‘A very unusual challenge’: Few obvious candidates to run the new Conde Nast

Condé Nast’s hunt for a new CEO may be like searching for a unicorn.

On Nov. 27, Steve and Jonathan Newhouse sent a memo to Condé Nast staffers announcing that Bob Sauerberg would be stepping down as CEO of the company. Parent company Advance Publications plans to merge Condé Nast and Condé Nast International into a single entity, and a search is underway to find a new CEO to run the new business.

Though the timing of the Newhouses’ memo caught some staffers off guard, sources inside the companies said its contents were expected and welcome.

“Signals have been coming that this was going to happen for some time,” one former executive said. “If you wait much longer, you’re into 2019.”

But finding the right person may be difficult. Condé’s next CEO will face a daunting to-do list, from cobbling together a new global operation to implementing a five-year plan created by Sauerberg — or scrapping that entirely in favor of an all-new plan. The ideal candidate would have experience developing video operations as well as consumer revenue, all while navigating the legacy publisher’s notoriously difficult web of political alliances.

In conversations with two veteran former Condé Nast executives, several media operators were proposed to replace Sauerberg. Greg Coleman, an executive in residence at Lerer Hippeau Ventures who previously served as president of BuzzFeed, was held up as an option, thanks to his experience with digital video and developing a global sales operation.

Janine McGrath Shelffo, who joined Advance Publications as its chief strategy and development officer last year, came up as another. Shelffo helped develop the acquisition strategy for Condé Nast Entertainment while she was still at the investment bank UBS, and she has the trust of the Newhouse family, one executive said. (A source inside Condé called her a “long shot,” given her broader purview across Advance Publications)

The one person three sources independently identified as the most natural fit for the job has already taken himself out of the running.  

“I will not move to New York and will not apply for the global CEO role. I am happy with what I am doing here and thankful for the opportunity to support our global growth and the future global CEO from here in London,” Condé Nast International president Wolfgang Blau tweeted Tuesday morning.

“It’s a very unusual challenge,” said Peter Kreisky, a media strategist and CEO of New Portal Media. “Whoever it is, has to be a digital native who has great care and respect for the legacy but experience with making those tough decisions for transformation.”

Opinions differ on whether the new CEO should come from the media world. Kreisky pointed to the struggles that Time Inc. had integrating chief executives from other industries; a former Condé executive said Advance Publications, Condé Nast’s parent company, is probably interested in a fresh perspective that might help the company transition more quickly.

That new person must also feel comfortable staying a previously charted course. Back in August, Sauerberg laid out a board-approved five-year plan to turn the legacy magazine company around. The plan, which involved leaning on video, services for advertisers and consumer revenue, was designed to reduce print advertising, which currently accounts for 70 percent of revenues, down to 50 percent. Condé Nast will stick to the basics of that plan, which Sauerberg formulated using input from McKinsey & Co., a former executive said

While some industry observers speculated that the predetermined plan might be off-putting to certain candidates, others saw flexibility.

“If you’re going to go out and look for a single CEO, you are clearly signaling that this person will have a lot of freedom,” said Raju Narisetti, director of the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in economics and business journalism at the Columbia Journalism School. “I don’t imagine there’ll be a shortage of great candidates.”


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