Vv Magazine sits down with Notable.ca’s Julian Brass to chat about Toronto’s upcoming edition of the Notable Awards…
When Julian Brass launched Notable.ca in 2008, the most recent recession was well underway and print publications were struggling to make the transition to online as the progressively more digital world threatened their relevancy. Starting a website dedicated to young professionals might have seemed like a bad idea at the time, especially since so many Gen-Xers and millenials were hit hard by massive layoffs, hiring freezes, and the idea that landing their dream jobs might no longer be a reality. Despite all this, Notable took off, proving that Brass’s target demographic wasn’t as jaded, deterred, or short-changed as the job market and economy may have implied. Many, like Brass himself, had taken their careers into their own hands as entrepreneurs, starting businesses of their own despite the odds stacked against start-ups in any field.
Fast-forward to 2014, and Notable now boasts an audience of approximately 1.5 million monthly readers, as well as an annual awards show in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. The website refers to the Notable Awards as “the Oscars for young professionals and entrepreneurs,” and certainly having PK Subban as the most “notable” guest and award recipient last week at the 2014 Montreal edition of the event speaks volumes to just how big Brass and his brand are getting. That said, it’s easy for Brass’ critics to wonder if it’s just click-bait material. With the Toronto-based edition of the Notable Awards taking place this Thursday, December 4, at 99 Sudbury, we caught up with Brass to find out more about the awards, the website, and the brand that could.
VV: You just got back from Montreal. What was the highlight of the Notable Awards there?
Julian Brass: It was incredible to have PK Subban there. He’s the most recognizable athlete in Canada right now, maybe even in North America, so it was a huge honour to have him there. He was so graceful in his acceptance speech, and the words he shared were really inspirational. But even though he’s this massive celebrity, that was not the highlight; the highlight was having over 400 of the most hard-working, driven, successful, focused, determined young professionals under one roof together. Although PK was the biggest profile of the night, everyone there had something to be proud of.
VV: With someone like Subban, did you have a connection to get him to the awards show?
Julian Brass: He’s a fan of Notable, and he wanted to accept his award. We also have friends who know him, and we have a relationship with him, so we were able to make sure it happened.
VV: People will criticize the awards for being click-bait because everyone nominated is going to promote it, since votes from the nominees’ peers help determine the winner. Why did you start an awards show and how do you defend it to people who think its click-bait?
Julian Brass: I defend it by saying that just isn’t true. We wanted to create a physical incarnation of what Notable is in the real world — where people could be recognized in the real world for things we recognize them for digitally on the website every single day. That’s the idea, and that’s what spawned the awards. We’re always profiling young professionals, and we are the brand for young professionals. To take it a step further is to recognize them in the real world by saying, “Congratulations. You’ve done so much and therefore you deserve an award.” The voting mechanism is a great way to create a transparency with regards to people who say they’ve done all these great things. If people in your community – your fans essentially: your supporters, colleagues, employees, employers – aren’t supporting you, odds are that there might be some fabrication going on. The voting aspect is just meant to be a mechanism to validate everything. It’s not meant to be a click-bait idea. That was definitely not part of the rational in creating the Notable Awards.
VV: When a notable person who made lots of headlines isn’t nominated by his or her peers – for instance, Robin Doolittle is missing in the journalism category this year, as are a lot of notable chefs and restaurants in those categories – do you reach out?
Julian Brass: It’s meant to be user-generated as much as possible, so anyone can nominate themselves, or anyone can nominate someone else. That’s the intention. As a company, we don’t really go out and do a lot of nominating. It’s really meant for the community to create the nominees. Although it’s a huge entity in itself, it’s something that grows every year as more and more people hear about it. In a city as big as Toronto, to think that every single awesome restaurant would know about it is a bit of a pipe dream.
VV: So the winner of each category will be chosen by voters?
Julian Brass: We have three criteria that our anonymous judging panel uses to determine the winners. The first is your dedication to your career. The second is how you’re inspiring your coworkers and colleagues. The third is how you’re giving back to the community. The fourth is the number of votes. Voting alone will not make you a winner.
VV: Why did you come back to Canada from Silicon Valley in 2008 to start Notable?
Julian Brass: I had this great opportunity to go work in the States for a few years. I never thought it was going to be a lifelong thing. When I came up with the idea for Notable, even though I loved what I was doing in Silicon Valley, which was a social network and online dating hybrid – when you’re an entrepreneur and you have an idea, that idea starts to hurt when you’re not doing anything about it. It gets so powerful that you have to do it.
VV: When you came into the market, magazines were trying to go online and the market was saturated. Did you have a strategy right away to get advertisers?
Julian Brass: It was a funny time because everybody was trying to figure out how to make money because it was during the most recent recession. Companies were folding, and I was trying to start a website. The start-up challenge is tough on any business. For Notable, trying to get people to understand what a young professional is was a challenge in itself. When I said the term six years ago, people weren’t as apt to just get it. You have to build a brand, traffic, and a belief in what you’re offering all at the same time.
VV: What has been the key to your success in growing your numbers so massively?
Julian Brass: You really need to understand what your target audience wants. It’s important to be focused on the target market and giving them what they want, but you also have to ask yourself what expectations you have for readership, let’s say. Do I want to be the next huge website, or do I want to be a niche website that will have far less viewers but more loyal viewers? I think that’s what every online publisher has to ask themselves. When you decide that, your strategy of how you’re going to sell your site, how you’re going to market it, and the content you create all will change based on what it is you want to be.
VV: What have you changed in direction from the beginning?
Julian Brass: At the very beginning the brand was Notable.tv, and it was all meant to be video. I found that a lot of our readers wanted great written content as well. Video was just coming out. People in Canada didn’t know what “.tv” even was because it had just come out in Silicon Valley, so I had to pivot. There were a bunch of pivots until I got to Notable.ca. Along the way, it constantly evolved.
VV: Are there key things you’ve kept in mind for your social media presence?
Julian Brass: Social media is so crucial now, and it’s a great mechanism to gauge what you think is going to be interesting because it’s right there in real time. People are either going to engage or they’re not.
VV: Are you anticipating any trends for online publishing?
Julian Brass: I don’t know the answer to that question. As much as I’m a thought leader to a certain degree, I’m also a student to a certain degree. At the end of the day, good content will always win, and a good brand will always win. It’s always about providing to your niche what they want.
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