In August 2018, Aimee Deziel stepped into what many call ‘the hardest job in Ottawa’ as the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) of the Ottawa Senators (although to be fair… we think the hardest job is probably held by Justin Trudeau).
Why is this job so difficult? Because after making it all the way to the Conference Finals in the 2016-17 season, the Sens had a disappointing 2017-18 season and 2018-19 hasn’t been much better. There have been issues with the Sens owner and management, drama amongst players and their wives, and some big trades. Most notably, this September they traded away the best defenceman that had ever graced their ice. Needless to say Sens fans have been feeling frustrated. And rightly so.
Although things haven’t been looking great on the ice this season (the Sens are currently last in the Eastern Conference… welp), things are looking up in the back office. Cue Aimee. Aimee as CMO is refreshing AF. First off, she’s a woman. Less than 5% of executives in pro sports are women, so this is a BFD. Next, she doesn’t have a classic hockey
bro background. She’s a fan just like you and me. So, she truly understands Sens fans and is 110% committed to turning the franchise around. Deziel is a fireball of energy, chutzpah, and will certainly not tolerate any BS.
Earlier this month, The GIST had the pleasure of sitting down with Aimee for an interview to help spotlight women in the Sens organization. We asked Aimee about everything from the influence of sports in her life growing up to how she handles marketing after scandals like the, um, Uber situation, to if she prefers Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes. Let’s get to know Aimee.
Aimee grew up in Windsor, Ontario and like everyone in that area, was torn between supporting the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Detroit Red Wings. As much as Aimee loved playing sports as a kid, she never played team sports as she felt “too much responsibility for her teammates and that kind of stressed her out.” Still, she participated in individual sports as a competitive gymnast and an avid runner (she’s still super active and can be found snowboarding, at the gym, playing tennis and well, still running). And, her love of these sports has never faded. As a tennis fan, she used to have annual tickets to the US Open (the dream). Her faves to watch are Danish Caroline Wozniacki and Milos Raonic.
Aimee (right) after a gymnastics competition.
Moving to the Capital City
After growing up in Windsor, Aimee made her way to Ottawa to pursue an International Business degree at Carleton University. Having grown up in a bilingual household (English and French), languages came naturally to her, making International Business a natural fit. She took the gamut of business classes but what really clicked with her was marketing. It became abundantly clear that that’s what she was going to go into after school.
This is where things start to get exciting and where Aimee’s drive and get-sh!t-done attitude start to shine through. As soon as she graduated, she started hunting down marketing agencies that she wanted to work for.
“I literally walked into the offices of an up-and-coming agency called Acme Advertising and said: “You don't need to pay me - I'll literally empty garbages and run errands.’ But what I knew was that if I was in their face, and made an impression, I would get a job.”
That’s exactly what happened. Aimee not only got the job, but ended up being assigned one of the agency’s largest accounts - the National Gallery of Canada. Damn girl, get it. But that’s not all. While working at her next gig, Thornley Fallis Communications, Aimee noticed that there was an opportunity to capitalize on the internet and digital media, rather than rely on the traditional communication channels within the company. The company had a small creative team called 76design, which was struggling to establish itself. So, she approached her boss and said, “give me six months and let me see what I can do to grow this segment of the business.”
Five years later, Aimee was leaving the company after profitably growing the digital media division to over 25 people, surpassing the size of the traditional communications side!
Next Step in Her Career
From there, Aimee was ready for a new challenge. She went on to work for a consumer-facing, domain-holding company, based out of the Barbados (honestly could use a trip to the Barbados right now) called Rebel.com. She started as the company’s CMO. However, given her prior experience, she felt like she had marketing “pretty well-licked” so moved on to work in other areas of the business to get a more well-rounded business experience. With stops in the company’s finance department, business development, and human resources department, Aimee finally went on to become the Chief Operating Officer. With the breadth of learning from working in these different areas of the business, Aimee felt she had effectively given herself an MBA.
Aimee’s biggest piece of career advice is to work in fields that you are curious about. She learned enough to know when someone was “bullsh!tting” (again… no BS taken here) her and should be challenged, and honed her leadership experiences along the way.
What Brought Her to the Sens
That’s how it all ties back to the Sens organization. It was new COO Neic Ruszkowski, who Aimee first met while working at 76design who brought up the opportunity for the CMO gig with the Sens and she was really intrigued. When we started talking about the Sens during the interview, you could sense the energy and passion Aimee has for this team. She had a glimmer in her eye, started speaking faster, and had this infectious aura of excitement about her.
Aimee totally recognizes that “they’re not the most high-profile team and they’re not the best team in the league right now.” BUT she’s confident that will change. Despite growing up in Windsor, she considers Ottawa her hometown, and thinks that Ottawa - both the city and the team - has never fully received the credit it deserves. It’s squished between two Original Six teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, and is a “young” team in comparison (The Sens were just founded in 1992). However, the city is beautiful, is complete with amazing people and history, and full of avid and extremely passionate hockey fans.
One of our favourite things Aimee said was on the potential and likability of this young team:
“We deserve to have a little bit of swagger and we don’t have any right now in my opinion. And I think that’s changing, but this is a city that deserves it. Toronto just gets to lay claim to their history and their success, but because we’re new, we don’t get to do that? I don’t buy that.”
The Ottawa Senators aren’t owned by a massive corporation. The franchise was bootstrapped together. People wanted to bring the NHL experience to Ottawa, and Aimee believes it’s a privilege to be able to bring the beautiful game to the city of Ottawa. Day in and day out, the players go out there and play for their city and their fans, and they deserve to know that they have a loyal fanbase behind them. As Aimee put it “look, I love this team a whole lot, and Ottawa deserves to be proud of it.”
