How David Pemsel turned things around at The Guardian

The Guardian News & Media chief commercial officer tells Gemma Charles how he increased revenues at The Guardian by clarifying its brand and simplifying the consumer journey.

The challenge

I was introduced to Andrew Miller and Alan Rusbridger [Guardian Media Group chief executive and Guardian News & Media editor-in-chief, respectively] and had a tentative conversation about the role of marketing and brand after the coverage of the phone-hacking scandal.

For a year, The Guardian had been working through one of the biggest stories in its history, and one that had huge ramifications for the media. At the time, the company was thinking how it could benefit and the global implications from that, and how the organisation could follow the same trajectory as a story of that scale.

Following on from that meeting, they asked me to work for a year in the role of chief marketing officer, taking the "open journalism" strategy – bringing the reader into the editorial experience – and translating it into a consumer proposition that would be understood.

The Guardian was credited with having an incredible brand, but I don’t think our agencies or clients were able to truly articulate why the newspaper was important to them from a commercial point of view. We have this amazing brand, but people have predetermined judgements of what it is – thinking it’s niche or small.

The Guardian prides itself on delivering fantastic journalism, but the marketing strategy and subsequent commercial strategy were lagging behind in terms of sophistication and, dare I say, conviction.

The plan

We did a huge amount of work over 12 months. We took open journalism into the marketing strategy, which led to the "Three Little Pigs" campaign (by Bartle Bogle Hegarty). This breaks down and paints a picture of the benefits of open journalism. Also, we articulated it for our target audience, which we defined as progressive. We looked strategically at what the consumer journey was going to be if we were not going to have paywalls and were going to be open. It’s great reaching millions of people across the globe, but the monetisation of that needs to be given thought.

The final part was to have a very simple consumer journey, which we described as "grow deep and retain". Within the organisation, we have an operating structure that says we want to grow our reach, but the trade-off for doing so is that we also need to grow engagement. Some of the metrics and KPIs that existed didn’t give enough scrutiny to the "deepen" component. By that, I mean dwell time and numbers of page views. The last component here was data. We put in a very detailed CRM strategy and demonstrated to the rest of the organisation why data was important.

My role as chief marketing officer was to put that consumer journey in place and get people to truly understand it.

The action

Following changes made by Andrew, I was offered the chief commercial officer post, and from 1 October 2012 took over all the commercial operations as well.

The biggest challenge I had was between October and Christmas last year. I personally contacted chief executives of media agencies to tell them that The Guardian had a very compelling story, and asked them to put as many people as they could in one room so we could come and tell them what the paper was about and how confident we were feeling. We saw every top-10 media agency – maybe 2000 people in 10 weeks. I told them they could park the narrative about The Guardian going out of business and that we didn’t know our audience or have a digital strategy.

We pieced together all the work we did in the first year, combined it with a forensic look at our audience and really brought to life "progressives", their broad nature and why they should be valued. As I was talking through this, you could tell that it was "new news" to them.

We are also pioneering selling audiences, not platforms. Rather than agencies having to spend huge amounts of time trying to buy across all our different platforms and having a number of conversations, we have created a sophisticated tool and made it easier for media agencies to buy audience packages, whatever the platform. There were some presentations to agencies where someone would sit with their arms crossed, saying "this is all going to be integrated", but other agencies have fully embraced it and will buy across different platforms.

The results

Since those presentations, we have had some fantastic feedback. In a short space of time, we have started to see our revenues turn: the top-line figure stands at £206.8m, and the earnings before tax from that is £54.5m – up from £45.9m the previous year. This, given the structural changes and the decline in our print circulation, is a fantastic result. Profit is now at £22m, versus a loss of £19m last year.

When our ABC drops below 200,000 but we are up 15% on unique browsers, that’s the number we care about.

This is a company where print is still incredibly important. When the ABC figure comes out and it has dropped below 200,000, we look at that – no one wants anything to be going down – but we also look at our digital revenues going up 29% to £55m. When our ABC drops below 200,000 but we are up 15% on unique browsers, that’s the number we care about.

Our partnerships with EE and Discover America contribute a lot to our digital success. Guardian Witness is about Steven Day and Spencer McHugh, the main clients at EE, looking to get people with 4G capability to spend more time using photographs and video. Based on that brief, we created the Guardian Witness platform and ask our community to submit photos and video content to supplement and support our editorial coverage.

We also encourage our global readers to upload content from different areas of the US to support the different priorities that Discover America has given us.

We now have teams for insight, marketing, consumer revenues, display and brand partnerships; previously, we were slightly muddled in terms of structure.

On the marketing side, we have also got cleverer about getting through our price rises. At the time of the last one, we did a huge amount of research about what innovations we might include. Rather than reducing our print product, we introduced a new section, Cook, and ran the "We own the weekend" campaign. We went through that period and managed to keep our audience relatively stable.

We are two years into our five-year plan and we are ahead, but you never stop selling. As soon as I leave a room after making a presentation, someone from Google will go in and make one. You’ve just got to keep battling away.

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