‘Revenue will fall away quite quickly’: Hearst UK CEO James Wildman on navigating crisis

On Monday, Hearst UK CEO James Wildman would typically address the 1,000-person strong company from the stage at the Odeon theatre in London’s Leicester Square, several doors from the magazine company’s UK HQ. Instead, Wildman will take questions from staff and advertisers through Vimeo since the far-reaching coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies to implement working-from-home policies.

“Hopefully, it will help people feel less isolated and more connected, we need that human touch,” he said. “But I don’t really know yet how it will work.”

As well as the importance of employee well-being, operating a media business during a time when ad campaigns are paused, travel is grounded and events are on hiatus are universal pressures. We spoke with Wildman at the end of a tumultuous week about managing through a crisis. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

As a leader of a media company, explain what your priorities have been?
We quickly prioritized working from home Thursday [March 16] after a two-day rehearsal. Two years ago that would have been more of a stretch but we’ve been working to modernize and implement agile working.

The question very quickly becomes communication. You have to make sure everyone feels supported without nannying people. I now send a daily update to the company, which is a monster. It includes the government’s latest advice and practical advice about home working. It showcases our own content, how to work in a balanced way, advice for parents at home with kids, arts and crafts, how to stay fit. I also recruited a immunologist in Milan, who answers all staff questions about the coronavirus. We’re trying to provide practical support where we can.

And what about on the business side?
It’s clear for all businesses that this is a horrendous situation. Revenue will fall away quite quickly. We’re less exposed to the ad market than a lot of other media companies, but it’s a shit show and it’s happened very quickly. Those frontline travel and retail brands have been very quick to cancel. Although print and TV are far more exposed than magazines. There isn’t a sector that isn’t impacted. Supply isn’t a problem, it’s where the demand is.

How are you speaking with advertisers who have paused campaigns?
We have big initiatives around luxury and travel that are impacted and we have a responsibility to support our long-term partners as best we can. That can take a myriad of different forms, but we’re looking at all levers to support them.

We positioned our business as a beacon of positivity in a negative media industry; this was before coronavirus. We are putting proactive offers out, we’re building programmatic packages around the very positive content that we’re producing as an antidote to coronavirus, that’s going well.

Some categories are stepping up, not enough to compensate those falling away, but sectors like home delivery and home interest are now very important for us. In this first couple of weeks, agencies are working with clients to defer campaigns and manage cost. Sadly advertising is deemed as discretionary, and ad budgets reflect consumer confidence.

At the moment, we’re managing it daily on a situational basis. I don’t want to be complacent but we part of a diversified global corporation with a strong balance sheet, privately held and cash positive. We can weather a storm. Then it’s how long might this go on for, we’ll have to start thinking more long term and less day-to-day.

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But you’re already having to re-forecast?
We’re constantly looking at the profit and loss statement and re-forecasting, but no one has the answer on how deep the cuts to ad spend will be. We just lurched through Brexit. General Data Protection Regulation was the year before. We need to budget for a crisis every year, it seems.

How is this time period different from GDPR and Brexit or other crises?
The anxiety levels are much greater. It’s impacting people, peoples’ psyche and confidence in ways the financial crisis did not. The uncertainty and universality of it. But the economic impact will be greater than GDPR or even Brexit.

Businesses can either cut costs or find new ways of driving revenue, where are you on that trajectory?
For a lot of businesses, the majority of cost is people. We don’t want to lose people. We’re managing expenses as best we can on the assumption revenues are going to be vastly impacted. We aren’t traveling, the cost of entertaining and other costs with selling are curtailed, we aren’t going out doing video shoots. We’re looking at everything.

They call it the “Blitz spirit,” the way people are collaborating and coming together. But the way people have been working this week is not sustainable, it feels very fraught: People are working harder, that contact takes up a lot of time. People are working longer hours, it is crisis management, it feels like war footing and everyone is stepping up. But a semblance of normality will return and there will be significant bounceback.

How will you as the CEO help manage that?
I’m suggesting to the company that we respect lunchtimes and essentially close down between 12.30 p.m. and 2.00 p.m. to ensure people go and eat, feed their kids or go for a walk. It’s easy to not move from your laptop. This week is extraordinary, we’ve had to do so much planning and communication and overcompensation. We all have to get much better at our time.

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