Keeping the geeks sweet at Hachette Filipacchi

Uttered by Dave Killeen, the word ‘geek’has no pejorative sense. Hachette Filipacchi‘s digital director uses it as a compliment.

Geekiness is shorthand for the sort of technical nous that Killeen has been looking for while recruiting online journalists and software developers.

It is a quality in short supply and great demand, he says, as established publishers face up to nimble, hungry, upstart, competitors online.

‘I’m a geek,’he happily confesses, surveying the 21-member team that he has assembled over the past year. He joined Hachette Filipacchi from Associated Newspapers to launch the magazine publisher’s new digital unit – a ‘dream job”, is how he describes it.

Sugarscape

Last month, Killeen’s team launched its major project, Sugarscape – a social bookmarking tool aimed at readers of teen girls’ magazine Sugar. The site combines editorial content produced by Sugar’s journalists with material from other sites submitted by and voted on by its readers.

‘There is, in my view, no point in just creating yet another magazine content site,’Killeen says. ‘They’re clichés, but Web 2.0 and the wisdom of crowds need to be part of every website’s DNA. We will look at every brand we have and look to create not just a content site, but work them differently in their online context.”

The site is being developed further with widgets that will allow Sugarscape’s users to access the site’s content from other sites they use extensively, like Bebo and MySpace.

Killeen calls it ‘slicing and dicing your brand”, an approach that is also evident in his team’s current project, the redevelopment of ElleUK.com.

‘It will not just be one destination site, but again scattered all over the net,’he says

ElleUK.com has already established a presence on Facebook and is distributing its video on sites other than its own. ‘We’re looking at the Elle girl and what she’s doing online,’says Killeen

Taking consumer magazine brands online in this way is easier in some ways than the challenges he faced in his six years at the Daily Mail, Killeen says.

‘We’re very lucky that we can build a product that’s very different from the magazines – we’re in a much better position than the newspaper websites, because you will still want to sit in the bath and read your glossy magazine.

And what we’re going to do this year with ElleUK.com will still sit closely with the Elle brand, but will be very different.”

Competition

But the online versions of Elle’s traditional glossy competitors are not necessarily the new site’s only competition. In fact, it’s not necessarily the major publishers that are setting the pace.

‘The competitive landscape is wide open. It’s not just the IPCs and Emaps – the online-only guys are actually moving at a far faster pace and we need to be on top of that,’Killeen says. ‘There are some very interesting online-only players that are not as threatening, but up to stuff that’s as good in a space that the magazines should really own.”

Start-ups like Dotspotter, PopSugar and Shiney Media have been particularly successful with sites targeting young, affluent female readers of the type Hachette’s titles have traditionally coveted. But Killeen is relaxed about this development.

‘The more the merrier in this space, because we’ll just move at a faster pace,’he says. ‘If anything it will put a lot more pressure on media companies to really wake up and keep on top – to get in a position where they’re not just following those guys but are actually saying ‘You know what?

We ‘ve got as strong a bunch of talent in our company as Popsugar or Shiney does’.”

Seeking the small ‘g’ geeks

Finding that sort of talent has been Killeen’s major preoccupation in his first year at Hachette Filipacchi. ‘We need to be able to remain competitive and to do that you need to have journalists who have a certain element of geek with a very small ‘g’,’he says.

‘We’re fortunate here at Hachette Filipacchi because I was able to start with a clean slate. But it takes a lot of bloody time. I thought we’d have all our bums on seats last April. But it took us a very long time to recruit because we were being so picky.”

Being evangelical about their medium is becoming a slightly less crucial attribute for online editors, Killeen says, but is still important – particularly in a company like Hachette that has only recently set up an online business.

‘We’re brilliant at what we do off-line, but still coming to terms with what we can do online,’he says. ‘You do need those heavy hitters who can challenge the thinking on the off-line side, but can also understand what makes that print product great.”

One such heavy hitter is Melissa Dick, who Killeen recruited to edit the Elle website. He describes the former Handbag.com fashion director as ‘the best editor I’ve ever worked with”.

Although Dick works closely with Elle magazine editor Lorraine Candy, ElleUK.com’s five-member online team will work on a different floor than the print magazine staff – alongside the digital department where they can work closely with the site’s developers.

‘It’s very important that we don’t treat our editorial team as content people,’Killeen says.

‘Certainly that’s what they do, but they have to have exposure to the rest of the digital team.”

An online journalist, he says, has all the standard skills of a journalist plus good web sense – they are avid users of various online tools who understand what makes a site engaging.

‘They also need to have, in my book, a certain technical flair or leaning – not to code or anything, but the technical team shouldn’t be able to pull wool over their eyes,’he says.

Having ‘small ‘g’ geeks’onside is also vital to recruiting technical staff, Killeen says. ‘It’s very hard to get a bigger ‘g’ geek into a magazine because they want to work for startups, for Google and so on,’he says.

‘The last thing anyone wants to do is work for a media publisher who doesn’t really get it. We have been able to show them that we’ve got a little bit of small ‘g’ geek in us so that they come on board.”

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