Time Inc. Picks Another Outsider

Digitas CEO Laura Lang takes role with scant publishing experience

Time Warner has ended its nine-month search for a CEO for Time Inc., tapping Laura Lang, the CEO of agency Digitas, for the job, The Wall Street Journal reported, and the company confirmed, on Wednesday. She is slated to start in January.

Lang will be only the second CEO at Time Inc. to come from outside a company that can be less than truly accepting of outsiders. The first, Jack Griffin, was ousted in February after less than six months on the job, after Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes said Griffin’s management style clashed with the company.

At a time when Time Inc., like all magazine publishers, is dealing with an unsettled print market, Lang's lack of experience in the company's core business is bound to raise some eyebrows. She joined Digitas in 1999, becoming CEO of the Publicis shop in 2008.

In its third quarter, Time Warner reported that publishing revenues declined 1 percent to $889 million, reflecting lower subscription and ad revenues. Its cash cow, People, saw newsstand sales tumble 10.5 percent in the first half of the year. Time Inc. is still the No. 1 U.S. magazine publishing company, but it's had its dominance threatened by Hearst Corp.’s purchase of Lagardère, including U.S.-based Hachette Filipacchi Media.

"Half the problem Jack Griffin had was, he had ideas and was trying to push them through in a relatively aggressive pace," one company observer said doubtfully. "Now they're going to put someone in that mix with less [publishing] DNA."

A CEO with digital roots could be necessary to Time Inc. as it figures out its digital future though. The company has been trying to expand its marketing services offerings, and she would bring a client perspective to the table, having worked in strategic planning and product management for companies including Pfizer and Quaker Oats.

Lang could have been attractive to Time Warner for another reason. She played a key role in Digitas’ IPO, according to the company’s website. That experience could come into play if Time Warner spins off Time Inc., as many have speculated it plans to do. Bewkes "wanted someone who was a sitting CEO," said an observer who's familiar with the company's thinking.

As a woman, Lang will also restore some diversity to the top ranks at Time Warner. Ann Moore, Time Inc.’s first female CEO, retired in 2010.

But given her lack of publishing chops, there would be questions raised about Lang's attitude toward the editorial side of the business. Time Inc. has a strong editorial culture—one of its most powerful executives is editor-in-chief John Huey, who's one of the three men who have been running the company on an interim basis since Griffin was fired.

Perhaps anticipating that concern, Bewkes, in his email to the staff announcing Lang's appointment, wrote that in addition to her broad business and marketing background, she "has a deep respect for content and the creative process."

Observers also noted that Digitas is known as a pioneer in advancing audience-based buying, which also is accused of commoditizing (and driving down the ad rates of) content. Time Inc.’s business is predicated on the opposite strategy. Its pitch is that its content is premium and as such should command premium prices.

“Digitas has a reputation for pioneering for audience-based, data-based buying,” said Vivek Shah, Ziff Davis CEO and a former Time Inc. digital executive. “At the same time, they’re known for doing very high-impact, brand-driven campaigns for their clients too.”

In a recent interview with Adweek, Lang talked about the need to think about marketing more broadly as advertisers need to figure out how to become an active part of people’s lives. Marketing has to provide a service or value and create a connection with consumers.

Publishers, she said, are also “creators and curators of brilliant content.”

Time Warner is believed to have searched far and wide for its new CEO. Names of various prospective outside candidates had been bandied about, from ex-Viacom CEO Tom Freston to Google exec (and Time Inc. alum) Eileen Naughton. Heidrick & Struggles was hired to lead the search.

That extended process has given the triumvirate all the more time to settle into its role running the company—Huey has even joked about how smoothly the place is running without a CEO—leaving open the question of how accepting it will be of another change in leadership.