Lessons From Laura Lang’s (Brief) Tenure Atop Time Inc.

Revenue declines, layoffs and low morale

The spinoff of Time Inc. means the end of the brutish and short tenure of CEO Laura Lang, whose 15-month run will likely be picked over in the days ahead.

When Lang was hired away from Digitas for the post a little over a year ago, her selection was aimed at bringing digital credibility to a publishing company with prestige titles (Time, Fortune) but steeped in the low-growth print business. Sure, there was some skepticism about her lack of publishing background, but insiders, weary from the even shorter (five-month) tenure of her predecessor Jack Griffin and the prolonged search for his successor, seemed more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

But the goodwill didn’t last. She had a few accomplishments: Under her watch, the company rolled out some new digital products, hired a new head of video and brought in respected Dow Jones alum Todd Larsen to run the news and sports titles. 

Meanwhile, a key position of corporate consumer marketing head has remained open and Time Inc.’s publishing revenue has continued to decline, dipping 6 percent in the third quarter of 2012. Also, Lang’s low profile in the building didn’t inspire confidence with insiders yearning for plans and vision, and perhaps most important, it seems, with Time Warner boss Jeff Bewkes, who is said to have put Time Inc. up for sale without her knowledge. Low morale sank further, then turned to anger, when Lang laid off 6 percent of Time Inc.’s global workforce, or 480 people, and froze pay raises (although execs weren't denied their performance bonuses).

Lang's short tenure may be seen as a sign that hiring a CEO with zero publishing experience to run the No. 1 U.S. publishing company was a bad idea to start with. Others will conclude that Time Inc., with its insularity and entrenched leadership, is pretty much ungovernable by anyone. After all, Time Inc. rejected its last CEO, Griffin, the publishing exec from the well-run if unsexy Meredith (also, ironically, Time Warner’s would-be publishing partner), after just five months. Whether that’s the case will be a question for the next generation of leadership, as yet undetermined, to answer.

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