During what had to be an incredibly busy time in the weeks leading up to the election, Rick Lewchuk, CNN senior vice president of marketing and brand standards, sat down with Bigstar Executive Producer Carson Hood as part of Hood’s Vision 20/21 series of discussions with creatives.
In this wide-ranging interview, Hood talks with Lewchuk about how he got his start in entertainment marketing all the way back in high school in Canada, how he ended up at CNN, and what he thinks the future—post election and post pandemic—holds for entertainment marketers.
Carson Hood: How did you get your start in entertainment and as a Canadian, what ultimately led you to Atlanta, Georgia, working for CNN?
Rick Lewchuk: I’ve been in the business for more than 40 years. My interest started actually in high school, in a place called North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. I was lucky to go to a high school that actually had a television program, which was pretty forward looking in the 1970s, and that got my interest started.
I started working full-time when I was 18, beginning in operations in a small [TV] station in Lethbridge, Alberta. In my spare time, I used to cut promos and submit them to the promotion manager and they started using my work. My first job in promotions, as it was all called then, was in 1982 and I’ve been in promotion and marketing ever since. Eventually, I became head of the CTV Television Network Marketing Group where I established the CTV Creative Agency.
CTV grew into a total of two broadcast networks and I think 36 cable networks. I oversaw the marketing and creative for all of those. Things changed when we were bought by a different company in 2010. By 2011, I wasn’t happy with my job, and it was actually my wife that spurred me on saying, “You know, you’ve been happy every day, coming home from work, then you’re miserable. Do something about it.” So I did. I had a noncompete clause in Canada, so I started looking at either coming to the States or going to Europe. I reached out to a good friend of mine, Lisa Gregorian at Warner Bros., and she reacted immediately and said, “Give me a couple of days.”
She came back and said, “I think there’s a job within our company Time Warner at CNN that you should look at.” I talked to them and it happened pretty quickly. In 2012, I came down to CNN and have been thrilled ever since.
Hood: What was the state of CNN’s brand at that time? And what were your aspirations for it?
Lewchuk: One of the things that attracted me is my love for branding. I didn’t think that the CNN brand was as strong as it had been. It felt like it hadn’t reached its full potential. The main reason that they looked at bringing me into CNN was not because of my background and what I’d done in news promotion, but what I’d done in marketing of entertainment channels. Because CNN was about to launch original series and this little show called Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown as their first effort.
The marketing team at CNN was strong in news, and that’s a great thing until you need to launch something like original series. So they looked to me to come in and fill that role. Part of the brand-building was expanding on CNN from just being news to being storytellers in many different ways.
Hood: I may be low-balling you here but by my count, you’ve launched more than 30 CNN original series, multiple films and promoted a wide range of new shows. Is there a campaign that stands out? And why?
Lewchuk: It’s probably one that most people aren’t familiar with. We filmed Nima Elbagir in a refugee camp in Greece, and tied it into her reporting back to Wolf Blitzer in The Situation Room, which is all behind the scenes. That one still gives me goosebumps. Everything we did with Nima shooting in that camp was real. The people were real, all the situations were real, and it really kind of pointed out what differentiates CNN. When you look at most news networks, they don’t cover the world and go to those places the way CNN does. That one was really poignant, and I think still stands up.
Hood: That realness and live aspect is obviously a huge differentiator of your brand and your company. How are you approaching that during the pandemic? How are you keeping that realness factor in the brand?
Lewchuk: We’re having to be flexible. Take a campaign like “Facts First.” Six months ago, we didn’t think we’d be talking about wearing masks and the fact that masks work, but we looked at those aspects of our brand that could be adapted to the situation that we are currently in.
We always strive to make sure that what we do in our storytelling is about the truth. It’s not about taking a perspective and it’s not about taking a political viewpoint. In fact, we say that wearing masks isn’t political. These are the facts about what [masks] do for you and making sure those messages are getting out.
Hood: I’m going to read directly from your website: “Yes, research and analytics are important, but they shouldn’t drive your creative. We believe that great marketing is led by great creative. Execution is critical, but it is pointless without the idea. CNN Creative Marketing is a place where the right brain and left brain work together.” Take me through that process.
Lewchuk: So I always say there’s marketing people and there’s creative people, and it’s difficult to get that balance. I have this fear that many of the groups within our industry are moving to the marketing side and letting the marketing brain control what we do too much. Analytics are great, but I don’t think you can do a proper marketing job just by looking at analytics. There has to be an idea that inspires people. Analytics can tell you where to find the people, but it can’t tell you how to find the people. It can’t tell you how to reach those people once you find them. That’s where that squishy area called creative comes in, so it’s all about making sure that we have the people who have that marketing sensibility and the people who have that creative sensibility working together.
What I’m always conscious of when we’re doing an off-channel buy is while I want to understand what constitutes a good place to reach potential viewers, I also want to make sure we have creative that works with it. You can buy a billboard in Times Square, but if it’s for something where you can’t really do creative that comes across in that kind of format, then you shouldn’t use it just because it’s a place to reach people. So we always look at getting the creative going first before we start doing our external marketing buys.
