Jo-Ann McArthur: After succeeding in beer and sports, now thriving in food marketing

Jo-Ann McArthur was already an accomplished marketer when she took over as president of Molson’s wholly owned subsidiary Molson Sports & Entertainment in 2000.

While she has spent the past 14 years running the successful food and beverage marketing agency Nourish Food Marketing, the five years she spent with Molson were in many ways career-defining, with McArthur and her team responsible for allocating millions in sponsorship dollars across an array of sports and music properties—while also breaking new ground for women in a corner of the business still largely dominated by men.

The pressure was unrelenting, but McArthur found herself thriving in the high-stakes environment. “I absolutely had the best job in the country for those five years,” she says. “But it was also one of the busiest. There was not a lot of balance.”

But how did she get there, overseeing an immense pool of sponsorship dollars for one of the country’s biggest marketers in arguably advertising’s most glamorous category? It was a long way from where she’d begun a decade-and-a-half earlier, as a brand marketer with P&G.

McArthur (front row, third from left) with the Nourish Food Marketing team.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University, McArthur spent the early part of her career developing her brand-building skills and abilities, first with P&G (including playing a lead role in the relatively new practice of database marketing) before joining Unilever and then a short stint at Cadillac Fairview. Which is when Molson came calling.

The beer industry has changed markedly in recent years, with Molson alone having recently appointed/promoted several women into key leadership roles, including chief commercial officer and chief marketing officer.

But back in the early 2000s, McArthur found herself thrust into a testosterone-filled environment, where it wasn’t uncommon for meetings to be punctuated by fists slammed on tables, accompanied by yelling and swearing. “It was a tough, tough business climate,” she says.

The Mighty Women judges lauded McArthur’s ability to successfully navigate the predominantly male world of beer marketing. “Sports and alcoholic beverages, I don’t know how many times I was the only woman in the room,” said one judge.

“I was told I couldn’t work on beer,” said another. “Can you imagine [how many times women] were told to suck it up, buttercup and just move on?”

But despite being a natural introvert, McArthur became known as a tough, shrewd negotiator with Molson, someone who refused to be swayed by the often glamorous side of sports and entertainment. “It’s being able to look at things with a business and critical eye,” she says. “The clubs will try to smother you with all of that access and feeling loved, but it still has to make financial sense, and there still has to be an ROI.”

McArthur put together countless sponsorship deals at Molson, but her signature achievement was the massive benefit concert known as SARSstock, which remains the largest ticketed event in Canadian history 20 years later. The 2003 SARS epidemic had cost Toronto millions in tourist revenue, and the one-day event would be a way of showing that the city was back.

The idea was conceived when a group of Molson executives, including McArthur and then CEO Dan O’Neill, went on what she described as a “bus trip from bar to bar” to show their support for the hospitality industry.

On one of the stops, the executives encountered Michael Cohl, the famed concert promoter credited with pioneering the modern-day mega tour, and the idea of a massive benefit concert featuring some of the world’s best-known acts was floated. “It was like ‘Sure, we can do this in six weeks. No problem,'” says McArthur.

SARSstock featured performances by some of the world’s biggest bands, including the Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Rush. It attracted more than 500,000 people to Downsview Park in North Toronto.

It was a herculean endeavour, with McArthur and her team tasked with managing a medium-sized city that sprang up literally overnight, and disappeared just as quickly. “We were making it up as we went along,” says McArthur, who spent the best part of six weeks living in a trailer at the concert site, subsisting largely on a diet of Timbits and double-doubles.

McArthur’s team brought in the best crisis planners and considered every contingency, right down to erecting a temporary morgue on site that was thankfully never used. In the end, she says with a hint of pride, SARSstock produced fewer incidents than Pope John Paul II’s visit to Downsview Park the previous year. So much for the perils of the rock n’ roll lifestyle.

McArthur left Molson in 2005, but has continued to make food and beverage marketing a career cornerstone. Nourish, the food and beverage marketing agency she launched 14 years ago, has grown to 20 full-time staff with offices in both Toronto and Montreal and a predominantly female executive team.

Salima Jivraj was the founder and director of marketing for the Halal Food Festival Toronto when McArthur offered her a job in 2016. Her appointment at Nourish marked the beginning of a fruitful partnership between the two women.

“I’ve been with her pretty much every step of the way in the last seven years in terms of her decision-making, how she wants the company to run, and it’s never felt like she’s my boss,” she says. “I always tell people she’s my mentor.”

She describes her longtime colleague as a “fearless” leader and a “steady ship,” someone with an innate ability to always lift up those around her. “I know it’s a cliché to say she’s a strong women, but she really is,” she says. “Sometimes when you think of fearless leaders, you think of aggressive and ruthless, but she does everything with a lot of grace.”

While more sedate than the fast-paced world of beer, McArthur says she is happier than ever, with a healthy business in a vibrant and fast-moving sector. “I’m having the best time of my life right now,” she says. “I love it.”

When she’s not working, the mother of three (and grandmother of two) is a running, cycling and hiking enthusiast whose training regimen is so intense her personal trainer has taken to calling her “the beast.”

“I’m pretty driven in all parts of my life,” she says. It’s a trait she inherited from her father, himself a hard-nosed competitor who once played international rugby (“and has the broken nose to prove it,” says McArthur). Sometimes when she runs, she wears a hoodie given to her by her kids that reads “I run to burn off the crazy.”

In many ways, it is the perfect encapsulation of her high-energy personality  “I need to do something,” she says. “It’s just the way I’m wired.”

Chris Powell