While holed up in a Los Angeles monastery during the 1990s, Leonard Cohen once told an interviewer, “That’s what enlightenment means. You’ve lightened up!”

It’s the type of life advice you’d expect from a world-class poet and Zen monk: both incredibly simple and incredibly hard. Lightening up can be tough. This is especially true when you’re trying to convince a client to do so.

In 2017, as Canada celebrated 150 years of confederation, Star Metroland Media had a fun and lighthearted idea: a countdown of 150 things that make Canada memorable. The series of articles would cover the entire country and be open to advertisers in every metro market.  

Companies tightly protective of their brands know they’re playing with fire with fun or lighthearted content. At its best, there are campaigns such as the GEICO Hump Day Camel or Pepsi’s Uncle Drew promising viral fame and customer goodwill. At its worst, a company can inadvertently make itself the punchline, as the Facebook Condescending Corporate Brand Page catalogues in cringe-worthy detail.

For our “Canada’s Top 150” series, there was no shortage of fun facts and extraordinary achievements to highlight: the world’s biggest beaver dam in Alberta, the Canadian-invented Caesar cocktail, the greasy pleasures of poutine. We could profile such legendary Canadians as Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau, Drake and David Cronenberg. And, of course, Leonard Cohen.

Off-the-wall facts and wacky stories about Canada were featured throughout the series.
Off-the-wall facts and wacky stories about Canada were featured throughout the series.

The question was whether advertisers would support it. The series was pitched as a special feature — an editorial package we regularly offer to advertisers. They purchase an ad that runs adjacent to content we develop on a particular theme. No ad support = no feature.

Our special features calendar spans a year’s worth of events and subjects. For example, we run features on new homes in Calgary with ads supplied by many local real estate developers. We spotlight neighbourhoods in Halifax with a host of local businesses buying in. If the timing and topic are right, the sections can grow to fill 32 pages or more.

But this anniversary special feature was different. It was designed to be modular, each article comprised of three Canadian factoids combined in different ways for every metro market. The advertisers wouldn’t know what we’d be writing about. All they knew was the theme: a top 150 list for Canada’s 150th, which we slugged “Celebrating Canada’s gifts to the world.”

And they also knew it would be fun. This was no dry museum placard or Canadian heritage moment. We sought out the quirky, quaint, and quintessentially Canadian. Did you know the term “give’r” was popularised in the 2002 mockumentary FUBAR? Or that the hardshell jockstrap was invented in Guelph, Ontario? We thought you should.

Advertisers all over Canada responded favourably to the short format and lighthearted tone.
Advertisers all over Canada responded favourably to the short format and lighthearted tone.

Our sales team across the country pitched the feature to their clients and the response was excellent. From February through October, the feature ran every week — often multiple times — in metro newspapers in Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Winnipeg.

Advertisers big and small were drawn to the shorty, catchy content and committed to months of placements at a time. While we initially wondered if we’d get enough ad support to cover 150 facts, in the end the section was so popular we had to expand the list.

It was one of our biggest hits of 2017, popular with readers and clients alike. And it was a useful reminder that a little fun can go a long way.