Q&A with The Guardian’s CCO David Pemsel

Former ITV marketing director David Pemsel took the reins as the Guardian News and Media’s chief commercial officer in September this year as the company looked to consolidate its commercial and marketing leadership.

Since joining, Pemsel has been tasked with steadying the ship following a series of top executive departures and is in the process of implementing a new trading model for advertisers to buy packages across its print and digital assets and the ability to partner with the paper for content deals, without having to talk to a series of account managers.

Marketing Week asked Pemsel about the challenges that still lie ahead for the newspaper as it undergoes its digital transformation.

David Pemsel
The Guardian’s chief commercial officer David Pemsel.

Marketing Week (MW): What has the much-lauded Three Little Pigs brand marketing campaign the Guardian launched last year done for the brand?

David Pemsel (DP): The Gold Award the ad won at Cannes clearly shows the benefits of our work, especially for the industry to still be debating about the campaign at the event months after it actually launched. It created brand awareness and showed the power of our open journalism concept. This is the reality of this powerful brand and the really powerful brand story behind it.

We did a piece of research when the campaign just launched on the impact of the ad on Twitter. Simply put, in the first 48-hours there was a tremendous amount of people talking about it. We also tracked sentiment and associations with being “innovative”, “digital” and “relevant” all went up following the ad.

In the UK bounce rates on our site reduced after Three Little Pigs, as people got more familiar with what we were talking about with this strategy. There was also the obvious spike in audience traffic.

MW: Will you do a follow up campaign?

DP: We will look at doing shorter investments for people to come and spend time with the brand rather than telling the whole story again. We’ll look at using creative content that conveys what we do, like our recent Open Weekend [where the newspaper invited readers to its offices to hear from its journalists and offer feedback].


MW: How do you retain brand loyalty at a time when readers can so quickly switch between news outlets online?

DP: If you say you’re a digital first brand you can’t just get into the traditional programme of subscriptions and loyalty [add-ons]. Our audience has a high level of expectations and they want really interesting ideas.

I am constantly looking at our average revenue per customer and thinking about ways of getting our audience closer to our content.

MW: Could brands offer you those interesting ideas?

DP: We are interested in working with brands and creating a more partner-led strategy.

We are talking about how we can create open solutions using our archive and digital understanding to provide brands with great stickiness for their consumers.

We can offer our journalistic understanding and expertise in travel or fashion or tech or food and so on, but we’re not just about slapping a logo on it.

Most marketers create deep understanding around their commerce but they need content to curate around their interface, which is where we might be able to step in. Our brand partnerships team is focused on creating bespoke content around brand stories.

MW: How do you communicate your new trading model to brands and agencies who may be used to an old way of working with newspapers to buy ads?

DP: It is a challenge: do you keep everything in a silo and lock down or do you put yourself out there based on your values and principles and reframe the conversation? We know this is early days but we need to be different and put relevance front and centre rather than using bulks to prop up our ABCs – we should have a different conversation.

Will we change the entire marketplace? The challenge is hard, especially as some media agencies are quite siloed because it suits them. But we can still serve their needs and carry on with the platform strategy as well.


MW: The narrative about the Guardian in the business press tends to always focus on financial losses. How do you change this coverage about your business around to focus on the positives?

DP: In terms of losses we have ownership structure that allows us to innovate in this way. The Scott Trust allows us to invest in the long term and gives us the opportunity to transform.

Without a doubt there’s pressures on budget and ROI and auditing and procurement across the industry. Anyone who does not recognise that is very naive to think it’s still business as usual.

But you still have to be inspiring and create ideas to boost engagement with audiences. You can’t stop investing or you’ll just lose market share.

MW: What do you think of the current events besetting the scandal-laden BBC? Does it have a negative affect on your brand and your rivals in terms of trust in the media?

DP: Every single day there’s an issue with trust and organisational structures within other companies. The Guardian is increasingly credited with being independent because we’re not influenced by an individual. We are ruthlessly independent and we have a balance between being professional and having a purpose.

The consumer is increasingly looking to who they can trust and structure becomes the aim of the game.

With the BBC, no-one wants to to see an organisation going through what it is right now.

The BBC is the most extraordinary company with what it does and its products. It is world defining in quality and the way it collects money and its size but it obviously has management problems.

These things can always happen. We are a news organisation and we know once trust goes it goes. Marketing isn’t the answer [to the BBC’s problem]. Tim Davie’s [and now Tony Hall’s] biggest challenge will be to [implement] a structure.

We’ve prided ourselves on autonomy; we don’t want to be stifled and have to be very focused on the quality of our journalism. The BBC has to be careful post the Hutton inquiry where policy and process can become rife.

The only reason the Guardian is where it is today is because of its independence and ruthlessly holding people and companies to account. We need to get that right because to take that independence away would only contribute to the brand’s erosion.



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