Maryam Sanati, from St. Joseph Media, Canada, has been named The Content Council’s Best Content Director in 2017. Here the media veteran and editorial director of the parent company of Canada’s most widely read magazine, Toronto Life, talked to Content magazine about her personal achievements in the last year, how she combats the problem of content saturation, and why she’s always looking for innovative ways to tell stories.
Content: What have been your personal highlights in the last year?
Maryam: One of the great projects, that was out of the box, was for the new National Music Centre in Calgary, Canada. We conceived and created all of the exhibition content, developed many of the interactive touchscreens, as well as redesigned its website. Using our magazine and journalism backgrounds we were able to create content that jumped off the page and literally on to the walls of the building, transforming its extraordinary space, over five floors, into a live music magazine. The response to it has been extraordinary.
Content is in a tricky place right now. There is so much of it out there, it's hard to get attention. How do you overcome this challenge for your clients?
We define ourselves as a media company. Our roots are in magazine publishing. As a media company, we test all our hypotheses with the audiences we’ve built up on our own products first—which include loyal audiences numbering in the millions for our city magazine, Toronto Life, and our national style and beauty title, Fashion. This allows us to see how story forms and editorial concepts from the brands we work with resonate with each of their audiences. That’s the difference that we bring to each of our clients. As a publisher of successful magazines, we already know what works with urban audiences, national audiences, with men, with women, across demographics, young and old. So, we’re able to apply our specialist knowledge from our own brands, to build effective content programs for our clients.
With all the data available, how much do you still rely on your gut, how much are you governed by data?
All of my colleagues are journalists. We’ve been practicing storytelling in different forms—in newsrooms, magazines, digital, technology—since the millennia. As a result, we operate on our gut instinct in terms of identifying a good story, and what device or format it should take, but like everyone, we are rigorous about taking in useful data to guide our decisions.
Is there such a thing as a typical KPI? Do you link them to an increase in subscriptions, or increase in newsstand circulation, or increase in brand awareness?
It’s so different from program to program, brand to brand. Every client that comes to work with us wants to leverage all the great tools of storytelling to tell the brand’s story, whether that’s in print, digital or social. To deepen their engagement with their audiences, we first immerse ourselves in the particular brand and its identity—where it is and where it wants to be. We then use a trio of things to guide us: tried and tested storytelling, the right metrics and, of course, our journalistic instincts. Reflecting on our media properties, we always want to increase our subscriber base; and we want to be ruthless about giving the audience what they want. Take Toronto Life, one of one of our biggest topics is food and drink coverage. We own that in this city. We know all about the restaurants, we have a close relationship with all the chefs, we have a very sophisticated suite of content that revolves around the food and drink pillar. We know that this is something our audience wants from us. Authority breeds trust. So, whenever we put out a special issue on eating and drinking, it does extremely well on the newsstand. It’s about giving audiences more of what they want, and what they expect.
What has been the tallest order you’ve been asked to achieve with content?
The biggest project that the team took on last year was with the Government of Canada. We were asked to develop “Passport 2017,” a mobile app and website that would capture every event marking the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. Canada One Fifty, as it was called, was a huge national endeavor. As part of the editorial content, we defined all the things that made Canada great—our music, our landmarks, our food, our culture, our nostalgia about things we loved when we were growing up as kids in Canada. In terms of tall orders, this was one of the largest we’ve worked on yet, and it will continue to live on beyond 2017.
With new tech/platforms launching roughly every six months, how do you and your team keep abreast of the changes in the industry?
Like everyone in this industry, we feel the tension between tradition and innovation pulling us in two directions. On the one hand, tradition continually takes us back to the journalistic principles of telling stories – finding the emotional resonance for each story, and understanding what the audience wants. However, innovation calls for our story forms to be new and exciting. We don’t want to be left behind. We also don’t want to jump into something untried like VR without truly understanding how that will work with our clients, what the appetite is with an audience to consume that kind of content. So, we tend not to rush into fads, but we like to stay up on every new trick there is.
Where do you get your inspiration from? Who do you look to for innovative storytelling?
I am constantly looking at other storytellers who are practicing their craft in an interesting way, and taking those lessons and merging them with my own ideas for telling brand stories. The New York Times is particularly adept at omni-channel executions. Recently, it ran a powerful photographic story in print, online and as an Instagram story that really inspired me. It was a photo essay all about the lonely lives of people who spend the night in their cars or campers in supermarket parking lots. It was an incredible piece of emotive storytelling, that was innovative and demonstrated how content can live on outside its web and print formats.