Skip to main content

Wrestled away from a long stint at Universal Music, Bell’s Randy Lennox has been tasked with rethinking the way the company makes and deploys its content in an industry undergoing a jarring shiftFred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Rush hour in St. Martin's Lane, the storied theatrical thoroughfare in London, doesn't usually attract dozens of leather-clad bikers. Yet there they were one evening in early November, with the street shut down and Meat Loaf on stage.

The event, promoting the musical theatre show Bat Out of Hell based on the singer's album of the same name, could seem just as incongruous for its ties to Bell Media, the production's Canadian partner, which is placing its first bet on live theatre, with plans to eventually bring the show to Toronto.

The nostalgia-fuelled musical is just one of several experiments set in motion by Randy Lennox, Bell's president of production and content, who was wrestled away from a three-decades-long stint at Universal Music to rethink the way Bell, a division of communications giant BCE Inc., makes and deploys its content.

Mr. Lennox's marching orders, simply put, were to bring "some IP-based thinking" to the media arm of a telecommunications giant, he explains over blueberry pancakes and chamomile tea at Toronto's Shangri-La Hotel in a recent interview. That can mean everything from owning rather than renting more of the content on its various platforms to feeding the data-hungry wireless customers who drive the company's bottom line with on-the-go audio and video.

The challenge confronting him is that Bell is a vast company that doesn't turn on a dime, and some of his most recent investments won't produce revenue overnight. But he insists that Bell, despite the pressures of quarterly reporting and a media industry undergoing a jarring shift, has the patience to see his vision through.

"Creating content from a blank sheet of paper is much more rewarding when it wins, and it's also much more profitable when it wins because it is IP that you own. But it's inherently more risky because you are taking big swings," he says.

"Bell is not risk-averse, and what happens is everybody thinks that they are."

Mr. Lennox, dressed in a black jacket, black collarless shirt and white wrist watch, would look more at home backstage at a rock concert than in a Bell boardroom. But he has forged an alliance with Mary Ann Turcke, Bell Media's president, who comes from an engineering background and was thrust into the role at short notice in May of last year, after her predecessor Kevin Crull was ousted.

Ms. Turcke has more than a decade of experience at Bell, and has helped Mr. Lennox navigate its corridors. "She is a brilliant pragmatist," he says. But the two have also managed to stay on the same creative page. "When I go off on a creative strategy, she gets it in a millisecond."

Not long after Mr. Lennox first landed at Bell in September, 2015, the media division, which makes up 12 per cent of BCE's $21.5-billion in annual operating revenue, went through an upheaval, shedding at least 400 jobs and redrawing the reporting lines among senior executives. That has helped the media arm boost its revenue, up 3.5 per cent in the most recent quarter, though advertising returns are in decline.

Throughout a tumultuous period, Mr. Lennox has gradually been stitching together a series of seemingly disparate investments with the goal of "elasticizing" Bell's portfolio.

One of his earliest moves was to strike a long-term deal bringing iHeartRadio, a U.S.-based competitor in free online music streaming and live radio, to Canada. Its arrival united Bell's existing online radio feeds on a ready-made platform, and there are plans to add a subscription service with commercial-free streams that promotes live music events.

In its first six weeks in Canada, it has reached 500,000 downloads and had 25 million hours of radio streamed. "It's an infant, but it's an optimistic one," he says.

The data Bell gleans about its listeners through iHeartRadio will be key to experiments with dynamic ad insertion, which tailors ads based on a listener's history. Mr. Lennox calls this sort of responsive design "the future" for advertising. Under his watch, Bell also overhauled its popular morning show, ending Canada AM's 43-year run and replacing it with Your Morning, which has a format that's less anchored to Bell's news arm and a friendlier venue for product placement.

In June, Mr. Lennox announced Snackable TV, a new platform for short-form video content running five minutes or less.

And most recently, Bell helped create DAIS, a Toronto studio that Mr. Lennox hopes will grow into a "repository for artist development." DAIS gives artists space to record music, create radio programs, write scripts and so on, and, in return, Bell gets first crack at their creations.

Mr. Lennox says he dreamed up the studio one freezing night while strolling around Toronto's all-night arts festival Nuit Blanche with Sol Guy, the music producer and manager who has worked with artists such as K'naan and Outkast.

If the studio helps nurture the next big artist like the Weeknd or Xavier Dolan, Mr. Lennox says, Bell can funnel their work directly to its own networks. "There's an understanding implicitly that these artists are creating with the express purpose of it going up-stream, if you will, to the mother ship," he says. "But there's no forcible entry in that. This is not indentured servitude."

The overarching strategy is to spend fewer dollars renting content, which has proven an expensive proposition in a competitive media landscape. Rogers Media recently shut down its video streaming service Shomi after less than two years in the market, and at a recent regulatory hearing, president Rick Brace said that was partly because the costs of licensing programming has shot up dramatically.

"What was clear is that the cost of programming was never going to allow us to really profit from that enterprise," Mr. Brace said.

At Bell, the commitment to its own streaming service, CraveTV, "has never faltered," Mr. Lennox said. Bell has about 15 television series in production, and as it tries spread its content across a range of devices and digital channels, Crave could be an important second home for new shows such as Frontier, an original series about the 18th-century fur trade commissioned by Bell for its Discovery network, and by Netflix for a U.S. release.

Mr. Lennox knows that not all of his gambits will pay off. But he believes the beleaguered media sector can still return to growth.

"It's really about the modernization of a business. In [2002], right when the music business started its tailspin, you know, the rumours of its demise were largely exaggerated. It's now in a recovery mode … and it's quite analogous to what we're going through now," he says.

"The only thing preventing us from [having] a buoyant industry in the future is a lack of imagination."