David Pemsel: from the Guardian to the Premier League

The former ad man who helped turn around the newspaper’s fortunes has been appointed chief executive of football’s top-level league. 

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When it was announced in early October that Guardian chief executive David Pemsel was to become chief executive of the Premier League, the jokes came thick and fast. The tweeted response of Henry Mance of the Financial Times was typical: “YESSSSS. Premier League to go free to air and rely solely on viewer donations.”

The jokes made fun of the funding strategy Pemsel had pursued as CEO from 2015, which invites Guardian readers to become “members” of the paper or make financial donations, but refrains from erecting a paywall.

It’s an approach Pemsel will be remembered for happily. In May Guardian News and Media, which owns the Guardian and the Observer, announced that it had made £800,000 over the 2018/19 financial year – the organisation’s first operating profit since 1998 and only three years after it lost £57m in a year. The turnaround was attributed in part to the growing revenues from the more than a million readers who became members or donated money to the Guardian, which helped offset declining revenues from print advertising.

The other, less celebratory reason was cost cutting. Pemsel oversaw hundreds of job cuts, about 120 of which are thought to have been journalists leaving the paper under a voluntary redundancy scheme. He also scrapped expensive commitments, such as the lease on a huge events venue in King’s Cross, and shrunk the paper down from its previous “Berliner” format to tabloid size.

Industry insiders I spoke to say Pemsel’s successor faces challenges to ensure that making money becomes the norm rather than the exception at the Guardian. Yet there is no doubt that the organisation is financially stronger than it was when Pemsel joined.

The Guardian’s previous chief executive, Andrew Miller, transformed the paper’s stake in the car sales title Auto Trader into a hugely valuable asset that was sold for £619m in 2014. That enriched the Guardian Media Group’s investment pot and the idea of “sustainable losses” was soon regarded as a worthwhile goal for the Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian.

When Pemsel replaced Miller, there was some disquiet at the prospect of having an “ad man” in charge. After stints at the advertising agencies Oglivy & Mather and St Luke’s, Pemsel, who is 51, ran the marketing divisions at Shine, the TV production company founded by Elisabeth Murdoch (daughter of Rupert), and then at ITV.

He joined the Guardian as chief marketing officer in 2011 and then chief commercial officer, gaining a reputation as a reformer and hard worker. With stylish glasses and a well-trimmed beard, he looks every inch the digital ad executive; one that probably reads the Guardian. He was generally liked among the editorial staff, both for unscrambling the finances and for giving regular briefings about how that was being achieved.

“He is very focused and driven, and at times could be demanding,” says Aron Pilhofer, the Guardian’s former executive editor of digital who served as interim chief digital officer under Pemsel. “The paper had five years to live when he took over. So being focused, driven, demanding – we needed that. Although he came from the ad side, he never let that bias his thinking about long-term strategy. Doubling down on membership meant huge sacrifices for the ad team. Given the uncertainty we all had back then about whether membership would even work or not, choosing that path was not without risk.”

Pemsel’s success at the Guardian was achieved in partnership with the editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner. “He and Kath were a terrific team – and that is so important at an organisation like the Guardian where that hasn’t always been the case,” says Pilhofer.

 So what about Pemsel’s new role at the Premier League?

The organisation representing Britain’s top-flight football clubs spent a long time searching for a new chief executive – a role that primarily involves keeping club owners happy and negotiating television rights deals. Susanna Dinnage, an executive at US TV giant Discovery, was initially named as the successor to the former executive chairman, Richard Scudamore, who led the organisation for nearly two decades. But Dinnage then backed out and Tim Davie, head of BBC Studios, also turned down the role.

Pemsel’s media experience will help him contend with the club owners’ main concern – how to maximise revenues from TV rights both in the UK and in overseas territories. And he will face calls to ensure that football remains accessible to those who cannot afford expensive subscriptions. Other pressing issues include racism in the game and on the terraces, preventing the illegal streaming of live matches, the rising cost of match tickets, and the impact of Brexit.

Compared to working in the media, the money involved in top-flight football will bring a different set of problems for David Pemsel; Premier League clubs made £4.8bn in revenue in 2017/18.

Yet as the league adapts to the age of internet streaming, and with the sheer complexity of dealing with so many competing interests at a time of digital transformation, Pemsel will likely find a fair few parallels with his time at the Guardian.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

This article appears in the 09 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The fantasy of global Britain