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Pemsel spearheads Guardian's digital journey

The newspaper publisher's chief commercial officer is tasked with selling its digital success to advertisers.

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It doesn't take us long to put our list of studiously predictable questions to David Pemsel. We've failed miserably, for instance, in our attempt to get him to rubbish ITV. (He left the network in the summer of 2010 when, after the arrival of Adam Crozier as the company's new chief executive, his group marketing role was effectively displaced by Peter Fincham, who combined marketing with his director of programming role.)

But we've established that he's far more of a Guardian person than an ITV person and that he is relishing the task of bringing a new focus to the company's revenue-generating efforts - Pemsel was recently appointed the chief commercial officer of Guardian News & Media in the wake of Adam Freeman's surprise decision to pursue other career opportunities. He has told us how privileged he feels ("this is one of the best commercial jobs in media right now").

Pemsel has chosen to host our meeting in The Guardian's on-site version of Room 101, a claustrophobic pod hardly bigger than a superloo, with no natural light and rather too much of the unnatural, headache-inducing variety. You can't help feeling this is probably the cubicle the human resources people use when they are inviting staffers to consider voluntary redundancy packages.

Carelessly, between us, we've already used up just about all of the available air and, suddenly, a tour of the office seems a good idea.

The Guardian building's interior decor evokes all sorts of things - a well-appointed metropolitan university, a library, a design museum, complete with rather chichi soft-furnished breakout zones in challenging colour schemes. All of which serve to underline the notion that the institution may be a lot of things, but the one thing it's not is a temple to commerce.

That notion, at some point, must give a chief commercial officer pause for thought. And it's fascinating to observe the extent to which he stands out from the Guardian crowd. True, he's sporting the mandatory stubble. It's just that, as stubble goes, he's more Jose Mourinho than Johnny Vegas. He's cleanly dressed, suited, his shoes are shined. By a million miles, he's the sharpest person in the building.

Dressing with determination will no doubt help his keynote presentation that he's currently touring round London's big media agencies - and he says the reception he has been receiving is encouraging. "It's time to talk about the numbers and the success we've had since deciding to embrace digital in 1995," he explains. "We've gone from a newspaper that was once the ninth-biggest in the country to one that is now the biggest in the UK and third-largest in the world."

And he maintains that observers are just far too gloomy about the general prognosis. "In our most recent results, digital revenues were up by 16 per cent. This more than compensates for the reduction we've seen in print revenues," he states. "Many companies are going through what we're going through. That doesn't mean we have to be inward-looking."

By common consent, The Guardian's ad revenue problems have, in recent years, been twofold. First, its day-to-day relationships with key buying points have become (we're being generous here) vexed.

Pemsel will almost certainly fix that immediately. In his early career in advertising, he was feted (most notably at St Luke's) as the most naturally gifted account man of his generation - and, by now, he would surely have become one of the captains of our industry if his next venture into management, at the former creative agency Boy Meets Girl S&J, hadn't gone into spectacular meltdown in 2004.

The second problem is more philosophical and intractable. The Guardian, famously, commands a dwindling print audience and a growing digital one. It wants the latter to generate the same premium ad rates as were historically commanded by the former. Agencies have tended to argue that this is just not in advertisers' interests.

Pemsel, however, counters that said agencies are on the verge of coming round. "We have a compelling story to tell," he insists. "We need to be more focused. We need to be clearer about the value we can provide to advertisers."

It's true that the group's digital revenues have been growing - but some observe that it's largely down to the success of its £32-a-month dating website, Soulmates. Meanwhile, we remind him, the company continues to lose money.

He's rather accomplished, of course, at swatting aside these petty quibbles. And it's true that he comes to this new role with his eyes open. His relationship with The Guardian actually began in September 2011, when he was drafted in as a consultant on the process leading to the appointment of Bartle Bogle Hegarty as its creative agency and the creation of the "three little pigs" campaign this year. He became the chief marketing officer back in June.

Now, having taken all of the marketing and ad sales functions under his control, the company's future is effectively in his hands. And he must have been given some scary targets - for instance, it is believed that Andrew Miller, the chief executive of Guardian Media Group, hopes digital revenues, currently around £45 million, can reach £100 million within four years.

Happily, however, Pemsel offers us one last reassurance on this point. "Of course the targets are achievable," he says. "I would not have signed up if this had looked like one long journey of hardship."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 44
Lives: Stockwell, London
Family: Married to Kate Stanners; son, Otto (aged nine)
Interests outside work: Cycling, Chelsea Football Club
Last book read: Thinking, Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Desert-island luxury: Anything Apple
Must-have music: Music that can make me cycle faster
Motto: While everyone complicates, just keep it simple

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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