Playback Person of the Year: Leonard Asper

Convergence has been a shaky mast for Canadian broadcasters to nail their colors to amid a softening economy.

Convergence has been a shaky mast for Canadian broadcasters to nail their colors to amid a softening economy.

So Leonard Asper did a lot of hammering in 2001.

The last year has seen CanWest Global become Canada’s largest media giant by paying Conrad Black $3.2 billion for 13 daily newspapers, his Canadian Internet properties, another 130 smaller daily and weekly papers and a 50% stake in the National Post; CanWest Global also launched two national TV networks after picking up eight TV stations from the former WIC Western International Communications.

Waves were also made when CanWest Global renewed its Canadian network licence for another seven years; expanded the CanWest Entertainment production and distribution businesses; sold interests in CKVU-TV, CFCF-TV and ROBTv to satisfy CRTC and Competition Bureau concerns; raised US$425 million via a private placement with U.S. investors after failing to pull off an $800-million junk bond issue; and launched a new Vancouver-based supper-hour newscast, hosted by Kevin Newman.

Subsidiary TV and radio networks in Australia, New Zealand and Ireland aside, the Canadian media sector was Asper’s main battleground in 2001, making him the public face of this country’s high-stakes convergence revolution – and Playback’s choice for Person of the Year.

Asper insists CanWest Global’s convergence play was no spur-of-the-moment matter. He recalls first eyeing content in a bid to diversify in the early 1990′s.

‘We saw it was time to spread our wings into other advertising media, to offer more customized advertising solutions,’ Asper recalls.

The emergence of specialty channels and audience fragmentation also spurred CanWest Global to embrace new technologies and media.

Click-and-mortar companies acquired to drive the convergence strategy include Endemol International Distribution and its library, eight TV stations belonging to the defunct WIC network, as well as stakes in U.S. Internet ventures and, most recently, the Hollinger newspapers and, especially, 100% control of the National Post.

Asper suggests the notion that CanWest Global is going wobbly over convergence, given current market conditions and a slump in its share price, is only a myth perpetrated by a baying media.

An example: Asper, at a recent Canadian Club address, talking more about increased security at Canadian borders and better intelligence-gathering after Sept. 11, and less about his own company, had reporters suggesting he had grown cold on convergence.

‘The minute I stop talking about convergence, or choose other topics, it’s seen as perhaps there is waning interest by me or CanWest Global in pursuing the strategy. That’s the furthest thing from the truth,’ he insists.

Instead, Asper argues convergence is no quick fix. Everyone should hold on tight and wait for marked progress. ‘Convergence is not an overnight thing – go into a phone booth and come out Superman. It is a journey, and it is changing the entire way we do business,’ he says.

At root, convergence is about creating and cross-promoting content that adds value to advertising campaigns across varied media, and less about one-stop shopping for advertisers, Asper adds.

For example, the Royal Bank of Canada, in partnership with CanWest Global, the National Post, and the website, recently created a ‘State of the Nation’ campaign, complete with quarterly reports and opinion polls, that CanWest Global TV stations and newspapers and other media outlets reported and commented upon.

‘This gave the Royal Bank a presence that they could never get if they bought traditional ad space. It’s not as loud. It’s much more subtle. It’s much more comprehensive and much more effective because of the wrapping around content that advertisers can do,’ he argues.

Still, for every inch gained, there are miles of convergence left to be covered. For starters, will it make cash registers ring? Most advertisers have, so far, found convergence too unclear and too unsettled to buy into, especially in a down market.

At the corporate level, Asper also has the jobs of merging TV, newspaper and Internet assets as quickly as possible and reducing high-cost debt and other balance-sheet indigestion, not least of all by selling non-core assets.

And he still has to fend off criticism that paying $3.2 billion for Black’s newspapers, just as the Canadian advertising market was slumping, wasn’t just a vanity play. He also counters the notion that Izzy Asper, CanWest Global executive chairman and Leonard’s father, remains in charge, stick-handling major corporate deals.

‘I’m in the front role, and not my father anymore,’ he says pointedly.

The younger Asper is in many ways the unlikely leader of CanWest Global. He is without the menace or stubbornness of his father, the programming experience of an Ivan Fecan, or the corporate resume of a John Cassaday or a Jean Monty.

Having trained as a lawyer, Asper joined CanWest in 1991 as Global Television’s general counsel, and eventually replaced Peter Viner as president and CEO in September 1999, sooner than expected.

‘I’m a second-generation person, a family member, who one could argue did not go through the climbing of the corporate ladder,’ he says, pointing to subtle differences with his father. ‘I do seek a consensus and a buy-in to a degree more so than a typical founder of a company.’

In other words, he knows family, friends and trusted advisors got him this far, and remain an invaluable resource as he continues growing in his CEO boots.

‘He’s a straightforward, no-nonsense guy,’ Adam Haight, president of Fireworks Entertainment, says of his boss.

‘He has come in and worked with us on a kind of collaborative, hands-on basis. You have access to him and he offers a fairly easy working relationship,’ he adds.

But although Leonard may differ in style from Izzy, father and son share the same goals: dominance over CTV and the rest of the Canadian media industry.

‘Like my father, I’ve never had good experiences in minority partnerships. So, like he, who was defined as someone who had to have control, I’m also reluctant to give up control,’ he says.

Asper also dismisses critics of CanWest Global as they continue sniping from the wings, half-glimpsed and necessarily ignored.

‘I answer to the banks and shareholders, and the Canadian people as a whole, rather than certain quarters of the industry that are never satisfied,’ he says.