Two months into his new job as senior VP and general manager of consumer publications for Transcontinental Media, John Clinton felt "really, really good.” After 30-plus years in advertising, the former Canadian president and CEO of Grey Advertising was “enjoying finding out how many of the skills were transferable.” Sixty days into the job, though, it hit him: “There’s so much I don’t know!” Circulation, newsstand, production, ad sales: “The intricacies of it were all new to me.”
Finding a job in Canadian magazines isn't easy, so when a guy who’s never worked in the business gets the top position at one of the country’s largest publishers, a few “WTF?” emails are bound to go around.
Big success in the advertising world
Not that Clinton’s resumé doesn’t impress. After obtaining a BA in urban geography from Queen’s University (“which is of course a natural for leading a media company”), Clinton found a job with the Vickers & Benson agency in Vancouver, his hometown. A year and a half later he shifted to the Toronto office, but when Pierre Trudeau lost the 1979 election, Clinton, along with 29 other V&B staffers, lost his job.
He quickly rebounded and soon began what ended up becoming a 20-year stint with JWT, a massive multinational agency. He moved up and around in the company, heading offices in Chicago and accounts in New York, and was eventually promoted to chair and CEO of JWT Canada.
In 1999, Clinton leaped over to Grey, becoming Canadian president and CEO. The company took on a broad spectrum of clients during Clinton’s term, including Procter & Gamble, Sprint Canada, Dairy Queen, Research in Motion, AIM Trimark and Tourism PEI. According to Clinton, Grey was also one of the first agencies to dive deep into the digital sea. “We built our business so that about 50% of it was digital and 50% of it was mass.”
The move to magazines
Last fall, Transcontinental Media president Natalie Larivière approached Clinton about the newly created senior VP position. Intrigued by the opportunity, Clinton took the offer and reported for his first day of work on March 31. “I’d run five ad agencies. I didn’t think running six would add anything to my career, whereas the chance to come and run a media company really excited me.”
A tall, bearded man who sports John Lennon-style oval glasses and shoulder-length hair that begins around his ears, Clinton, 51, has a laid-back, feet-up/hands-behind-the-head style that’s complemented by his slight West Coast drawl.
During an hour-long interview last Friday in his corner office on the third floor of the Nestle building in north Toronto, Clinton suggested that his outsider status is, in some ways, an advantage. “Most of the people in magazines seem to have been in the magazine business for a long time. Coming from advertising, you can come at it from quite a different perspective.”
For example, while publishers and editors often view other magazines as competition, Clinton argues that the real competition comes from other media. “What’s magazine, 7% of the media business? To sit there and beat each other’s brains out over the 7% doesn’t make as much sense as expanding the whole piece of the pie.”
"We are not a magazine company"
As part of his pie-growing strategy, Clinton wants to change the way staff at Transcontinental think about the products they work on. “We are not a magazine company—we are a media company. We service communities of interest and we surround those communities with magazine, with Web, with mobile, with distribution, with event.”
He doesn’t rule out the possibility of further acquisitions and launches for Transcon, but Clinton believes there’s plenty of growth to be had from properties already in the company’s portfolio. “You will see us invest more in [alternative] platforms and growing our ability to service those platforms.”
Beyond work, Clinton says his three university-aged children “take a fair amount of interest and money,” as does his main hobby/passion: sculpting. Often working with bronze, Clinton has seen his work exhibited at shows and galleries in both Toronto and Vancouver.
Clinton thinks this creative side is what Transcontinental saw when they hired him. “Like advertising, this is a very creative business with a lot of very creative people. And those are different kinds of companies to run. You’re not selling widgets to people. You’re not manufacturing magazines; you’re creating magazines.”