Time Out: Lang To Step Down As Time Warner Preps Magazine Unit Spinoff

Laura LangFor the past decade, it had become a matter of when, not if.

Time Warner, the entertainment conglomerate that took the first part of its name from the publishing empire that grew in the early 20th century, is spinning off its magazine division into a separate, publicly-traded entity. As a result, Laura Lang, the interactive ad veteran who was brought in a little over a year ago to run and accelerate the cross-platform qualities of the Time Inc. unit, will leave the company. Read the release.

Lang told Time Warner CEO and chairman Jeff Bewkes that she will stay on for an unspecified transitional period after a successor has been chosen. “Laura indicated to me that we should find a different kind of CEO for this new public company, and I respect her decision,” Bewkes said in a statement. “She has been a great partner who has given Time Inc. forward momentum to make this transition possible, and I look forward to working with her to select the right leader to head the company as an independent entity.”

Over the past few weeks, rumors surfaced that Time Warner was considering handing off portions of the Time Inc. entertainment and lifestyle titles People, InStyle and Real Simple to Meredith Corp., the publisher of women’s magazines including Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens. Meredith is also known for its early development of integrated marketing programs to make up for industrywide print circulation and direct ad sales declines. But those talks were said to be have been stalled, according to NY Post media reporter Keith Kelly. (Meredith later confirmed that it was having talks with Time Warner over the future of Time Inc. in a short statement. Read it here. Meredith’s doesn’t say whether the talks are ongoing or concluded.)

Lang, who was a fixture at conferences throughout her years leading Publicis’ Digitas, has kept a fairly low profile since accepting the Time Inc. CEO seat in late 2011. Her stint followed the chaotic and brief tenure of former Meredith Corp. executive Jack Griffin, who was fired by Bewkes after nine months as Time Inc.’s CEO amid a revolt by the magazine division’s upper management over clashes about internal culture and sweeping personnel changes.

Although she had no experience on the sell side of the business, Lang’s 20-year career path on the marketing side was considered a plus, especially given the turmoil of the print industry. Before signing on with Digitas in 1999, Lang was president of the Marketing Corporation of America, and led the consulting practice at Yankelovich Clancy Shulman. She also worked in strategic planning for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, as well as product management at Bristol Myers and the Quaker Oats Company.

There were a number of things about her personally and professionally that made her a solid choice after the Griffin period. Aside from her background, Lang was widely considered to be someone who exudes warmth and politesse — personal qualities that are deeply ingrained with Time Warner’s “no screamers, no drama” attitude.

When Lang was tapped, she was vetted at a lunch of roughly a dozen Time Inc. execs and she clicked with them fairly instantly, sources have said to me over time.

But the big question always remained for the past 12 months: to what degreee could Lang effectively change Time Inc.’s direction? There was no stomach for the kind of overhaul that Griffin attempted to initiate. And it was only a few months ago that Lang handed down a series of deep cost cutting measures — including the laying off of 480 employees, 6% of Time Inc.’s 8,000-member staff — across most of its business units. Those cuts were more about bean counting than altering the balance between print, digital and integrated marketing.

No matter who is tapped to replace Lang, they will continue to face the same immense challenges that have plagued established print brands. But Time Inc. will have one additional challenge that rivals like Condé Nast and Hearst Corp. do not have to contend with.

This evening’s announcement makes clear that going forward, Time Inc. would be an independent, publicly-traded company. Its two main publishing rivals are private. Not having to report quarterly earnings to shareholders takes a good deal of heat off executives who try new things. Plus, they don’t have to justify costs and time of experimenting with projects that may not provide a quick return, something investors demand.  (Meredith Corp. is an exception as a public company, but is also a bit more diversified and not as large as Hearst and Condé Nast.)

That’s one reason why both Hearst and Condé Nast have been able to embrace programmatic media sales and digital subscriptions much more energetically and loudly than Time Inc. has appeared to.

Referring to the spinoff of AOL from Time Warner nearly four years ago, Bewkes said, “We expect the separation will create additional value for our stockholders.” He was, of course, referring to Time Warner investors, not AOL shareholders, who have had to demonstrate a good deal of patience as the company has finally begun showing signs of a possible turnaround. The chances of a turnaround for a legacy print company — even one that publishes 100 magazines worldwide, with more than 45 branded websites, and over 80 mobile products — would make the rehabilitation of a former dial-up service into a digital content and advertising provider seem like a fairly mundane task.

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