What She Does as a CMO
Aimee’s day-to-day is always different. There are two seasons for her: in-season, where the focus is on fan engagement, membership season where it’s time to thank their season seat members and secure their support for the next season, and off-season, which involves planning for the in-season. Most days, much of her time is spent on strategy and meetings. The strategy is, for the most part, divided into five areas: branding, fan experience (in and outside the arena), community engagement (things like getting the Sens players out into the community), traditional and digital marketing, as well as sales. At the same time, some days she finds herself on the ground, doing things like rolling player posters for an event. It’s all hands on deck, including Aimee’s, when something calls for it.
In 2019, Aimee’s major focus is on the Sens’ branding. Right now, she’s not convinced that there is one clear brand direction for the Sens… that if someone were to describe the Sens in three words, every single person would have a different descriptor. And, as a marketing guru (our words, not Aimee’s), she knows that needs to change. She’s working hard on answering the questions: “What is the brand identity and the brand personality of the Sens? And how does that transcend from the top of the organization to the day-to-day fan?”
Her Take on Women in the Hockey World
Aimee doesn’t have a hockey background and she often finds herself being one of the only women in the room. But, she doesn’t let this faze her. She “strongly believes that being a fan makes her incredibly qualified to deliver an experience to others.” Sound familiar, GISTers?
Unlike those that have grown their careers in the hockey world she has grown up a fan and totally gets all the emotion of the fan experience. She understands different fan profiles and what motivates them to go to a game. Her role is not in the management of a team or selecting players... her job is to help Ottawa fall in love with the team again.
To that end, Aimee thinks that sometimes we can get “caught up” in gender, or being the only woman in the room. Women working in sports isn’t a new or particularly novel phenomenon. At least on the business side, the industry is fairly progressive when it comes to hiring for knowledge and experience regardless of gender.
We should point out that of the eight directors that report to Aimee, four are women, and she’s hired three of those four since she’s been at the marketing helm. Outside of gender diversity, she thinks that all types of diversity - from race, to religion, to age or socioeconomic background - will lead to a stronger Sens organization (and any business). “Our organization should be reflective of the community we live in. Appealing to a diverse audience is the key to growing the fan base.”
Questions from our GISTers
We opened some interview questions up to our community of GISTfluencers (those that have three friends and more to our ) and they hit Aimee with some hard questions about the downtown arena, how you bounce back from trading a franchise player like Erik Karlsson and the Uber situation.
The Sens are one of only three teams in the NHL that don’t have an arena downtown and it’s been a serious point of contention for Sens fans. We’re happy to report some good news: the Sens are “committed and motivated to finding a solution to the downtown arena.” It’s a nuanced situation and there are a lot of factors at play, so it’s more of a five-year proposition.
In the meantime, Aimee says it’s her job to make the current arena experience the best thing possible for Sens fans AND to develop a team and brand personality that deserve a downtown arena. Aimee doesn’t think the Sens are quite there yet.
Uber Fiasco & Trading Karlsson
For Aimee, she explained that she has to focus on what she can control. Both trading Karlsson (which happened before Aimee started) and the Uber fiasco (click to see), were out of her control. However, she did say (and we totally agree) that the Uber thing was blown out of proportion. At the end of the day, it was a group of hockey players in a car talking about hockey. It’s great to see them engaged and talking about hockey. And yes, they smack-talked their coach, but to Aimee’s point, haven’t we all sh!t-talked our bosses at one time or another? Of course we have.
How to Engage New Fans
Instead of focusing on the stuff she can’t control or doing reconn, she’s focusing on the fans. The Sens have seen over 12% annual growth in seat sales for their casual fans, showing that she’s doing something right. She is determined to find a way to have people opt to go to a Sens game instead of going out to dinner, to a bar
Aimee and her team are also focusing on how they can engage all types of fans, including women and those new to Canada as well as younger fans. Her team is reevaluating how they leverage socials like Instagram and Snapchat and are looking into communicating with younger fans through messenger and SMS. For these new(er) fan groups, they’re finding ways for non-hockey players to grow into huge fans. As Aimee put it:
“I’ve never played a game of hockey in my entire life but I am a HUGE fan. We’re really trying to create that fandom and that tribe around hockey, which includes all types of fans.”
The Fun Stuff
To finish, we did a set of rapid fire questions with Aimee where she only had 10 seconds to answer each question. Here we go:
Ottawa O, classic “centurion” or something new?
Something new (potentially foreshadowing something to come, Sens fans!)
We know that you run a charity that improves access to essential vet care for pets of economically disadvantaged owners…and that the Sens are also training Rookie the guide dog... so this might be a hard hitting question: Cats or dogs?
You used to work in baseball… so do you think the Blue Jays will make the playoffs this year?
Yes (wishful thinking that we appreciate, but editor’s note: this is v unlikely)
Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes?
Shania Twain or Alessia Cara?
Do you think Ottawa will ever get a CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) team?
Who wins the Stanley Cup this year?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Aimee had nothing but great things to say, not only about the Tampa team, but also the organization. She gave kudos to the entire team and even admitted she’s got a career crush.
So Sens fans, as much as things might be bleak right now, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There are some fresh faces (including Aimee’s) that are committed to challenging the status quo and getting the organization back on its feet. Yes, there’s going to be a rebuild, but as the saying goes, patience grasshopper.
For those of you that aren’t Sens fans but are looking to get more into the sports or hockey industry, we think Aimee is a great inspiration. She’s taking something a lot of people would find a disadvantage - little experience in the sports world - and turning it into a massive positive. She’s embraced how being a true fan of the game actually helps her fully understand fans and provide the fans with what they’re looking for. That perspective in this “old man’s club” sports world is incredibly refreshing.