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Acast expands into Canada

Acast has this week opened a new operation in Canada, with Heather Gordon coming over from the CBC to lead it as Managing Director. This is the tenth territory that the Swedish podcast company is now covering in this way, following moves into Ireland in December 2019 and Mexico in February 2020, and a continuation of the international expansion that was a stated priority following the $35 million Series C funding raised in late 2018.

In several of those European markets, Acast has followed the same playbook, i.e. arriving early enough in podcasting’s growth to become the near-default monetisation option for both existing publishers and independent creators purely out of a lack of other options. But North America is a different situation altogether. Canada has a much bigger established listenership and a more developed ad market than most of the previous places Acast has expanded into. Add to that a public broadcaster in the shape of the CBC that has been dominating podcasting for quite a while now, and it becomes clear that just being first in isn’t going to be enough to grow a business there.

For reference, the latest Infinite Dial survey from Edison Research puts 18+ monthly podcast listening in Canada on a par with that in the US — that is, at 37 per cent of the population. And although there hasn’t been a dedicated team working in the country yet, there are already plenty  of Canadian shows signed up to Acast, which according to the company’s release generate almost 11 million monthly listens when counted together. That’s plenty of inventory for a homegrown sales team to get started with.

With that in mind, it makes sense to me that Heather Gordon was the choice to head up this new operation, given that she comes from a sales rather than an editorial background. Unlike with some of these other expansions, Acast’s challenge in Canada isn’t signing up enough podcasts to find enough space to inject ads, it’s selling enough valuable ads to Canadian sponsors to make them an attractive enough partner for shows that already have tens or even hundreds of thousands of listeners.

This expansion into Canada sits alongside what the company is already doing in the US and in Mexico. Back in February they hired Brian Danzis to be Managing Director, Americas out of their New York office. Danzis, by the way, joins the long list of former Spotify employees at Acast — he was previously Global Head of Video and Live Events there. The choice of Gordon, with her background at the CBC, for Canada, seems designed to complement Danzis’ corporate experience elsewhere.

When I caught up with Gordon late last week, she explained a bit more about her background in media and how that has translated to this latest move. Her most recent job was at the CBC as Digital Sales Director, and as such she managed the team responsible for monetising all of the broadcaster’s digital assets. “That would include everything from video to display to native to promotions to connected television. And podcasting was just one element in our portfolio. And that was the piece that quickly emerged as sort of the jewel in our crown,” she said.

Gordon was also quick to counter any talk of Acast Canada as a rival or competitor to the CBC. “First of all, we do very different things,” she said. “Second of all, we are partners with them. So there’s a lot of space and opportunity in the Canadian market right now, which was another one of the reasons why I was so eager to jump in with Acast right now.” The beginning of the Acast-CBC partnership predates this launch — Acast signed up to monetise the public broadcaster’s international listens back in November last year (in a similar arrangement to that with the BBC). Now, the CBC is one of the listed publishing partners for the launch of the new Canadian operation, alongside Corus and Entertainment One.

As well as the US level listenership shown in the most recent Infinite Dial, Gordon pointed to a rapid growth in appetite for podcasts among Canadian advertisers as another contributing factor to start Acast Canada now. “Over the past year, we’ve seen so much more interest in the Canadian market in the podcasting landscape,” she said.

“There is still some education to do, which we’re hoping to be that resource for in Canada — when you’ve got questions about the podcast market, how to advertise the best ways to advertise the best rates, we want to be that first call. . . The great thing is it’s a growing interest from all categories. It’s not just direct to consumer brands, it’s not just specific clients. It’s all categories. It’s finance, it’s auto with CPG. Everybody’s interested in figuring out how to monetise and reach their audiences effectively, just based on the numbers people are starting to see with results and brand lift and that sort of thing.”

At the moment, Gordon has one colleague in Canada working on content partnerships, but in addition to starting a new team they’re also navigating launching this venture during a pandemic. “So obviously, I’m starting my foray into the Acast world in a virtual manner. . . I have big dreams for what Acast Canada could look like, and that includes real estate and office space. But yeah, until we get a handle on what’s happening in our wacky world right now, we’re taking a wait and see approach,” she said. But the plan is still to hire some “best in class sales talent with a key requirement of being a podcast lover” and get started in the meantime.

Success for Acast in Canada will be more iterative and less easy to measure than in places like the UK or France, I should imagine, where simply attracting new shows or advertisers to the platform counted as a win in the early days. The market is that much bigger and more mature, meaning that there’s more money to be made, but more competition for every deal. And especially given the timing, with Covid-19 cases rising again in some areas, Gordon and her future sales team will have their work cut out to make an impact.