, and the Habs in particular – a decision he really had to fight for. ‘I said there is a place for another player, and we’ll play the game differently,’ he recalls, adding that he spent three hours with execs grilling him about the move.

But, a year later it seems to have paid off. Boulay focused on NHL retail promos, as well as sponsoring RDS hockey updates and even creating a Bud Light-sponsored radio reporter on ENERGIE named Ellen Ash (pronounced ‘LNH’). All of this has helped develop instant brand equity around this NHL sponsorship, says Boulay, adding that Bud Light sales during the last playoffs were up 130% over the year before.

Boulay is no stranger to fighting for initiatives he believes in. When his agency BBDO Montreal pitched a unique flipbook-style wrap of a Montreal Métro train for Budweiser, not everyone at Labatt was initially on board for the innovative move. ‘I pushed really hard for it,” he says. BBDO’s Gallagher says the initiative wouldn’t have happened without Boulay’s enthusiasm. ‘Stéphane was always behind the idea.’ The result was a visual stunt that worked – people waiting for their train saw a guy playing his guitar when the train was moving.

In his latest role at Labatt, Boulay’s focus

has shifted from specific promotions to

bigger-picture strategic planning. He acts as a liaison between the Quebec office and the Labatt Toronto headquarters, and is currently working on planning for 2007. He’s tight-lipped about what we can expect to see from Labatt next year, saying only: ‘We’ll always show ‘bigness’ with the brands.’

FIVE QUESTIONS

Favourite book

The novel that I’ve read a few times: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. One message I like in that novel: ‘Follow your dream.’ It is a simple book,

not pretentious.

Favourite current TV show

24. I don’t watch it weekly. I just wait for the complete season and my girlfriend and I spend two weekends in a row glued to our TV. Now I am waiting for season five.

Favourite vacation spot

Best trip of my life? Turkey. The hospitality of Turkish people, amazing sites like Cappadocia and, south of the country along the Mediterranean, the great city of Istanbul. I don’t have a regular vacation spot. I try to do trips that are a combination of cultural discoveries, some outdoor moments, some urban moments.

Number one thing you look for in an ad agency

I look for people who have the sense of creativity and also the sense of business. People who listen to get the brand objectives. It is also important to be open.

Favourite way to unwind

Sitting in my white-water kayak in summer or snowboarding during the winter. Complete moments of freedom and relaxation.