Finalist – Canwest’s Muriel Solomon: On with the show

When Canwest bought Alliance Atlantis last January, the media giant inherited a slew of specialty channels, as well as the marketing mind of Muriel Solomon.

In September, Toronto pedestrians were greeted by something they don’t normally see on their morning commute – what looked like marijuana plants with signs that read “Please don’t smoke the grass.” The stunt, which generated considerable buzz for the season premiere of Weeds on Showcase, is just one of the edgy campaigns that have helped propel the Canwest specialties, turning more eyeballs onto revamped channels and old favourites.

When Canwest bought Alliance Atlantis last January, the media giant inherited a slew of specialty channels, as well as the marketing mind of Muriel Solomon. She had previously overseen the lifestyle portfolio, and then took on the dramatics portfolio a few months before the integration. Now, as VP marketing strategy, specialty at Canwest, she oversees all specialty channels – 18 in total, working with an in-house creative team led by VP creative and branding David O’Brien to create about 50 campaigns per year, not including sponsorships, contests, star appearances and other promotions.

The Weeds stunt was part of the larger revamp of Showcase, previously known as the home of boundary-pushing content. 

“[Showcase had] a strong base of loyal viewers but it also created barriers to some viewers and advertisers,” Solomon explains. “We felt there was an opportunity to overcome these barriers by broadening the positioning of the channel and offering more hit content.”

To accompany changes in content – that include airing popular dramatic series like Bones and NCIS and movies like Fantastic Four – the revamp featured a new on-air look that made a monolithic logo the centerpiece for the launch campaign. The logo took on the characteristic of the show it was promoting; for example, in ads for House, it was made of pills. The media buy included a subway domination in Toronto as well as 3D billboards.

“We positioned Showcase as the home of bold hits, and our brand personality is witty, bold and clever, so we always aim to push the envelope a little more with our creative,” Solomon says.

The revamp and the campaign worked – Weeds exceeded the target audience by close to 50% and Showcase’s AMA is up 18% for 18- to 54-year-olds.
When it came to rebranding Canwest’s western channel Lonestar, Solomon saw a broader opportunity. While westerns aren’t offensive to advertisers and may easily rope in an older male audience, they tend to leave the advertiser-friendly female demo in the dust. 

“There were a lot of strategy sessions internally about how to best reposition the brand and how to relaunch it,” says Walter Levitt, CMO, Canwest Broadcasting. “It was Muriel who said there’s a niche and opportunity in this marketplace for a broad-based general interest movie channel.”

Thanks to Solomon’s insight, Lonestar was rebranded as MovieTime and positioned as a destination for hit movies. Creative used memorable film quotes with MovieTime thrown in, like “You can’t handle the MovieTime.” Online, a partnership with MSN/ resulted in a MovieTime Quote Quiz.
Since its launch on Oct. 6, 2008, MovieTime experienced strong growth and is almost 50% ahead of the previous fall. It also moved the male-skewed demo closer towards a 50/50 gender split.

With hundreds of channels to compete with, Solomon didn’t shy away from another cheeky campaign. To get media buyers interested in History Television, washroom advertising was placed in agencies that said “Holy Crap. History Television is number 2.”

And to let the press know about the new season on Food Network, media kits were sent out in lunch bags with an info booklet in the form of a sandwich and a DVD that looked like an apple.

With so many channels under her marketing umbrella, these are only a few examples of the creative work churned out this year by Solomon’s team. “What makes my job fairly unique is the diversity of the portfolio,” she says, “and because of that diversity we have to be really strategic in how we do things because we compete against ourselves a lot, it’s the same eyeballs that we go after.” 

“Everything we do starts with a well-thought-through strategy,” says Levitt, “and Muriel is incredible at getting people to that strategic insight to start the whole process…She has the ability to bring in the discipline and then take those creative leaps of faith when we need to.”

She notes that strategic thinking has come into play during this tough economic year: “Just like everybody else, we had to be more disciplined about how we manage our budget and are more discerning, making sure we invest in our bigger priorities and where there’s the most opportunity for returns.”
Though Canwest’s future is uncertain, with several companies eyeing the lucrative specialty channels after the company filed for creditor protection this fall, Solomon is looking full steam ahead.

“The team has remained incredibly focused on doing a great job,” she says. “They like what they do, there’s a great sense of collaboration. That’s a big part of our success: we do good work but we have fun in the process.” 

Vital stats

Marketing team size: 19 (marketers and publicists)
Years at Canwest: one (previously with Alliance Atlantis since 2000)
First job in marketing: marketing coordinator at Heinz
Professional highlight of the past year: “It’s been a tough year for everybody and we’ve managed to continue to do incredibly well, to be the leaders in specialty, to generate growth on channels that had been doing well for years, and on channels that you’d expect to settle down by now”
Marketing style: strategic, collaborative and creative

Then and now

Where were you in 1989?
In 1989 I was starting business school in France, where I’m from. I knew already that I liked advertising, and then going through that first year I decided that I wanted to be a marketer.

Who or what symbolized marketing success to you then?
There was a graphic artist and photographer who was huge in France, Jean-Paul Goude. He’s been credited for “creating” Grace Jones; he actually lived with her and made her famous with his photography and created that personality, that icon. He did some incredible campaigns, very playful, very different from anything that was done at the time. He also was the art director on the bicentennial in Paris in 1989; it was oozing creativity, it was just beautiful.

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