‘You have specialist swim lanes’: Publishers struggle to woo and keep platform tech talent

Anyone who has made the jump from a legacy media business to a tech company like Facebook, Apple, Amazon or Google will have experienced a culture shock. But in many ways, transitioning the opposite way is tougher.

Publishers often presume any senior candidate applying for roles from any of the big four platforms will be the star player they’ve lacked who will help move the needle on their digital business, according to head hunters. But the reality is very different, and many media owners have had their fingers burned after lengthy hiring processes that don’t work out.

“Publishers should not be influenced by the brand but focus on what these people have delivered,” said Adam Hillier, practice lead for marketing and digital at executive search firm Wickland-Westcott. “They need to be mindful of how the tech companies are set up: People are often put in niche silos and roles that don’t make sense to the external market.”

Publisher executives in roles that appear similar in seniority to counterparts at platforms tend to have a far wider remit and range of responsibilities and are expected to make strategic decisions as well as oversee delivery and execution. Whereas at platforms, very talented people are hired but then tend to be assigned a specific lane, from which they’re not expected to deviate, added Hillier. People with strategic roles at platforms won’t be expected to be involved in the execution, for instance, he said.  Plus, in local markets, individuals working at platforms don’t have the same level of autonomy to make decisions as they would in a country-specific publisher.

“There is a massive problem with the way Silicon Valley trains people,” said a media executive who has spent time at platforms and legacy media businesses. “They’re very good at industrializing the industry, but it does mean people have very limited skill sets. You don’t get a lot of generalists or general managers, which means, culturally, they find it hard in other organizations where you’re expected to be across more things. You’re given a swim lane, so you’re brilliant at one stroke, but you can’t do another stroke.”

Several former Google executives said that they struggled to adapt to new companies when they left, partly because staff is given an abundance of resource and less responsibility than at traditional media owners. Internal culture at places like Google and Facebook is to treat staff like royalty, according to former staff at both companies. The consequence is that people can confuse their own individual success with that of the company’s, which is largely a result of product quality, according to head hunters.

“We were told we were amazing, the best,” said one former Google executive. “We were treated like Kings and Queens. But there are so many of you, and you are given so much resource to do a very singular job. And you just do it. You have all these brilliant people who aren’t being challenged. But they still believe they’re good, but when they leave, it’s a shock.”

That shock is partly because battle-weary traditional publishers are accustomed to fighting tooth and nail for every scrap of commercial revenue they can because Google and Facebook [and increasingly Amazon] swallow the majority of the display ad business. Teetering on the brink of such tight margins requires sharp commercial acumen, lateral, strategic and creative leadership, according to head hunters. In contrast, former Google staffers have said they have never known any commercial head at the tech platform to worry about revenue targets. “The money just flowed in.” But that can breed its own frustration for talented individuals who want to maximize their potential, said the same executives.

Another byproduct can be that individuals often haven’t had the leadership experience expected to take on a senior role externally. At times, mismatches can be detected at the interview stage, but on other occasions, publishers have been left frustrated after months pursuing an individual from one of the top platforms, finds it too difficult to adjust to the wider remit expected and have been let go as a result.

That’s not to say there aren’t examples of senior platform executives who have flourished after making the jump to traditional media owners. Hamish Nicklin, who spent 10 years at Google before becoming managing director at AOL before joining Guardian News and Media as CRO in 2016. The Telegraph CEO Nick Hugh also made the jump from Yahoo in 2016 and has since been implementing a major digital transition strategy at the publisher. As did former Yahoo vet James Wildman, who successfully transitioned to news publisher Reach and then to Hearst in 2018 as U.K. CEO.

It’s not at all levels. At more junior levels, for instance, Google is lauded as an excellent training ground, offering young staffers the flexibility to move into other areas of the company, or work in overseas offices, according to a Google executive.

“It’s beginning to even out. The likes of Nick Hugh, James Wildman and Hamish Nicklin have all decided to spread their leadership wings and be able to execute without having to pass it through several layers [of red tape],” said Kathleen Saxton, CEO of executive search firm The Lighthouse company.

It’s more an issue for the middle-management layer at platforms: those around the £150,000 ($200,000) salary mark, said Saxton. They will often be a sector or industry lead, but they can be hard for head hunters to talent spot because they drop out of sight to the external market. “They’re not well-known in the industry, as they’re in a swim lane and they wonder why they’re not getting called for the big CMO or MD roles. They’re a hidden set of people,” added Saxton. “It can also be difficult to understand what their actual day-to-day is. I’ve asked senior executives before, if they didn’t turn up for a month to work, what would happen? They have said not much as there are so many people to fill their place. The same couldn’t be said for a senior commercial executive at a publisher.”

Being at a company that has great perks, good stock options and salaries and is a cutting-edge digital brand is a winning combination and a no-brainer for many people. But some believe that these environments don’t foster the right leadership skills needed for the market.

“These companies are amazing but some of the structuring on the equity means we’re not necessarily breeding dynamic leaders,” added Saxton. “It is the individuals that are the losers. They either no longer realize there is a very colorful world outside the walls of these businesses or they believe the hype and confuse personal ability with corporate success.”

Facebook declined to comment for the article, and Google didn’t respond to a request for comment.


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