Nick Chan: the dream job, strategic differences (and Rebel Wilson?)

For Nick Chan, the CEO role at magazine publisher Bauer Media was his dream job, and the one that almost got away. Yet little more than a year later, Chan has exited the business with the company’s NZ CEO taking on the role. Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward examines what changed in the Bauer-Chan relationship.

Sometimes getting what you always wanted isn’t worthwhile. The reality versus the dream are two different things and your glamorous visions of what that dream will entail end up dashed in the dirt. For Nick Chan, this is his reality as news broke today of his sudden departure from Bauer Media, the dream job he’d longed for.It was always going to be an uphill battle for Chan to restore Bauer Media to its former ACP glory days – but the circumstances have never favoured him.

Chan started his publishing career at Kerry Packer’s ACP Magazines, which was acquired by Bauer Media in 2012, and was considered a protege of ACP’s former publisher, Richard Walsh.

It has often been speculated that Chan wanted to succeed Walsh in the top position at ACP; however, a sudden departure in December 2000, after rising to become the company’s chief operating officer and then deputy publisher, squashed that dream.

Chan, after two years as CEO of Text Media, resurfaced at Bauer Media rival Pacific Magazines where he spent the next 10 years as its CEO.

For Chan, the top job at Bauer always seemed like unfinished business.

From the botched communications around the closure of Cleo in the months preceding his appointment, to the departure of high-profile editor in chief of the Australian Women’s Weekly Helen McCabe, Bauer was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

And one year on, Bauer is once more in the headlines, and again, it’s all for the wrong reasons.

Just six days ago Rebel Wilson won her defamation case against the German-owned publisher.

But while the market has speculated on the connection between Chan’s departure today and Rebel’s win in court, it has been fundamentally denied by both Bauer and Chan. It is at best a poor case of timing for Bauer.

Chan has stated the two had “differences in strategic priorities for the business”, with industry speculation previously suggesting Chan had desires to acquire former employer Pacific Magazines – an acquisition the Bauer family were probably not interested in.

However, this isn’t the first time Chan has had strategic differences with his bosses – industry sources suggest Chan’s departure from Seven West Media, where he became COO after running the company’s publishing arm Pacific Magazines for 10 years, was under similar circumstances.

Chan’s job was to overhaul Bauer – transform it from a struggling traditional print publisher into a digital-first, innovative media company. His departure over differences in strategic priorities for the business and Bauer’s uninspired internal appointment of NZ CEO Paul Dykzeul to Chan’s role suggest the company doesn’t want to change and would rather continue operating the way it always has.

As I wrote early last year, Dykzeul was always the leading internal contender for the role. But while his business knowledge and understanding of the market are on his side, he doesn’t seem like the shake-up that Bauer – and indeed the wider market – needs.

But it is reflective of the Bauer family’s approach to the business – steady as she goes, don’t upset the ship – rather than a more drastic, innovative, blow-up-the-roadmap-to-publishing approach the company is in drastic need of.

Before we get onto what Dykzeul needs to do, we should pause and reflect on what Chan has achieved in his 14 months at the helm.

Here is his scorecard as it stands:

For Chan, it’s probably not the legacy he wanted to leave. The impact of his return on the publishing industry has been minimal and the future of Bauer is perhaps in greater doubt than it was 12 months ago, even if the Bauer family don’t realise it yet.

But he inherited a company that drifted under its previous leader David Goodchild. Many of Chan’s early months were taken up with rational, if disheartening, decisions around cutting failing titles to ensure the overall business was safe. Even if he had wanted to, it left him with little room – or time – to innovate the company out of the mess common to magazine publishers around the world.

For Dykzeul the challenge now is even greater – and two-fold.

There is the challenge of finding the appropriate costs to cut from the business, especially in light of Wilson’s win, and innovating and moving the company forward in order to compete. The second challenge Dykzeul faces is keeping the conservative Bauer family happy in order to hold onto the top job.

As an industry insider told me at the start of last year, Bauer’s understanding of the magazine industry is based on what it already knows, and are not necessarily directly applicable to the Australian market, where circulation is even more important to the business model than it is in Europe.

“They completely misjudged the trends in the magazine market. Because they had been in the magazine market for a long time, they were in different kinds of magazines. They simply didn’t know what was already happening in the magazine market when they shelled out for EMAP and ACP one after another.

“They underestimated what was going to happen in Australia and they didn’t even think how difficult it would be to manage a business through a tough time so far from home.”

And since Chan’s appointment, it hasn’t necessarily gotten any easier.

Agency ad spend for magazines (excluding digital) dropped 18.3% year-on-year, with each month this year posting double-digit year-on-year declines.

While it remains to be seen if Chan pulled the trigger on his departure or the Bauer family did, what it does mean is the future of Bauer does not look very positive.

Bauer Media’s new Australia and New Zealand CEO Paul Dykzeul

What the industry can most likely expect from Bauer is more sales or closures of niche magazines; Hearst closely examining how its joint-venture with Bauer to produce local editions of mags such as Elle, Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar is faring; and more of the same bland digital mashup products such as its To Love network. Hardly innovating, exciting stuff.

As I wrote a year ago, Chan had the job he’d coveted for so long. It was his chance to turn Bauer Media Australia into a true multimedia company with a viable future.

While the mantle has been passed to Dykzeul, the real challenge it seems is to convince the Bauer family of what’s needed before they decide to give up on the Australian market and hunt for a buyer for the struggling company. If Dykzeul cannot do that, the rotating CEO door will continue to spin and the future of Bauer will remain in doubt, causing problems for the wider magazine industry.

ACP was once the pinnacle of publishing jobs for any ambitious Australian magazine executive. If things do not go well for Dykzeul, that will never be the case again.


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