A wide digital world beckons for Rob LeLacheur and content company Road 55
When trying to understand the impact that digital innovation has had on how we work, communicate and share ideas, few industries come to mind as readily as the newspaper business.
Newspapers went from a business of printing money through display and classified ad sales to becoming just another fish hunting for food in an expansive digital ocean. Knowing how to pivot from an industry in decline or collapse to the next thing is a challenge many Canadians will experience as the future of work and jobs change due to technology.
In this episode of the Career Essentials podcast, Rob LeLacheur (Marketing ’94) discusses his experiences and lessons learned during a 27-year career, much of it in the newspaper industry in Edmonton and St. Albert. He also shares what it’s like to reinvent yourself after a venture fails, why he no longer fears change and how he used one industry’s decline as a jumping point to start Road 55, a digital content production and marketing company.
Listen to Episode 5
Listen to the full episode or read an excerpt.
Why don't we start out and take a ride in the wayback machine and talk about your early days in the industry. Even before you finished your program at NAIT, you joined the Edmonton Sun as an assistant in the ad sales department. What kind of work did that involve in those early days?
It was a little “manual” as to how the newspaper was put together – still cut and paste and the big cameras would shoot flats of each individual page. If you wanted to show an ad proof to a client, you literally got in the car and drove halfway across town to show them their little $100 ad that had to run the next day. Not much was digital at that point. And honestly, I feel I'm thankful that I was there at that time, just as the old way was being phased out into the digital side of the business.
What was it that you enjoyed about the newspaper industry at that time?
I think through my career, starting at the Sun, I had a bit of a No. 2 mentality. We were the little paper that could. I've used the line for a long time since, “No one calls us. You got to go out and get it.” My very first role at Sun as a senior sales rep was, they called me the “Journal exclusive list rep.” They handed me a list of about 100 advertisers who hadn’t spent a nickel in the Sun and they all were in the Edmonton Journal and it was just: “go get them.” And so you know a bit of that scrappiness, to go get it without expecting anything.
“I think through my career, starting at the Sun, I had a bit of a No. 2 mentality.”
After your time at the Sun, you would become publisher of the Saint City News, which would eventually fold three years later. You left newspapers for about five years to run a Casino in St. Albert. But then in 2011 you returned to newspapers to start up the St. Albert Leader – at a time when there were signs the industry might not be the best bet. What made you feel confident that this was the right thing to do?
Without a doubt, there was an element of change that was happening. I sound a little stupid saying this now, but maybe it wasn't as evident to me at that point, that [the disruption] was going to be as rapid. I had hopes and beliefs of taking on additional products as well that we could monetize with advertisers. That didn't quite come to fruition the way I had hoped. I joke with many that I was just the dumbest guy in the room who raised my hand and we moved into the office in NABI, the business incubator. I had three people on my team. And in two weeks, we were on the street with a 24-page paper, 20,000 copies.
You had a front-row seat for some really good years for the newspaper industry. But you were also there for the start of the decline of the old business model. When did you start to realize that this was a problem that wasn't going to go away?
It was fall 2014 or 2015 and all of a sudden, we had some really major advertisers pull out because Google AdWords was really hitting the market then. And that spring of 2015, I just really looked at it and said, “OK. We'll still be here a couple years from now, but If I'm lucky I'll be standing in the exact same spot.” And what's been difficult for the transition from traditional print advertising to digital – for all the newspapers – has been, all of a sudden, you're selling something that everyone and their dog is selling. The business model was totally broken on that front.
“The business model was totally broken.”
So I made a real, like super-tough decision [and closed the Leader]. I was a pretty involved community guy. Everyone in town knows I own the paper. And then you publish that last edition with your words saying, “This is it.” It was a failure with a big F on it. And I wore it.
You then moved on to become manager of content solutions for Postmedia Network, the parent company of the Sun and longtime rival, the Edmonton Journal. What was it like being part of a company that was finding its way in a growing digital landscape?
The growing pains happen every week – it’s a new platform, a new direction that you can go, not only for yourself and your team, your own company, but for the clients too. I said this to a lot of people, if we were a restaurant, we'd be closed for renovations right now. You wouldn't see any of this. You'd wait for the grand re-opening and then, here's the new product. We didn't have that luxury. Every day, we had to put the paper out. And every day, we were trying to manage that change as we went along.
You eventually left Postmedia to start your own business, Road 55, which produces digital content and marketing solutions for clients. How did you view change after everything you’d been through to that point?
I’ve said to friends that when I think about change, I say, “Look, I've been to the edge of the cliff. I've jumped and I've been pushed. Let me tell you, with both you’re going to be OK. It is not as bad as you would think it is.” I know that fear prior to that moment scares the heck out of so many folks; it doesn't scare me at all anymore. I’ve had well-paying jobs that I left and terrible-earning jobs but we still figured out a way to do it and to get by – but with a real focus on living life. I want to enjoy doing what we’re doing and have fun showing up every day and feel my work matters.
You mentioned a few times that you’re very competitive, owing to your days in hockey and being at “scrappy No. 2” newspapers. How did you react when you found yourself in this big digital world, where suddenly you don't have the same kind of competitor in your sights?
Oh, 100%. Yeah, you know, every kid in the basement with a video camera is a potential competitor. As we go along, I don't think it'll ever be as black and white as my past has been with with the Gazette or with the Sun and the Journal where, there it is – there's the opponent. I have to pull the reins back on myself and realize that we don't have to do business with everyone. I don't need to sell a million widgets. We have, in my eyes, this great opportunity to be a little flexible with the winds of industry change.
What lessons did you learn through that transition to something different that might help others adjust to a similar situation and figure out their next steps?
I went through many turns in my career where it didn’t matter what I did, I was Rob the person across the table. It was [building] relationships that really helped me through so many different changes of my career. The best time to plant a tree is 10 years ago; the second best time is today. So it's never too late to plant those seeds. When change does happen – and it will, whether it's an industry, rapid change or changes within your company – you're going to be OK. But the more you can do to plant some seeds along the way, I think you can soften the blow quite a lot. And if you haven’t planted some of those opportunities, when change does happen, typically the fall is a lot harder.
“When change does happen – and it will – you're going to be OK.”