An interview with Ellen Desmarais WG’02, Executive Director of Strategy at Dow Jones & Co.
The Wall Street Journal is read by people who run the country, goes the adage, which may be true. What is certainly true is that the Journal is run by people who have figured out how to remain profitable in print, while earning new profits online. One of those people is Ellen Desmarais, WG’02, who personifies the paper’s can-do attitude and thrives on the never-ending challenges presented to her. Ellen shares her perspective on advertising in newspaper publishing today, and the role Wharton has played in her career.
Are you surprised at how many alumni work in the publishing/media sector?
I think it’s timely that you’re focusing on this sector in your magazine. Even though we think of it as a nontraditional career for Wharton, there has been a significant increase, both in those coming out of Wharton to choose this field, and those entering Wharton who have worked in the field. We just had the Media Trek in here last November, and 75% of the students who came had prior media experience. That wasn’t the case at all in 2002! (Note: The Media Trek is organized by the Wharton School’s Media and Entertainment Club — with the support of the Career Services Office. It sets up opportunities for MBA students to come to New York City and visit different companies, through alumni.)
So how did you get from Wharton to The Wall Street Journal?
I sought out Wharton with an idea to make a career change from consumer finance to the publishing/media space. While at school, I had an intern experience at AOL, post-merger with Time Warner, which made it quite interesting. Graduating in 2002, well, we were the class that applied to Wharton during the dot-com boom and graduated after it had busted, so it was tough. Fortunately, I got my job through campus recruiting at McGraw-Hill, in its post-MBA rotation program, and then spent another 18 months at its school education group as Director of Strategy and Planning. As I discovered that selling school textbooks was a business-to-government model, I realized that I wanted to get involved in the business-to-consumer side of publishing.
So, I have had a few lucky strikes in my career, and one of them was that, just as I began looking for a new opportunity, I was contacted by Dow Jones, through LinkedIn. I’m a good testimonial of why people should have profiles on LinkedIn. They were hiring for a Director of Strategy in the Consumer Media Group, and so they contacted me to see if I was interested. It wasn’t even the official recruiter; it was the hiring manager herself. They were having a hard time finding someone, so she decided to go and find someone herself.
That’s a great story. Then, what was your first job at Dow Jones?
So I started with Dow Jones in January 2006, as Director of Strategy for the consumer media division, which involved The Wall Street Journal as our flagship brand, but also MarketWatch.com, All Things Digital and Barron’s magazine. I was responsible for doing strategy projects across these brands — for example, analyzing free/paid content models. Then, in 2008, I became Director of Dow Jones Ventures where I helped to launch a new careers website, FINS.com. In June 2009, I took on a P&L role as General Manager of Vertical Markets for The Wall Street Journal. In February of this year, I became Executive Director of Strategy for Dow Jones at the corporate level.
Can you share your observations about being owned by News Corp.?
I was at Dow Jones two years pre- and, now, three years post-News Corp., and being a stand-alone public company is different from being a division of a larger one. During this era of significant downsizing in the industry, we’ve been blessed to have an owner who still really believes in newspapers and news products. We’ve invested in our print products over the past two years in a way that nobody else has been able to, including the Greater New York section and WSJ Magazine, as well as aggressively moving forward with new digital products, such as our iPad applications.
The Wall Street Journal has an extraordinary brand franchise at this point – what other channels does The Wall Street Journal publish through?
We have placed our content on as many platforms as consumers want to access it by. A user can interact with our content through the newspaper, the monthly WSJ. and Smart Money magazines, WSJ.com, mobile, tablets, conferences, radio, podcasts, and out-of-home. Through all of that we estimate that over 40 million people globally interact with The Wall Street Journal on a monthly basis. Some will use only one platform – for example, we have some users who only read us on WSJ.com – and others are power users, reading the paper on their morning commute, using online and mobile throughout the day to keep on top of breaking news, and then reading the magazines on weekends.
What career advice can you give to students or alumni interested in publishing?
Look for internships or even unpaid consulting projects, particularly if you are a career switcher, because the media industry is more difficult to penetrate when you don’t have relevant experience.
I felt that having an internship at AOL on my resume counted for a lot, when I was looking for my job coming out of Wharton. When I interview people, if they don’t have that prior work experience, then I look for them to be a passionate consumer of media. People who go into the media industry do so because they love it. We’re the graduates who opted not to go into finance. So even if you don’t have that professional experience, talk about it from a consumer aspect — understand what works and what doesn’t work, and what are the trends occurring in the industry.
Lastly, students tend to get fixated on the digital side, because that’s where the growth is happening; however, they should not lose sight of the core business. Our newspaper revenues still exceed the revenues on the digital side. So we look for people who not only understand where media is going, but also have a healthy appreciation for the core part of the business.
Why is The Wall Street Journal successful both in print and online? Is content king, or is it your strong focus on categories like real estate, fashion, editorials?
Like you say, content is king. As technology and publishing businesses integrate, the Journal has done extremely well, because we have a reputation for very high-quality content that readers believe they can trust. We tell you not only what happened, but the impact of what’s happening as well. Not just the facts but also the analysis. That’s been the Journal’s stance for a very long time. As we bring our coverage into the lifestyle arenas, we don’t abandon that approach.
Look, the Internet is only 15 years old; two years ago we were not talking about Twitter and iPads. Looking ahead, who knows what’s next? That’s what makes this industry so exciting. There are multiple access points for people to reach their news, so it is an interesting challenge — how can we continue to engage and develop our new readership populations?
How do these changes affect your ability to innovate and grow your business?
It’s important to understand what our advertisers and readers want and need, because both groups are our customers. As an example, let’s look at the category of “careers.”
A few years ago, there was a significant shift in the careers space, where readers transitioned to reading careers content and looked for jobs online. As readers moved online, so did our advertisers. This meant that our competitors for recruitment ads shifted from companies like The New York Times to companies like Monster.com or Hotjobs.com and we had to think how we could effectively compete in this market. Our response was to launch FINS.com.
We knew that the Journal already had great career-oriented content; we just needed a better home for it, and we needed to make that content even more useful. So we broke the traditional career model by combining industry-specific job boards with high quality content, industry news and relevant career advice that keeps readers coming back. FINS.com has its own editorial team to write the news content, which is divided into finance, technology, and sales and marketing, because we noticed that the content on other career websites was too generic. For example, how you write a good resume differs whether you are applying for an I-banking job vs. a sales and marketing job. The feedback we received has been convincingly positive. Advertisers tell us that, because we do have a more niche focus, they are getting higher-quality applicants.
What do you enjoy about your work?
I like change. I get bored easily, so I love working in this industry that’s constantly changing! And it is crossfunctional. In both the GM and strategy roles, I engage daily with groups across the business. I talk a lot with editorial about our content, with the sales team about revenue opportunities, with legal regarding contracts, with marketing about reaching our customers, and with technology and operations about making sure our ideas are feasible. It’s all about developing a successful franchise-wide, multi-platform push to grow the business. Most of all, I enjoy the intellectual challenge – because the media landscape is changing so rapidly, no one has it all figured out. But as The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones, we’re expected to lead.