The Story Behind Purchasing the Rights to Best of Calgary™

The receipt of the polite, but firm, lawyer’s letter was the first time I realized that you could actually trademark “Best of Calgary.”

I was publisher of Avenue magazine at the time, about a decade ago now, and we were continuing to look for ways to develop “service journalism” concepts that would be popular with both readers and advertisers. We had already created a Best Restaurants issue, 40 Under 40, and Best Places to Live – all three of which were our most popular issues of the year. So, the reasoning went, why not develop a Best of CalgaryTM issue.

...we wanted to create something bigger than what had been done in the past.

Avenue was (and remains) Calgary’s city lifestyle magazine, so developing such an issue only made sense, as far as we were concerned. And we had seen how FFWD, the city’s news and entertainment weekly newspaper, had developed and grown the Best of Calgary™ concept with its readers. But they had a different audience, we told ourselves. And at no time did we think that they actually had a trademark for the concept. How wrong we were.

Great West Newspapers, based in St. Albert just north of Edmonton, developed the concept of FFWDover 20 years ago in concert with founding publisher Ian Chiclo. Launched in the mid-‘90s, Calgary never had a financially successful “alternative weekly” like other large urban Canadian markets (there had been two previous efforts, both of which quickly folded). NOW magazine had been a staple in Toronto for years, and pretty much everyone picked up a copy of the Georgia Straight when they visited Vancouver. But for Calgary, this was something brand new.

And after a couple of lean years, FFWD really started to find its stride at the turn of the millennium. Page counts increased, views to the web site started ticking upwards, and leading the charge every year was its Best of CalgaryTM issue. Published in the second week of June each year, FFWD would start to survey its readers in early April on upwards of 150 categories. When the winners were announced, local businesses would start the self promotion – Best Pizza, Best Burger, Best Beer, etc. Readers loved it, advertisers loved it maybe even a little more. The evening the issue hit the newsstand, winners and FFWD staff would gather at a local watering hole to celebrate their accomplishments.

But by the late-2000s, the media industry started its dramatic change. Not only were businesses reeling from the global economic slowdown of 2008, but advertisers move to online from print was really starting to take off. Newspapers and magazines across North American and around the world for that matter started to see page counts dropping and for those on the paid newsstands, the trend was even worse.

By 2014, Chiclo had long since departed and then publisher Drew Anderson faced a nearly impossible task to improve the fortunes of FFWD. The Best of CalgaryTM issue continued to be the newspaper’s most popular, but the other issues simply weren't carrying their weight. As the calendar flipped to 2015, the advertising base wasn’t improving and the owners had a difficult decision to make.

When I read on social media in late February last year that Great West had decided to shut down the paper – the last issue slated for March 5th, 2015 – I wasn’t necessarily shocked, but saddened. I also immediately thought about Best of CalgaryTM and wondered what Great West had planned for that brand.

A few weeks late I found myself up in St. Albert, in the offices of Duff Jamison, President of Great West Newspapers. Duff has been running Great West for many years and over coffee he explained how the financial realities of supporting FFWD had simply become too much to bear. I could tell that the closure wasn’t an easy thing for him to do and he expressed concern for the staff and what would happen to them in the future.

The reason for my meeting with Duff was simple. I wanted to see if he would be willing to sell me with the rights to both FFWD and Best of CalgaryTM to see if my partners and I could figure out a new business model for both brands. Over the course of a couple of months, through the exchanges of emails and phone calls, we came to an agreement that worked for both parties and on May 1st, our joint venture group started the process of researching new business opportunities.

What became quite clear early on was that while there was a lot of emotional support for the continuation of FFWD, there simply wasn’t the economic support to back that up. Many of the key advertisers from the past had discovered other, more innovative, ways to promote their brands. If was tough to accept, but we knew by last summer that figuring out a new economic model for FFWD was unlikely.

Best of CalgaryTM, on the other hand, seemed to pique some interest. But we wanted to create something bigger than what had been done in the past. There was a lot of risk around developing a new print product, but we thought if we could maintain on online presence with the brand; partner with some key institutions in the city; and develop more of a movement around creating a better city at the end of the day, then we figured we might have something.

The more people, businesses and organizations we spoke to through the fall, the more we realized our new business model might work. We finally held a joint venture group meeting on Dec. 18th, a week before Christmas, and made the decision to proceed. I called Duff the next day and told him the news.

We hope that this new Best of CalgaryTM initiative will honour the nearly two decades of work that the former FFWD team put into building the brand. We welcome feedback from former readers, while at the same time we hope to attract a new group of supporters around this re-brand. If we are even half as successful as FFWD was with this concept, we will consider ourselves lucky.

Gary Davies is a founding partner of Best of CalgaryTM

Mandy Balak