STEVE LADURANTAYE – MEDIA REPORTER via THE GLOBE AND MAIL, Last updated Saturday, Aug. 17 2013, 10:19 AM EDT
It was a tweet that launched a thousand resumes – Kirstine Stewart would leave the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. for Twitter.
“Excited to announce @KirstineStewart as new Managing Director and 1st hire of Twitter Canada,” chief revenue officer Adam Bain tweeted. “Bienvenue chez Twitter! Now hiring in Canada.”
As executive vice-president of CBC’s English services, Ms. Stewart often overshadowed the public broadcaster’s other executives. She was a regular at conferences and industry panels, sure, but where she really built a following was on Twitter. The announcement drove hundreds of people toward her LinkedIn page, where they bombarded her with résumés. Three hundred landed the first day, and the avalanche hasn’t slowed. It’s not every day you find out a pre-IPO powerhouse is starting up in your backyard.
Especially one with an estimated market value of $18-billion.
“I feel bad,” she says, eyeing her seared tuna suspiciously. “There’s a real pile of résumés on my desk that I never got to on the first day. I’m trying to manage them all as they come in.”
Ms. Stewart, 45, has been one of the most frequently quoted women in Canada since taking over the Twitter job. Part of that comes from the cachet surrounding the social media site. But even before joining Twitter she was the subject of long profile pieces in magazines and speculative pieces about her future.
As she settles into a booth at a French bistro in downtown Toronto, it’s evident that her new job has made her a better interview. She avoids the corporate-ese that used to pepper her press clippings while at the CBC. She’s not only revealing, she’s downright chatty – a change that has been mirrored on her Twitter account.
“I feel like what I can talk about has broadened,” she says, momentarily excusing herself to reply to a text from her teenaged daughter. “She’s considering whether to have a cookie. I told her that’s okay.”
She’s gone from worrying about a diminishing billion-dollar budget at the CBC to stickhandling Twitter’s expansion. There were times she thought about bailing on the CBC over the past three years as the challenges mounted, but she always stuck around.
But when Twitter called earlier this year to gauge her interest, she couldn’t think of a reason to stay. The broadcaster’s licence had been renewed. The Olympic broadcast rights had been secured. Cuts had been made and the restructuring was largely done. The upcoming challenge would be negotiating a new deal for Hockey Night In Canada. She decided she could live without going through those negotiations.
“It all happened very, very fast,” she says. “They reached out looking for people in Canada and got to me. Let’s face it, anybody in a position like I was in gets approached a lot. Usually I didn’t think too much about those opportunities, because they always came at busy times. I loved Twitter’s culture and expansive attitude – they are all about reaching every person on the planet and defending individual voices.”
That simple explanation has left many skeptical. CBC critics latched onto her departure as a sign the broadcaster is in deep trouble, after undergoing a $115-million cut to its federal-government allocation. Others preferred to frame it as her bailing on the public broadcaster to get away from chief executive officer Hubert Lacroix.
She insists she didn’t leave out of frustration, but rather to seize a rare opportunity. (She laughs awkwardly and changes the subject when asked how much money she’d make if the company went public.)
“I think people questioned why this would happen and treated it with a lot of suspicion,” she says. “I think the idea was my job was one that you held until you retired. There are people who are always looking for an indictment of the CBC. How many opportunities come up to join a company like Twitter at this stage in their development?”
Twitter is a relatively small company, given its valuation and global profile. It has about 1,500 employees worldwide, and its Canadian staff will likely number in the dozens. Initially, the company is hiring sales staff. Eventually, it intends to hire workers who can help teach companies and governments how to harness the service.
Twitter has about 200 million users, a fraction of Facebook’s billion or so. But they are highly engaged – tweeting about everything from cupcakes to revolutions. While the service is popular in this country, she says its adoption is in its infancy.
“There’s a lot of education that needs to go on,” she says, as a woman interrupts the conversation to congratulate her on the new job. “There’s a big user base in Canada, but they are not necessarily the most sophisticated users. Some are, but we have a lot to learn – I’m talking about people, brands, institutions. And there’s revenue work to be done – working to figure out how to position brands on Twitter.”
Users leave a trail of interests scattered across their accounts like breadcrumbs, which are key to the service’s future. Twitter is able to find people who are interested in particular topics, and pass that information to advertisers.
“We can estimate what somebody will be interested in based on what they’ve hash-tagged in the past,” she says. “That’s a pretty direct way to reach someone who may be interested in what you’re doing as a business, politician or even a municipality.”
Twitter’s main source of revenue has been “promoted tweets,” which are forced into users’ feeds on behalf of advertisers. But it sees a lucrative opportunity in partnering with broadcasters, who are seeking ways to keep viewers from cutting their cords.
While Twitter is loaded with world-class engineers, it doesn’t have a lot of executives with broadcast experience. That puts Ms. Stewart in an enviable position after seven years at the CBC. She spent most of her time rebuilding the prime-time lineup, moving away from American game shows and toward Canadian-produced content.
“This is an incredibly transformational time for television,” she says. “And I really just decided I’m interested in being on the side that is new and different.”
She’s also well connected, and has already announced deals with three Canadian broadcasters. They will deliver additional content to Twitter users who have voiced an interest in their shows. Big Brother fans who live-tweet the show may find a link in their feed to behind-the-scenes footage. People commenting on Amazing Race Canada could find themselves watching extended interviews with contestants.
“Some people think this is the end of television,” she says. “It’s an incredibly transformational time. But radio never ended. TV doesn’t end because smartphones come in. If we are learning anything, we are learning that it needs to be more responsive. This whole idea of a schedule is going away.”
That’s true not just for TV, but for life in general. Her work life is mashed together with her personal life, a situation she says is part of the job when you work for a social media service.
How bad is it? Some of her 16,000 Twitter followers will message her while she is on a six-hour flight. By the time she lands she has messages asking her if she’s okay.
As one of the highest-profile female executives in a male-dominated industry, there is an additional layer of expectations. She has battled sexism throughout her career, usually in the form of snide comments about her outfits or private life.
One sports writer wrote she was “blowing kisses to the boys” when Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment was sold, for example. He was spurred on by her comments congratulating Rogers Communications and BCE for the deal.
“The complexity of how you deal with life as a woman is an interesting story for people,” she says. “But every woman is different. For me, there’s a moment when I make a choice. I don’t call people out as sexist – I ask them where they are coming from. I nip it in the bud, I move on.”
As lunch nears its end, we’re drifting away from sexism and back to résumés. The sales team is slowly coming together, but she’s not entirely sure how the next wave of hiring will be paced. One thing is clear – she will be checking Twitter feeds before taking anyone on. Skills are important, but in an evolving industry she’s keeping an open mind.
“The evolution has been so fast that it’s hard to be an expert in anything,” she says. “Hey, my degree is in English literature.”
Married, two daughters
Lives in downtown Toronto
University of Toronto, English literature
2003: Canadian Broadcasting Corp., senior vice-president, lifestyle content
2006: CBC, general manager, television
2010: CBC, executive vice-president, English services
2013: Twitter Canada, managing director
In her own words
“I don’t think you can have a different persona online than in real life. It takes a lot to construct a different personality.”
“I haven’t gotten onto Facebook. It’s not a competitive thing, it’s just not a place I wanted in my world. And I got to Twitter before I started Facebook. I want to limit my outlets, so I can manage them fully.”
“Be careful how people talk about you and don’t be afraid to stand up when something is unfair. I don’t just mean men commenting on women – it could be women commenting on women, too.”