GroupM makes ‘upfront’ style commitment to Torstar

GroupM Canada has committed to invest a portion of its clients’ media dollars with Torstar’s print and digital properties over the next year as part of its global efforts around responsible investment.

Torstar’s chief revenue officer Brandon Grosvenor called it a “monumental day” for Torstar and the broader publishing industry, as his company enters into an “upfront” agreement similar to those commonly found in broadcast and digital, both of which have continued to enjoy strong—and, in the case of digital, growing—ad revenue over the last decade, while newspaper companies have grappled with a steady decline in ad spend.

Torstar’s scale and technical efficiencies now allow it to compete in a manner similar to its advertising counterparts, said Grosvenor. “And when you factor in quality journalism and brand-safe environments, I think it’s a profound opportunity,” he said. “It marks a shift to a levelling of the playing field, which has got us all very excited.”

While exact specifics of today’s deal—which coincides with World Press Day—were not disclosed, Grosvenor said it contains a minimum spend threshold that represents a “substantial increase” over previous years.

The deal extends across the Torstar ecosystem, which includes six daily newspapers and associated digital assets— including flagship daily the Toronto Star—plus 70 community newspapers and websites operating under the Metroland Media Group, and about 15 other properties such as

Discussions between Torstar and GroupM started several months ago, said Grosvenor. “They were extremely leaned in as a partner in terms of… how they can better target our audiences, and how they can support quality reputable journalism in an appropriate way, realizing that media performance is important and ensuring their clients achieve results,” he said.

“GroupM has supported Torstar for many years, but the time was right to structure a more formalized agreement that is beneficial for our clients and helps support Canadian journalism,” said GroupM’s chief investment officer, Lindsey Talbot, in an email interview.

GroupM’s work with Torstar is an example of how a closer relationship between clients and publishers can correct the “issue of omission” that arises when programmatic advertising bumps up against marketers’ continued demand for brand-safe advertising environments, he said. “Keywords are vital for audience targeting, however they often exclude excellent news sites and article pages because words aren’t taken in context.”

While the agreement is just for one year, Grosvenor expects it will be extended. “I believe this is just the first step, and if this is executed and works like I believe it will, this will be the catalyst for much bigger deals—not only with GroupM but other major agency holding companies—as we move forward.

“We realize that individual marketers’ budgets aren’t increasing every year, and it’s really for us to prove value and performance where those budgets may have been allocated in the past,” he said, calling the agreement a hand up, rather than a hand out, for Torstar.

The announcement follows Torstar owner and Toronto Star publisher Jordan Bitove’s impassioned speech to the Canadian Club in March, during which he called on Canadian advertisers to redirect some of their ad dollars away from tech giants like Google and Facebook and support Canadian-owned and operated media.

During his speech, Bitove cited two examples to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem for Torstar: One of Canada’s top advertisers bought $50 million worth of media in 2022, but spent just $6,800 with Torstar. And less than $400,000 of the $140 million spent by the federal government made its way to the company.

GroupM’s Talbot said the agreement has been in the works for some time, and aligns with the media buyer’s global Responsible Investment Framework, which includes among its core tenets “investment in responsible journalism and hard news.”

Broader industry initiatives such as the Canadian Media Directors’ Media Manifesto—which Talbot called a “key consideration” in the Torstar deal—and GroupM’s global work are representative of an increased ethical motivation among agencies and advertisers to invest in responsible journalism after years of financial hardship for the industry. That has led to a precipitous decline in both the number of journalists and journalism outlets.

“We are at a crucial point in our media landscape where the support of and investment into our local Canadian partners is paramount,” she said. “Our clients are supportive of this, as this affects the overall Canadian media ecosystem.”

According to the recent Leadership Study conducted by the CMDC and Globe Media Group, 99% of senior marketers identified benefits in supporting the Canadian Media Manifesto, with 33% having already signed on. Introduced in September 2021, the goal of the Manifesto is to encourage reinvest in Canadian media, which the CMDC says is essential for a healthy, well-functioning society.

“We are thrilled to see the impact of our advocacy campaign, as it has successfully driven action with new partnerships, like the one forged by Torstar and GroupM, that help protect and promote ethical media practices,” CMDC president Shannon Lewis told The Message.

“Thanks to the vocal support and concerted efforts of our members and partners, we have been able to bring attention to the critical role that local media plays in our society,” she added. “While our work is far from done, we are proud of the progress we have made. We all have a stake in local media and journalism, and by supporting it, we support the values of transparency, accountability, and democracy.”

GroupM CEO Kevin Johnson said that supporting the Toronto Star also helps support the news organization’s journalism around key issues that clients care about.

He noted that BIPOC employees make up more than one-third of the Star‘s newsroom, a number that is expected to rise through its internship program. “[O]ur investment in the Toronto Star is also aligned with GroupM’s commitment to EDI inside our own organization and to investing in it across the media industry and ecosystem,” he said.

Chris Powell