The Guardian has seen some significant changes to its leadership team of late, not least the changing of the guard at the top with David Pemsel’s less than eloquent departure as chief executive officer (CEO), to be succeeded by Annette Thomas in March.
However, with all the fuss around The Guardian breaking even for the first time in living memory, as well as the tabloid front page-making story of Pemsel’s decision not to take on the role of leading the Premier League, there is perhaps one member of that leadership team has arguably been forgotten… until he himself is set to make a move elsewhere, perhaps surprisingly.
Hamish Nicklin has served as the chief revenue officer (CRO) for the publisher since his move in 2016 from AOL and has been instrumental alongside Pemsel and editor-in-chief Kath Viner of driving the sea of change that has improved the financial performance of the publisher which just years before was burning through millions of pounds. He is set to join Dentsu Aegis UK and Ireland to lead the media side of the business as executive director, reporting to Euan Jarvie, its CEO and Peter Huijboom, global CEO of Dentsu Media and Global Clients.
Nicklin is an ever-friendly figure, usually smiling and always positive about what lies ahead of him, even in the greatest of challenges. He described the role at The Guardian as “his dream job” which makes it perhaps all the more surprising that he has chosen to move on within four years, although he later explains that his urge to join a media agency is to be a part of the creativity and “buzz” that they can generate when everything is “put together correctly.”
Of his time at The Guardian, he is clearly proud of the achievements he has played a leading role within.
“The whole goal of what I was trying to do for those four years as CRO was to help the rest of The Guardian reach that goal with breaking even. So we were burning through almost a hundred million quid’s worth of cash in 2015/16. And the goal was to help The Guardian break even and to become sustainable. We reached that last year and when that happens, and you’re working so hard to focus on that one thing and then it’s over, you take a breath and you go; 'Right, that was amazing. That was brilliant. A lot of fun.' Lots of challenge, you know, and the options are to go again with The Guardian, which was definitely one option to carry forward to the future.”
However, Nicklin, who has previously worked at Google as well as Morgan Stanley, was considering agency life, one sector of marketing he has never yet worked within when the phone rang one day presenting an opportunity.
“It's something that I've always been interested in… and one day I got a call and thought ‘well it looks like the universe has spoken. Let's just follow this and see what happens and where it takes me.' And that's where we ended up.”
Looking back on the achievement of leading The Guardian to break even, Nicklin admits “it wasn’t easy” but he does believe there was an appreciation externally around that.
“We [The Guardian] have still got huge opportunities ahead of us because of what we started with the transformation of the business, but also with the development of the reader revenues, which was something quite unique and transformational.”
Nicklin has yet to agree his start date with his new employers, and so is still in working with the publisher for the foreseeable future, and had a major say in another development in recent days; The Guardian’s decision to no longer accept advertising spend from fossil fuel companies, which ties closely back to its environmental ethos.
“The reality is, it's something that we've been talking about for a while,” he explains. “When you consider our editorial stance on the climate crisis, the fact that last year we changed the way that we talk about the climate meant a heavier emphasis on what we really believe is happening and the fact that it is a crisis; we've run whole investigations into fossil fuel companies and some of the practices that they have been undergoing.”
He reveals that the decision was made following the Christmas break to impose the ban. “We just saw how the debate had changed in the public and knowing that with the way that our editorial coverage changed on the subject, Anna [Bateson, interim CEO] and I got together and decided that this really does feel the right thing to do. So, we talked to Katherine and the editorial teams who were fully supportive of it and said that this is the right thing to do for our brand. Given what I just said about our purpose and our values, it just seems to align entirely with that. I'm really proud of the decision that we made.”
He refuses to talk numbers when asked about the real impact the self-imposed ad ban will have on the revenue, but he is adamant that there will be a cost but that he is confident having monitored the reaction from readers that the shortfall will be made up by them in support.
“In the long term, it's the right thing to do both for us, the world and our readers. I don't know whether it's going to make an impact on us, but we make it a different decision. We didn't do it because of the money, we did it because it’s the right thing to do.
Since the announcement, The Drum has heard that other major media titles are also considering a similar tact which Nicklin hopes will see transpire.
“We are in a climate crisis and some of the ways that those fossil fuel extraction companies specifically have been using advertising to promote their green credentials while at the same time spending billions on extracting fossil fuels and potentially denying climate change, all things which our journalists have reported on... It does seem to actually, is this the right thing to do given the climate crisis is undeniable? And I do genuinely hope ours follow suit, whether they feel that they want to take such a public stance is entirely of course up to them. But I hope they do.”
Nicklin is also coy about the involvement on incoming chief executive Annette Thomas, although he does admit she was involved in ‘conversations’ but that this decision was taken because “it was the right thing to do.”
Finally, on his new role and why he is excited to join Dentsu, he explains the acquisitions of different businesses within the media division, which includes Carat, Amplifi, and IProspect, he believes offers “a really powerful story to talk to clients about.”
He continues to outline the vision: “Part of the leadership team’s job is to “ensure that we can make that collaboration happen and bring all those different businesses together to clients to solve their problems. So that's one part of it and obviously the other part is being responsible for the media line of business… and making sure that they can grow and adapt to the new changes that are going on in the media space.”
As with any change in role, it would appear Nicklin has chosen to move on while at the top but he is also clearly someone who wants to experience as many different challenges as he can through out his career, and so another one awaits within Dentsu.