Hood: How does that process change when it comes to marketing a news program versus originals versus film versus digital? Do you change it at all and if so how?
Lewchuk: Yes. When it comes to our news programming, largely we can reach a big enough audience between our CNN broadcasts and our digital [platforms] to reach potential news viewers. In most cases with our news programming, we’re talking to people who are already familiar with CNN. The reason we do originals is because they bring potential new viewers to CNN and we’re able to reach a broader audience. So we have to focus on reaching those people in places that are not CNN. When it comes to talking to people for original series, we’re talking to people who may not have come to CNN in the last month or two or six months and so they need to really understand more about it, and there’s a bigger explanation and a heavier lift.
Films are a totally different thing because each film stands on its own. We don’t really generically promote CNN films—each film is a separate entity, a separate topic. How we promote a film on John Lewis is very different from how we promote Apollo 11. We have to take each of those as a standalone, and it becomes a heavier lift.
Hood: CNN has a reach of more than 328 million viewers across linear and digital. You’ve talked about reaching those viewers in different places. Can you tell me your approach to 360 marketing?
Lewchuk: We don’t try and lump it all together. There’s so many different ways to consume CNN. On a good day we will reach a few million people, unique to linear television. On digital right now, we’re averaging domestically between 30 and 40 million unique viewers on a daily basis. More people are consuming CNN in a digital format, and beyond that, we put news out on Twitter and Facebook. CNN and CNN Breaking News are two of the top three news Twitter feeds out there.
CNN gets progressively younger as you go to newer and newer ways of consuming. So it’s very nuanced and very complicated, but to us, a reader or viewer is the same, regardless of where they consume CNN.
Hood: How much of this is discussed when your team is pitching creative? Are you discussing how that looks across each platform or just focusing on story first?
Lewchuk: It’s story first. Let’s take an original series. When we’re going up and pitching to Jeff Zucker and Allison Gollust or Amy Entelis when it comes to launching an original series, we’re taking them different television spot ideas, and we’re taking them different creative art ideas at the same time. We do that because we don’t want to just take television spots and adapt them to key art. We want that thinking and that direction settled early on before we chase things.
Hood: Does the political climate affect your approach at all?
Lewchuk: We sharpen and make sure we’re buttoned down in everything we do. There is an unspoken motto at CNN that “it’s more important to get it right than get it first.” We have to make sure they are correct. That’s really important when you’re doing a television promo because that’s going to be repeated potentially hundreds of times, and you can’t have a mistake repeated hundreds of times.
We’re not perfect but we strive to make sure that what we’re doing is factual in how we market. We don’t skate around the edges.
Hood: What does the future of the brand look like? Where do you see it going?
Lewchuk: To be quite honest, we’re not sure where it’s going to go. A lot will depend on the results of the upcoming election and a lot will depend on what happens with this pandemic in terms of what we look like and what we will cover going forward. We do know original series are a big part of our future and films are a big part of our future. Our core news coverage is a big part of our future. But we’re not so precise that we know where the brand’s going to be five years from now. It’s going to be an evolution, like it always has been, not a revolution. But that evolution is moving faster and faster, and you have to be nimble to adapt to it.
Hood: A lot of these streaming giants and super systems can plan five years down the road, because they don’t have a live news component. How big of a factor does the live portion of this play into that?
Lewchuk: It is a huge part. And it’s also a huge advantage for us.
Independent research has shown that the main reason people are still paying for cable and still doing that is because of live news. They want to have options in their news. When you’re getting into streaming services, you’re usually limited. If you use Peacock to stream MSNBC, that’s great if you only watch MSNBC, but very few people do that. People want the variety that they get from cable. Number two is sports. So news and sports are really kind of the lifeblood of why cable still exists. And that’s a huge advantage for us in this world right now.
Hood: What are you most excited about in the future?
Lewchuk: We have a big slate of original series for next year. We didn’t do as many original series this year, and I’m really looking forward to getting back into that. We’ve got a series with Stanley Tucci that’s exploring food in Italy, which I think is going to be a lot of fun to work on. One on Lincoln coming for next year. It’s kind of finding those ways of how you market a series about Lincoln. There’s been so much stuff on Lincoln, and this isn’t going to be an entertainment series, it’s going to be factual. What’s a different way that you make something about Lincoln stand up? Those things are really kind of exciting.
Hood: This is one of the biggest questions I like to ask for this Vision 20/21 series. Any predictions for the future? What does the future of entertainment and marketing look like?
Lewchuk: I think there’s going to be some difficult times ahead, particularly in the next 10 years, as things adapt to more over-the-top services and cable has a tougher time. I think we’re going to go through a lot of changes in the industry. But I think for people who work in our part of the industry, we may have to go to different places to do our work, but the need to market these services is always going to be there. We’re going to need to be really flexible, and ready to adapt, and not hold onto old ideas, and always know that there’s going to be a need for what we do. It just may be for different services.
Hood: I like that answer a whole lot and agree. I’m one that thinks that strategy continues to become more and more important. Thank you, Rick. You’re off my hot seat.