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Laura Lang Focuses on What Matters

The Time Inc. CEO is firm and fearless…qualities she’ll need in her new job
  • February 27 2012

Bob Lord was in a state of agitation. The global CEO of Razorfish had just come out of a stressful meeting at Publicis Groupe’s headquarters in Paris with Laura Lang, who at the time was global CEO of Digitas. With oversight of Publicis’s interactive unit VivaKi—which includes Razorfish, Denuo, Phonevalley and Big Fuel—the two worked closely together.

“I remember being so aggravated in the elevator,” he says. But when they stepped outside the building, they were confronted by a spectacular sight: the iconic Arc de Triomphe. Lang said, “Okay, just stop. Look where we are. This is the most beautiful city in the world. Let’s just take in the view.”

“It sort of made me think, ‘How important was that meeting, and why am I so aggravated about this? I know the right answer’s going to prevail anyhow,’” Lord recalls. So they had a glass of French wine and solved the problem at hand. “It was Laura’s instinct of enjoying life in the moment in a very stressful business context that I miss dearly,” adds Lord.

In January, Lang stepped into a new role, as CEO of Time Inc., one of the largest media companies in the world. Many of its titles are legendary, including Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated and Fortune. All told, the Time Warner division accounts for 20 percent of total ad revenues of U.S. consumer magazines, according to the company.

Lang’s appointment surprised many. She had never worked for a publishing company, and she’s only the second CEO of Time Inc. to come from outside its ranks.

Lang faces not only a steep learning curve but also the challenge of transforming Time Inc.—which like all publishing companies—is under pressure to evolve. Jeff Bewkes, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Inc. believes she’s up to the challenge. “I’m thrilled that we were able to bring on Laura Lang,” he says. “Laura’s leadership experience and her knowledge of the intersection of marketing, brands and digital make her the perfect executive to lead during this time of innovation in publishing.”

Joanne Zaiac, president of Digitas’s New York region who worked with Lang for more than 12 years, explains there are two facets of  Lang’s personality that helped make her career such a success. On the one hand, “she comes across as having a sympathetic, kind manner,” says Zaiac. But, “she’s sharp, she’s focused and she’s firm.”

Those qualities were put to the test in 2006, when Lang was diagnosed with breast cancer and took on that horrific fight. (At the time, she was head of Digitas’s U.S. operations).

Lang says her struggle with cancer changed her in ways that took some time to understand, and which speak to that moment with Lord in Paris and how she’s leading Time Inc. now. Within two years of remission, she was promoted to global CEO of Digitas. “That’s a very big platform, a high-pressure job. And she stepped into that job very gracefully and with confidence,” says Zaiac.

Lang adds, “I definitely focus much more on what matters. A lot of things that would have bothered me before and distracted me don’t matter as much. And I’ve become fearless.”


The Challenge at Time

Fearlessness will come in handy as Lang tries to transform Time Inc.

“The biggest challenge I face is matching the pace of how people are changing their   [media] consumption behavior with how we continue to produce these great titles and great brands and make the transformation in a timely way,” Lang says.

While she’s too new to the job to share specific initiatives, she’s “excited about understanding how people are going to be consuming media [in the future].” And she’s eager to see “how a company and an industry that produce great entertainment and storytelling and journalism transform and make the same connections that they made when it really was just the printed word.”

The art of reinvention is something that Lang has honed. Zaiac notes that she played a big part in transforming Digitas into a global agency. “She was instrumental in focusing us and scaling us,” ratcheting up the creative and the quality of her team along the way.

“As a leader within [Publicis], a very large holding company, she shouldered a lot of core business challenges. She has an instinct for figuring out what needs to be communicated to a team to motivate them, and what doesn’t need to be communicated to the team––and to manage up as well as manage down,” says Razorfish’s Lord, who has taken on Lang’s former responsibilities overseeing VivaKi.

Lang says that one of the accomplishments she’s most proud of is building a high-performing team. Under her watch as global CEO, Digitas achieved several “firsts,” including its first mobile partnership with Google; the first all-digital, touchscreen vending machine; and the first social commerce platform for an airline’s Facebook presence. Digitas’s Super Bowl campaign for Chevrolet in 2011 also achieved the highest one-day click volume in YouTube history and broke paid-search records two days in a row.

Building the camaraderie and inventiveness that will lead to such successes may be harder at Time Inc. “It’s a very difficult position. She replaced a very prominent man in the industry who just didn’t work,” notes Liz Schroeder, executive director of Advertising Women of New York, referring to Jack Griffin, who left about a year ago from Time, reportedly after clashing with the corporate culture. Lang seems unfazed by internal politics—in fact she says she’s been delighted at the level of passion that the staff has communicated.

“I started my career in brand management,” says Lang, referring to gigs at Pfizer Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Quaker Oats Company. “I was taught that the first thing you do when managing a really good brand is make sure that the product is really good. No amount of marketing, over time, is going to be successful if you don’t have a great product. That will build strong relationships, and that will be something that appeals to marketers.”

She believes there’s one primary way to get the members of her team on the same page: a clear and simple focus. “We’re going to have to lay a few bets on how we’re going to make the transition. And it’s my experience that organizations rally around that.”