MPA Faces Leadership Vacuum

Time Inc. isn’t the only entity facing a leadership dilemma following the recent dismissal of its CEO, Jack Griffin. The Association of Magazine Media (MPA), the industry’s leading trade association, has also been left without a leader.

When Time Inc. showed Griffin the door last month, it created a sticky little problem for the MPA. Griffin was no longer running a magazine company, so he had to give up his MPA chairmanship. Now, the association is trying to replace him. But the disruption within the industry that makes finding someone to lead the MPA all the more urgent is also complicating what would normally be a fairly routine process.

Traditionally, the chairman would come from the organization’s top layer of leadership. But with several of the major magazine companies playing musical executives in the past few years, most of those in the MPA leadership are relatively new to their day jobs, and thus aren’t jumping to take on the extra responsibility of leading the association, insiders familiar with MPA politics told Adweek.

In a more routine transition process, the chairman is succeeded by the vice chairman. But that person, Active Interest Media’s Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III, has agreed to take on the role only on an interim basis. As a result, MPA president and CEO Nina Link is said to have considered widening the search to the rest of the 24-member board. Link wouldn’t comment on the search process, but one insider said, “Nina is tearing her hair out.”

The MPA—and the industry it represents—could use a win right now. The industry has been deeply hurt by the recession and rise of digital media. Magazines’ Web sites, while growing, haven’t necessarily helped the matter: They haven’t become significant sources of ad revenue, but have helped to reinforce consumers’ belief that they shouldn’t have to pay for Web content. Publishers rushed out digital editions for the iPad last year, in the hope that the new tablet could become a big new revenue source for them, but that hasn’t materialized.

“As it faces the future, it will be important for the MPA to identify the industry legacies that are still valuable [and] shed the ones that are not, while establishing a new and expanded role for the medium,” said Larry Burstein, an MPA board member and publisher of New York magazine.  

That’s where the MPA chair comes in, by setting priorities and advocating for change. They can’t tell members what to do, but a strong chair can push publishers to get on board with new initiatives, and shape the way the industry’s perceived. But its past heads have come from companies that are tied to the legacy print model, which is perhaps part of the problem.

The MPA has been criticized by members as well as advertising execs for clinging to its print legacy and not pushing the industry to adopt new advertising metrics. Robin Steinberg, evp, director of publishing activation, MediaVest, said the MPA needs to play a role in creating new approaches to cross-platform planning and buying, speeding up magazine production times, and creating new forms of measurement, including ones for tablets. “We have the technology to move all this forward,” Steinberg said.

Last summer, the MPA brought in some new blood in Andrew Jung and Christopher Kevorkian as marketing and digital chiefs, respectively, and announced a new name, logo and tagline, but outsiders haven’t heard much about concrete change. The MPA said the board plans to appoint a new chairman when it meets April 12. But whoever it is may have the unwanted distinction of having taken the job no one else wanted.