Murdoch wunderkind picks up the online pieces

Few had heard of Jeremy Philips, a 33-year-old News Corporation employee, until a week ago. Now, all the company’s eyes are on him after he was handed the keys to a $1bn (&£565.5m) online media by Rupert Murdoch. Philips, a former management consultant, has been promoted to executive vice-president, reporting directly to Murdoch, and becomes the youngest member of News Corp’s executive management committee.

Philips was vice-chairman of Ecorp, a now defunct Australian internet investment firm, and earlier worked in media and telecommunications at consultancy McKinsey & Company. He has also held several board positions in Australia, including chairman of eBay Australia & New Zealand, director of Ninemsn – a joint venture between Publishing & Broadcasting and Microsoft – and director of Ticketek, Australia’s leading ticketing business.

Charlie Dobres, chairman of digital management consultancy Generator and co-founder of I-level says: “Putting Philips in charge makes sense.” He says if Murdoch is serious about surviving the digital era, he needs a knowledgeable deputy who can focus on the internet alone, with the power to take on the supposedly conservative News Corp old guns. Dobres adds: “This is not just an interesting thing to do any more – it is critical. Murdoch is one of a few people in the world who can make a market. Others will have to alter their strategies in accordance with what Philips does.”

Murdoch told shareholders in October that News Corp was turning its attention to the internet. He will hope Philips brings credibility to the table. When News Corp went on an internet spending spree last year, detractors accused him of panic-buying; an “old” media dinosaur desperately trying to close the gap in a new media age.

Yet Andrew Pinkess, strategy director of digital media agency Rufus Leonard, says in order to succeed, the “dinosaurs” must give Philips a voice: “He needs to provide a counterweight to those supporting the traditional press.” He believes News Corp’s conservative culture could prove tough to break and that Philips must build a heavyweight team around him.

WPP Group chief executive Sir Martin Sorrell was among those who last year questioned Murdoch’s new strategy. He said that Murdoch had been buying “willy nilly” while others were quick to deride his choices. Murdoch’s last foray into the online arena in the late 1990s proved costly.

The company’s $1bn-worth of online acquisitions in the past year have included Propertyfind.com, a UK property website, video game site GameSpy, movie website Rotten Tomatoes and MySpace.com, a popular online community site for children and young adults. One US analyst is critical of the purchases: “Philips may wish that he had that first $1bn to spend over again,” he says, adding that his promotion may be a sign that Murdoch has realised that the money wasn’t well spent.

Meanwhile, Barry Parr, a Jupiter Research media analyst, suggests $1bn does not stretch far these days, in part because News Corp’s 2005 spending has raised the bar. He says Philips, who joined News Corp in July 2004, must make serving the online community the heart of his strategy. “The company knows how to serve the traditional audience online,” he says, pointing to the websites of The Sun and BSkyB. “But they need to know how to attract the online audience itself. Philips faces a lot of challenges.”

Catherine Turner

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