Torstar closing down Canadian digital ad pioneer Eyereturn

Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star newspaper, is closing down its digital marketing services business Eyereturn. Pary Bell, who was appointed president of Eyereturn in April 2021, announced the decision on LinkedIn Wednesday morning.

“Sadly, earlier this week our parent company made the difficult decision to shut Eyereturn Marketing down, and consequently we will be closing the business at the end of January,” he said.

In a brief statement, Torstar director of communications Bob Hepburn confirmed the decision to close down Eyereturn “due to financial challenges facing the business.”

“Eyereturn will continue to fulfill all its client marketing campaigns until the end of January and will also support all of its clients as they transition their marketing campaigns to other service providers,” he said.

Like many legacy media businesses that relied on advertising, Torstar has struggled in recent years. In mid 2020, Toronto businessmen Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett paid $60 million to acquire Torstar which, aside from the iconic Toronto Star newspaper, included a number of other media brands and businesses, including Eyereturn.

Torstar has continued to struggle however, and earlier this year, the two co-owners—reportedly “deadlocked” over the direction of the company and where and how to cut costs—ended up in a legal battle for control of the business. The dispute went to arbitration, and Bitove eventually emerged the winner.

“The work to build a stronger Torstar will continue and my commitment to quality, sustainable journalism remains absolute,” said Bitove in the statement at the time. As a digital ad business serving its own clients, Eyereturn may have found itself outside of that core business focus for Bitove.

Launched by Renee Hill in 2000, Eyereturn became a pioneering firm in Canadian digital advertising in the 2000s.

“Eyereturn marketing was one of the founding members of the Canadian ad tech ecosystem,” said Corby Fine, vice-president of digital marketing and sales for Bell, and an early industry leader in digital advertising in Canada. “They were early innovators in the spaces of data-driven marketing, programmatic advertising, and focusing on a combination of performance and brand safety.”

Eyereturn was acquired by Torstar in 2008, though Hill stayed on with the company until 2018.

“Eyereturn is a great story of a female-led Canadian tech company that rose to great success, surrounded by a leading-edge, high-performing team,” said Deb Hall, co-founder and CEO of Dive Billboard. Hall was also an early leader in digital advertising in Canada, and launched her own mobile ad business, Web2Mobile, which was also later acquired by Torstar.

“Eyereturn was always a great innovation partner who, in the early days of digital marketing and ad-tech, paved the way for other Canadian companies to innovate on a global stage,” said Hall.

As an early and significant player in the Canadian digital ad industry, Eyereturn had far-reaching and long-lasting impact, added Fine. “Many of their early employees went on to work in all different kinds of organizations, taking their knowledge and skills with them and broadening the overall ecosystem,” he said.

“My top priority right now is trying to help this incredible team of 27 people find their next professional challenge and I am hoping this professional network can help,” said Bell in his LinkedIn post. “Every single one of them are incredibly talented, passionate, and have the highest level of integrity I’ve ever seen in this industry. They would be a great addition to your team.”

David Brown