IPC's Webster hits the ground running

After 17 years with the company, IPC Media chief executive Evelyn Webster has worked her way up to the top. John Reynolds reports on her future plans.

IPC Media chief executive Evelyn Webster
IPC Media chief executive Evelyn Webster

If Evelyn Webster thought her recent elevation to chief executive of IPC Media would instantly boost her status, she was soon in for a rude awakening.

Phoning a male board member one night with some pressing news, the newly appointed chief executive was stunned when the executive's wife enquired exactly "who is this Evelyn" phoning her husband late in the evening.

"I'm the new Sylvia," explained Webster, pacifying the executive's wife by referencing former chief executive Sylvia Auton - who remains IPC's chairman and executive vice-president of parent company Time Inc - while simultaneously taking a knock to her own self-esteem.

And Webster, the 39-year-old IPC lifer, is indeed the new Sylvia, having been appointed to one of the most prized roles in UK publishing, overseeing 80 magazine brands, including household names such as NME and Marie Claire, and confirming long-held rumours that she was a "shoo-in" for the role.

"I wouldn't say the job was mine," reflects Webster, who previously ran IPC's women's weekly division, IPC Connect. However, she admits that since she was such a strong contender for the role, she would have reconsidered her position with the company had she missed out on the job.

"It had nothing to do with me running the weekly division," she says. "I have worked at IPC for 17 years and have broad and deep experience. IPC has always looked to build the senior team within the business. It would have been disappointing had it needed to recruit from outside the company."

IPC has a history of no-nonsense, straight-talking female bosses - in the vein of Auton, who took over from Sly Bailey - and Webster believes she is cut from a similar cloth, describing herself as someone "who tells it as it is".

And while colleagues have nothing but praise for Webster, with former IPC colleague Mike Soutar, chief executive of ShortList Media, claiming he "has seldom met someone so driven", the tasks confronting Webster are daunting.

Print desertion
Most pressingly, readers are deserting the print copies of the men's and celebrity sectors - the areas where IPC has substantial investment and that house some of its flagship titles, including Nuts, Loaded and Now.

Loaded, for instance, is now thought to be selling about 68,000 copies on UK news-stands, compared to its halcyon days when it was selling more than 450,000 copies. And revenues from digital offshoots of the brands are unable to make up the shortfall for the time being.

Last year, IPC also lost its status as the number one magazine company in the country to Bauer Media, which now sells more magazines each month than its rival. Webster claims the mantle "makes little difference", but believes the forthcoming ABC results could report a different result.

Across the portfolio, critics believe IPC's men's division, Ignite, which houses titles such as NME, Loaded and Nuts, is in most need of repair work - a suggestion refuted by Webster. "We are not shutting down Loaded as it is a profitable title," she says. "The men's division is seeing substantial growth in the digital sphere - just look at some of our brand extensions, such as NME Radio and Nuts' online offering."

As befits a keen marathon runner, Webster has hit the ground running. She has instigated a pay freeze in 2009 for all staff who earn more than £30,000, as well as increasing holidays by two days - a move that follows IPC's recruitment freeze for the year.

Her strategy is simple. "I am not going to change the strategy from Sylvia just to make my mark. But we have to be flexible to the environment and consumer demands. I will change the structure and focus quickly and decisively if the needs emerge."

Webster is also reviewing IPC's portfolio of magazines, ascertaining how the publisher can better meet readers' needs during this tough economic climate, in which she says magazines "perform well as an affordable treat".

Other moves include the likely ramping up of IPC's stand-alone digital portals, perhaps in the fashion sphere, which will complement its other portals Housetohome.co.uk and Goodtoknow.co.uk.

Additional duties
Webster has also taken on the duties of former advertising chief, Caroline McDevitt, which will help bolster the bottom line. On McDevitt's departure, she says: "Caroline left of her own volition, but that is not to say we won't replace her. I knew I was going to be chief executive and I wanted to take on her duties."

However, digital initiatives are unlikely to be mirrored by print launches, with Webster pointing out that IPC's last major launch, the £18m push for celebrity title Look in 2007, is unlikely to be repeated in the near future. "Look has been very successful, but the time for big print launches is not now," she says.

IPC, which shed about 50 staff in the last six months of 2008, is a lean operation, with costs stripped out by successive owners. But Webster's success in the job will hinge on whether parent company AOL Time Warner, which has announced major job cuts, will rein in investment. However, she views the US firm as an ideal boss and says: "Time Warner has financed our move into the fabulous new building and invested heavily in new titles."

Webster has worked her way up to the top of IPC and has the goodwill of rivals and colleagues. She will need this as she faces up to the tough challenges ahead.

CV
2009: Chief executive, IPC Media
2004: Managing director, IPC Connect
2003: Managing director, IPC Country & Leisure Media (now Inspire)
1999: Publishing director, IPC Country & Leisure Media
1998: Group publisher (special projects), IPC
1997: Publisher, Specialist Group, IPC
1995: Assistant publisher, Science & Special Interest Group, IPC
1994: Marketing manager, New Scientist
1993: Client services director, Marketforce
1992: Graduate trainee, IPC Media

Newspapers: The Times, The Observer and News of the World
Hobbies: Running, yoga, clay pigeon shooting (badly)

WEBSTER ON ...
Time Warner UK advertising council No deals have yet been cut right across the Time Warner family. But a number of conversations have taken place and it will respond to the appetite of the market. It is absolutely right to have this, as it is right for clients and agencies who want this sort of access.

On launching a free women's weekly magazine Never say never. But, at the moment, advertisers are going to brands they trust and a launch is highly unlikely as a free publication is entirely reliant on advertising.

Closure of Eve magazine We wouldn't have bought it, as it adds nothing to IPC. It didn't surprise me there were no buyers out there for the title.

Relationship with Sylvia Auton The plan is for her to come back every two months. She is the chairman of IPC, so I am in touch with her every week. Sylvia knows what she wants to achieve and points everybody in that direction, and that is also my style. She has always led with integrity.

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