Wade Oosterman, one of Canada’s biggest names in advertising and media, is retiring from his role as president of Bell Media, replaced by Sean Cohan at the start of next month.
Cohan has a long history in U.S. media, including 15 years at A+E, rising to president, international and digital media, and most recently at media measurement giant Nielsen, where he was chief growth officer and president, international.
“I look forward to working with Sean as he leads the Bell Media team in delivering the most compelling content across every platform,” said Mirko Bibic, president and CEO of BCE and Bell Canada, in a short release announcing the changes. Cohan will oversee Bell Media’s entire portfolio, which includes CTV, CTV News, the sports networks TSN and RDS, and Crave.
Bell Media described Cohan as a “purpose-driven leader who adopts a people-first management style,” and a champion of DEI causes. Last year, Savoy Magazine named him one of the Most Influential Black Corporate Directors and Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America.
“Changes like this lead to bigger changes in direction that we are eager to see under Sean’s leadership,” said a media agency executive about the new appointment.
Oosterman, meanwhile, has been top executive in the industry going back to the 1990s. As a co-founder of upstart wireless company Clearnet Communications in the late 1980s, he was a key executive behind the “critters” marketing platform by Taxi, which was adopted by Telus when it acquired Clearnet in 2000.
Following that deal, Oosterman spent five years as brand leader at Telus before jumping to rival Bell in 2006 as chief brand officer and president of Bell Mobility, a role he held until late 2020, when he became president of Bell Media. In early 2020, Oosterman was also appointed to the board of advertising holding company Stagwell, known as MDC at the time.
Taxi CEO Rob Guenette, who worked closely with Oosterman towards the end of his time at Telus, describes him as a giant of Canadian marketing the last 30-plus years. “I find Wade Oosterman to be not only a decent guy, but one of the most intelligent people I have met in my time in advertising.”
The executive changeover comes at a challenging time for Bell Media. Like most media companies with deep roots in traditional content, it has struggled in recent years as advertising budgets have migrated to digital platforms.
BCE, which includes its mobility and home services, reported overall revenue growth of 3.5% in the second quarter ended June 30.Bell Media saw revenue decline by 1.9% to $805 million, citing lower advertising for the drop.
While supporting Ottawa’s introduction of the Online News Act (Bill C-18), Bibic has called for the Federal Government to do more to help Canadian media. “The ecosystem in Canada is under severe stress and requires urgent government assistance,” he said while announcing the Q2 results.
“When massive U.S. companies with global scale and global footprints are having extreme difficulty contending with the difficult advertising markets, you have to ask how Canadian broadcasters are expected to navigate [them],” he said, (as reported by The Globe and Mail).
Bell made deep cuts to its news business in mid-June, including significant layoffs, closing international bureaus, and closing or selling off radio stations.
“Our industry is experiencing a major disruption,” said Oosterman in a memo obtained by Reuters at the time. He also blamed “a challenging regulatory environment that has been too slow to adjust.”
But under Oosterman’s watch, Bell Media also faced widespread criticism over the high-profile firing of popular national newscast anchor Lisa LaFlamme in 2022.
According to a June Globe and Mail report based on an audio recording of a meeting between Oosterman and Bell Media’s news leadership, Oosterman insisted the decision had nothing to do with LaFlamme’s hair colour or age, as was widely reported at the time. However, he did warn staff they needed to provide more balanced news coverage to help attract new viewers.
“We cannot have a situation where we actively ignore I would say half of the viewers. We have got to fix that. I am not going to say how to do that, but we have to do that,” said Oosterman, according to the Globe report.
“The economics of news are dismal… If we don’t get more people to watch our stuff, we need to get, like, serious about cost-effectiveness.”