Our friends in the North (of London)

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 was treated shabbily by the network in the summer of 2010 when, following the arrival of Adam Crozier as the company’s new chief executive, he was effectively edged out of his group marketing director role by Peter Fincham.)

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 – he was recently appointed chief commercial officer of Guardian News & Media in the wake of Adam Freeman’s surprise decision to pursue other career opportunities. He’s told us how privileged he feels (“this is one of the best commercial jobs in media right now”) to be sitting where he’s currently sitting.

And that might have been that… had he not offered us a tour of the offices. Usually we politely decline this sort of invitation. We’ve actually seen offices before, even vast open-plan ones with seas of people staring intently at computer screens.

But he’s 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’re 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 seems a terribly good idea. As it happens, it turns out to be curiously fascinating.

The Guardian building’s interior décor evokes all sorts of things – a rather well-appointed metropolitan university, a library, a design museum, complete with rather chi-chi, soft-furnished break-out 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 just the sharpest person in the building.

So, in short, we inevitably find ourselves questioning whether he’s quite as much at home here as he was insisting earlier down in Room 101. (The tour is unsettling in other ways too. We start to realise that the only thing he’s determined not to show us is his office itself; and we begin idly to wonder what hideous monstrosity he can be hiding from us. Or are they still scrubbing a patch of dried blood out of his carpet?)

By common consent, the Guardian’s ad revenue problems have, in recent years, been two-fold. Firstly, its day-to-day relationships with important 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 a high flier, the most naturally gifted account man of his generation – and by now he’d surely have become one of the captains of our industry if his first real venture into management, at Boymeetsgirl, hadn’t gone into spectacular meltdown back 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 assertive and focused. We need to be clearer about the value we can provide [to advertisers].”

And, yes, it’s true that the group’s digital revenues have been growing – but actually, that’s largely down to the success of its £32-a-month lonely hearts website, Soulmates. Meanwhile, we remind him, the company continues to lose money.

He’s rather accomplished, of course, at swatting aside these sorts of petty quibbles. And it’s true that he comes to his 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 agency and the creation of the Three Little Pigs campaign that ran earlier this year. He became chief marketing officer back in June.

Now, having taken all of the company’s marketing and ad sales functions under his control, the company’s whole future is effectively in his hands. And he must have been given some scary targets – for instance, it is believed that Andrew Miller, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, hopes that digital revenues, currently around £45 million, can be more than doubled to £100 million within four years. Surely that sort of figure is just not achievable?

Happily, however, Pemsel is able to offer 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.”

An edited version of this article appeared in Campaign magazine. With all due permissions.

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