The Economist gets a new broom: Meet Andrew Rashbass, a tech-literate 2.0 sceptic

Helen Alexander, chief executive of The Economist Group, has been a low profile but stunningly successful boss.

When she took the top job 11 years ago, the Economist sold 264,000 copies. It now sells more than 1.3m worldwide.

Now, however, Alexander is going to her great reward: a job as adviser to Bain Capital, the vast (and possibly intergalactic) private equity firm co-founded two decades ago by failed US Republican presidential candidate and well-known Mormon Mitt Romney.

Alexander always struck me as slightly old school. Confronted by the lesser intellects that inhabit the rest of the media ecosystem, she could be startlingly polite.

Asked this week whether the Economist was a “dry” read, she sounded like a school governor dealing with uppity parents: “If you read it, especially the coloured boxes, you realise what an extraordinary sense of humour the paper has.”

Alexander’s replacement, the bustling Andrew Rashbass, seems to be made of sterner stuff. In public, he sounds entertainingly outspoken.

Last summer, Rashbass even told Press Gazette that the Economist has become “almost a radical read for younger people”.

If that sounds, well, radical, don’t get carried away.

For as Rashbass’s appearance at a Microsoft-hosted conference last year proves, the Economist‘s new boss is firmly wedded to the old ways.

It’s possible that Microsoft asked Rashbass along to MIX 07 because he looked like a young Turk schooled in the ways of Web 2.0. Rashbass’s CV, which includes stints as an IT manager and at Andersen Consulting, suggests that this was a reasonable inference.

At the event, Rashbass — working at the time as the Economist‘s chief information officer — took part in a panel discussing innovative marketing techniques.

The warm-up act was Robbie Bach, the Microsoft panjandrum responsible for making sure that hardware like the Xbox assists the company’s aim of siphoning off billions of dollars in ad revenue that might otherwise go to Big Media.

Addressing an audience fuelled by 2.0 hype, Bach praised Burger King’s sponsorship of games for the Xbox platform. He added: “We are engaging people, we are getting them to be interactive, and getting them to be social.”

Rubbish, said Rashbass from the platform a few moments later: “It’s kind of funny to hear Robbie Bach giving a talk on advertising and monetization when he just lost $300m in the last quarter.”

Rashbass further endeared himself to his hosts by suggesting that nobody was interested in reading the news on one of Microsoft’s Tablet PCs.

“Bill Gates can shout about it as much as he likes, but no one else is interested. You have all these devices and lots and lots of publishers trying to do it, but nobody is interested. Look at uptake for new readers.”

Instead, said Rashbass, readers wanted to read journalism just as they’ve always done — on the pages of a “portable reader” made from dead trees.

Rashbass spent the rest of the session cutting down a variety of Web 2.0 shibboleths. Advertisers like Coca-Cola, he suggested, should stop messing around with content and stick to what they are good at:

“Coca-Cola is good at making beverages for mass markets around the world. To become experts in selection and distribution of music is a completely different set of skills. The majority of companies need to stick at what they do.”

On the 2.0 theme of corporates losing control of their messages, he was dismissive. (“If you are a major oil company you will want to control the message about global warming.”)

But the biggest blow of all was reserved for the Cluetrain idea that the era of interruption marketing is over.

“It’s not true advertisers are trying to give consumers what they want,” said Rashbass. “They are trying to sell consumers something.”

“The way advertising works is you piss off 92 per cent of the audience to reach two per cent. Ninety two per cent of users find adverts distracting and they wish they had a way to switch them off.”

In the cathedral of Web 2.0 being built by Microsoft, Google and others, that’s heresy.

By the looks of things, The Economist Group has acquired a technically-oriented chief executive who is sceptical about outsiders’ chances of stealing ad revenue from Big Media.

Winningly, Andrew Rashbass also prepared to insult one of his company’s biggest advertising customers in public.

Life is already good at the Economist. But it could be about to get interesting, too.

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