The Guardian is the latest old-line publisher to reach outside the business for a CEO

Publishers are increasingly looking outside of their own immediate publishing spheres for new chief executive hires, in the hopes of bringing in fresh thinking from a related industry.

This week the Guardian announced that neuroscientist and former academic publisher Annette Thomas would be its new CEO. In September U.K. newspaper group Reach appointed as its new chief Jim Mullen, the former boss of gambling firm Ladbrokes Coral. And in April Roger Lynch joined Condé Nast from Pandora, the music streaming service provider. And at the start of last year, USA Today’s owner Gannett had instructed its headhunting firm to search beyond the newspaper industry for CEO candidates.

The rationale behind for each publisher’s deliberations is unique, of course, but the changing (and challenging) nature of the publishing industry is a significant factor. Many of the skills required of a modern publishing executive — building consumer revenue, managing the sophisticated use of data and driving workplace cultural change — are not readily found among the tried-and-true candidates found within internal ranks or at competitors.

Thomas is a case in point. Many media observers seized on her scientific qualifications — her Harvard undergraduate degree in biochemistry and biophysics (achieved with honors) and Yale doctorate in cell biology and neuroscience. But her background in academic publishing might be her most important credential.

In 2007, Thomas became chief executive of Macmillan Publishers, a leading science and education publishing group; she oversaw Macmillan’s merger with Springer Science and Business Media. And after she spent 23 years helming Macmillan, she became CEO of higher education data business Web of Science Group. Thomas has been lauded for her overall strong leadership skills, after leading both Macmillan and Web of Science through mergers — and in the latter case, even a public listing. As one former colleague of Thomas said, “she’s terrific and [Guardian Media Group needs] a new leadership style.”

The Guardian’s critical membership business will rely on Thomas’ experience with growing the number of subscriptions and managing churn, observers said.

Thomas “will bring fresh thinking, but still, how do you persuade consumers to donate in order to drive meaningful subscription revenue?” asked independent media analyst Alex DeGroote. “The Guardian is at an inflection point. It’s had years of fairly fierce cost cutting; breaking even is not the same is growing. What strategy will she bring to the table?”

The appointment of Thomas represents a shift in the leadership at Guardian. She succeeds David Pemsel, who ascended to the CEO post in 2015 after working for the Guardian five years and also performing other media roles, including working at a broadcaster (ITV), a production shop (Shine) and an advertising agency (Ogilvy). Pemsel was responsible for steering the Guardian out of the red and into slim profitability through heavy cost cutting after two decades of financial lossesDuring Pemsel’s CEO tenure, the publisher diversified its revenue model so as to rely more on reader-derived revenue than advertising. Industry onlookers had pegged for the top job strong internal candidates like chief customer officer Anna Bateson, who leads the Guardian’s membership strategy.

“Annette Thomas is a strong appointment because of her substantial experience in global publishing, in all things digital, and in M&A, deals and fundraising,” said independent media consultant Colin Morrison. “Those strengths point toward what I believe is the Guardian’s future in using partnerships, joint ventures and strategic alliances to become a truly global and 100% digital news media group.”

While Jim Mullen’s CEO appointment at Reach raised some eyebrows, media observers say the former gambling firm boss has brought his knowledge of how to run a digitally sophisticated, consumer-facing marketing business with an understanding of how people behave. Indeed he is not a newcomer to publishing: From 2006 to 2010, Mullen worked at News UK as director of digital strategy.

And with Roger Lynch’s arrival last year at Condé Nast after serving as CEO of Pandora as well as an executive for streaming service provider Sling TV, he brought something quite different than conventional magazine publishing experience: expertise in managing large complex organizations, as well as key growth areas like subscriptions and over-the-top video.   

Nonetheless, even though Gannett instructed its headhunting firm to consider CEO candidates with digital or e-commerce backgrounds outside the newspaper industry as possible change agents for USA Today, in August Gannett ended up appointing Paul Bascobert, a former president of media and technology company XO Group.

But in the Guardian’s case, the hiring of an executive who has worked outside the consumer publishing business represents a careful balancing act — a move to grow the organization in new directions all without losing sight of its core values, according to Douglas McCabe, CEO at Enders Analysis. “The CEO of the Guardian needs to be someone who is highly sensitive to the culture of the organization, which has a more complex agenda than most commercial news businesses, but without drowning in it,” McCabe said. “Annette’s experience looks a perfect fit, balancing experience managing the complex culture of a comparable set of industry challenges with commercial nous, data analytics and expertise in planning for long-term, structural, industry change.”

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