Time Out Digital’s CEO on driving growth at disruptive brands

The story of my CV: Christine Petersen started her career at Amex, but has spent the past 20 years working at high-growth digital firms like TripAdvisor, where she helped build the little-known brand into a $1bn business.

These days, not many marketers start their careers the way Christine Petersen did – going straight from an MBA degree to a role managing a £60m revenue stream for American Express. It was a baptism of fire that Petersen, now CEO of Time Out Digital, is grateful for, but which she sees as unrealistic for graduates in 2017.

“An MBA was great when I did it, when it didn’t cost an arm and a leg,” she says. “I don’t know if the pay-off is there today, particularly going into marketing.”

Indeed, the annual fees alone at her alma mater, Columbia Business School in New York, would today set you back more than $71,000 (over £55,000), which would be hard to square with the average marketing salary. However, at Amex’s US headquarters in the 1990s, the MBA was a common route into marketing, and rotating around various business units gave Petersen a grounding in the discipline that has served her well in subsequent roles.

One of those was at Preview Travel – one of the first online travel agents, later bought by Travelocity – where Amex’s database marketing prowess informed her understanding of nascent search and email marketing techniques. It was here that she also settled on travel and hospitality as her sector of choice, despite twice being “lured by the siren call” of financial services.

Petersen’s key achievement to date came with her recruitment in 2004 to a little-known Boston company with just a few dozen employees – TripAdvisor. Over nine years, she not only built the now-famous brand but started the marketing and product functions, leaving behind a company turning over around $1bn a year.

READ MORE: How disruptors can become global brands

TripAdvisor also afforded her a second opportunity to work in London, two decades after an earlier stint there for Amex. The city had transformed itself in the interim, she says, particularly in two areas: the pace of work and multiculturalism.

“The first time I was there, there was a noticeable difference between the pace and environment [of London and New York]. Our New York office was full of MBAs, really analytical, and London had a lot of people straight out of undergraduate education.”

London’s burgeoning digital scene had changed the dynamic by the time Petersen returned, while the profile of the average employee had also changed dramatically.

“When I worked in the UK for TripAdvisor, my direct reports were Welsh, French, Spanish, Israeli and American, and I used to joke ‘…and they all walked into a bar’. The difference between managing them was night and day.”

Although she only planned on working in non-executive director roles after TripAdvisor, she was convinced last year to become CEO of Time Out Digital, the division that contains the brand’s online, print and ecommerce operations. As well as the persuasiveness of group CEO Julio Bruno, it was “the opportunity” that swayed her, seeing numerous potential “no-brainer” changes that could boost the brand’s global growth, including new translated publications and a focus on driving bookings. That is the agenda she is now driving forward.

In at the deep end

American Express, various roles (1989-1993)

I was an intern at Amex during my MBA and they offered me a job full-time. Typically they hired a bunch of MBAs a year and there was a lot of movement, so you could see how different divisions operated and work on different products.

I started cross-selling and moved into small business and travel, managing all the card benefits. Then I moved into a marketing role in London managing card retention, which was eye-opening because the competitive situation in the UK was very different from the US. It was great not only learning a new culture and new ways of working, but even new lingo.

The big difference between being there in the 1990s and 20 years later with TripAdvisor was how multicultural London had become. London also has a tech centre and the pace of work has got faster.

Each of the roles I had at Amex was a mini general management role – one of my first was managing a £60m annual revenue stream. It was a great place to learn what a brand was and what it stood for.

Lured by financial services

Fidelity Investments, marketing director (1993-1996)

Fidelity was starting a new marketing effort. It was traditionally product-focused and trying to be more customer-focused, hiring marketers around segments. I was responsible for marketing to two segments – they organised people by life stage and assets. I did that for two and a half years.

What I learned was not to forget that I loved being in a company that had an aspect of travel and hospitality, but I had been lured by the siren call of financial services. It was a phenomenal opportunity at the time – we weren’t quite at the point of online trading but we were taking trades over the phone. Fidelity and discount brokerages were on the up-and-up, and it was fun to be part of an industry on an upswing.

I was then recruited to go back to Amex. They were starting a new division going direct to consumers with financial service products. Our group led cross-marketing to the customer base.

A brand on a growth curve

Charles Schwab, vice-president of product management and brand marketing (1997-1999)

I was engaged and my fiance had an opportunity in California, and I was recruited to Schwab to do product marketing and brand management. I had two roles in a brief time. It was on a huge growth curve, introducing online trading, and it went through a phenomenal hiring spree.

Witnessing the dotcom boom and bust

Travelocity, vice-president of marketing

I got back to my first love, travel and hospitality, when I was recruited to a company called Preview Travel, one of the first online travel agents. We were then acquired by Travelocity. I stepped in to run customer marketing and database marketing. It was an opportunity to use the skills I had gained, particularly from Amex – analytics, segmentation, response modelling and the guts of direct marketing.

I was there for the dotcom boom and the bust. Companies were starting every day and I would get four or five recruiter phone calls a day. Looking for people was difficult, almost to the point where I remember joking with someone that if they could chew gum and walk I’d take them. The late 90s and early 2000s were a unique time. I can remember when the crash happened because I watched Travelocity’s stock dropping. I also remember the streets were clogged with orange U-haul removal vans leaving the city.

Building a new brand

TripAdvisor, CMO (2004-2010)

I had moved to Washington, DC, had a baby and renovated a house, and then TripAdvisor called. It was a little company in Boston looking for someone to run marketing. Until Time Out, it was the highlight of my professional career. I joined when there were 20-something people and no marketing or product functions so I started both. It was the early days of Google, and search rankings drove a lot of success, but as CMO I was able to build the brand, and articulate and define what it meant.

We didn’t have a lot of funds for brand marketing. If I took every penny of profit and ploughed it back into TV I still couldn’t spend what my competitors did, so we did some unique things. We did PR, lists and awards. We distributed our content with airlines, destination marketing organisations and hotels, which was an effective way to build the brand. We came out with the dirtiest hotels in the world awards. The pick-up was phenomenal.

READ MORE: TripAdvisor’s CMO on its transformation into a booking site

Looking for new growth opportunities

Time Out Digital, CEO (2016-present)

Time Out magazine covers

I thought I would just be doing angel investing, advisory and board roles when Time Out Group CEO Julio Bruno called me in autumn 2015. I joined the board and ultimately came on as CEO of the digital side of the business [which also incorporates the print magazine and ecommerce]. When we were founded almost 50 years ago, Tony Elliott was trying to inspire and enable people to make the most of the city and that’s what we’re still doing today, but in a very different way.

We’re in 108 cities and 39 countries, but I like to say ‘not really’. We don’t have a press product in every city, for example, and that’s something we’re looking to change. We’re looking to add languages – London in French, Miami in Spanish. We’re focusing on content that we know can drive commerce. Ninety-five per cent of people who interact with Time Out content do something, but they don’t do it with us – we don’t enable that booking.

Christine Petersen’s CV

2016-present – CEO, Time Out Digital

2010-2013 – President, TripAdvisor for Business

2004-2010 – Chief marketing officer, TripAdvisor

1999-2002 – Vice-president of marketing, Preview Travel (part of Travelocity)

1997-1999 – Vice-president of product management and brand marketing, Charles Schwab

1996-1997 – Vice-president of financial services product marketing, American Express

1993-1996 – Marketing director, Fidelity Investments

1989-1993 – Various marketing roles, American Express

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