Meet The Telegraph's digital hard nut

Nick Hugh: The Telegraph's chief operations officer
Nick Hugh: The Telegraph's chief operations officer

Nick Hugh, The Telegraph's chief operations officer, is a print outsider hoping to transform the news operation's digital offering.

No-one can take a senior role at Telegraph Media Group without wondering how short-lived it might be. Two previous outsiders did not last long under Murdoch MacLennan, the long-serving chief executive. 

Robert Ffitch, director of advertising revenues, left in February, only a year after joining from Manning Gottlieb OMD. Jason Seiken, who made his name on US websites but had little feel for print, departed as editor in 2015 following a brief tenure.

Still, Nick Hugh, who arrived in January from Yahoo, has started with Tiggerish enthusiasm as chief operating officer – a newly created role that appeared to precipitate Ffitch’s departure. "I’m loving it," Hugh beams, sitting in the Telegraph’s headquarters in London’s Victoria, just before news filters through that George Osborne, even more of a newspaper outsider, has been appointed editor of the London Evening Standard.

Hugh spent eight years at Yahoo, where he rose to vice-president EMEA. His decision to leave for newspapers was hardly an easy option and lots of people have asked him why he moved.

He says he felt it was about choosing between "ideas versus technology" and was an opportunity to "diversify" his career. "News is probably the most essential form of content – if you think how much a company like Telegraph Media Group is woven into the fabric of the UK," Hugh explains. What is more, TMG remains highly profitable, unlike many of its publishing rivals.

When advertisers are looking at their media plan, it’s not The Times versus the Telegraph.

Hugh grew up in north London and went to Sir Martin Sorrell’s alma mater, Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, before studying at Manchester University and Insead.

He knows The Telegraph faces huge challenges - a brutal print market, questions about its paywall, a closing circulation gap with The Times and the Google-Facebook duopoly.

Advertisers think TMG is "running very fast to stand still – at best – across all platforms", according to Simon Davis, chief executive of Blue 449.

Hugh concedes, "Yes, there are opportunities to do things differently and better. But we’re on a very firm footing and that’s something the company should be proud of when some people in the press are beating up on news brands."

A newcomer to newspapers, Hugh feels "there’s a lot more negativity about the industry than there should be". In TMG’s case, its long-standing strategy of revenue diversification means areas such as events, financial services and travel now generate "material" sums. Further diversification is essential, he says, "particularly in the ad market we’re in now".

Hugh, who has recruited three people from Yahoo, brings tech savvy to TMG. "I am such a gadget geek," he says, producing Apple AirPod earphones from a pocket during the interview, but he has been too busy to update his Twitter biography. It was only after Campaign pointed out that he was still describing himself as "Vice President, Yahoo EMEA" that he changed it after this interview.

He has evidently been hired to transform the digital side of the business and a rival publisher describes Hugh’s appointment as "another roll of the dice" by MacLennan.

There needs to be a distinction between true premium sites and others.

Hugh doesn’t agree that TMG’s digital revenue growth has been slow but says "we can accelerate in the digital space", especially in areas such as programmatic. He points out that the group’s ad sales deal with Apple News, which makes it the exclusive reseller of general news inventory on the app in the UK, shows TMG is no laggard. Observers also credit the Telegraph for building up its branded content arm, Spark.

Questions persist about its paywall because The Telegraph has never disclosed subscriber numbers. Last autumn, TMG dropped its metered paywall in favour of Telegraph Premium, which puts the best comment and features behind a "hard" paywall. He insists subscriber numbers are "continuing to grow" – "the conversion rate with Apple News is great" – and promises to reveal figures in the future.

Hugh’s lack of experience in print has to be a concern. Industry estimates suggest The Daily Telegraph’s print ad revenues fell 18% last year, according to Nielsen data obtained by Campaign, but Hugh says that is "categorically incorrect" and it did "significantly better".

Davis claims some "agency groups are trading volume into News UK at The Telegraph’s expense". But Hugh says: "We track our share and it’s consistent with last year." He adds "everyone" across all media has been "having a tough time".

As for The Times’ ambition to overtake The Telegraph’s print circulation – the gap has shrunk from 150,000 to 20,000 copies in four years – Hugh makes clear he is up for the fight, while questioning how much it matters in a digital world.

"When advertisers are looking at their media plan, it’s not The Times versus The Telegraph," he says.

He would rather focus on collaboration and even though Project Rio, the industry joint ad sales initiative, has lost momentum, Hugh thinks there are "multiple possible options".

Although he ought to know about news – Yahoo News has huge reach as an aggregator – Hugh seems slightly awestruck to discover how The Telegraph works. "I spent a day with the journalists and our editor-in-chief, Chris Evans. It’s fascinating because you basically see how ideas turn into stories and then how those stories are published – whether that’s in a newspaper, on the iPad edition, on mobile or on third-party platforms," he says.

Hugh was particularly interested, given "this world today of fake news", to see how the editorial team verified stories, such as reports about the wife of French presidential candidate François Fillon, before publication. "You certainly don’t see that at some of the tech companies I’ve been at in the past."

Hugh regards third-party platforms, such as Google, Facebook and Apple, as "an essential component of our strategy". However, he thinks the YouTube brand safety row will benefit traditional news publishers. "There needs to be a distinction between true premium sites and others," he says.

Nigel Clarkson, UK managing director at Yahoo, rates his old boss. "Nick is a very modern manager. He’s MBA qualified and from a very digital background – he started at Excite straight from university," Clarkson says. "Nick is a hard taskmaster but he is totally fair. He is also deeply concerned with people and office culture."

Another person who knows Hugh says, "He wants to be a chief executive."

Hugh is certainly determined. Talking about his love of skiing, he shows a photo from last year of a huge scab on his head caused by an injury. Toughness is a prerequisite for survival at The Telegraph.

The lowdown

Age: 41
Lives: Mill Hill, London
Family: Wife and three kids: Samuel, ten; Adam, eight; Talya, five
Favourite media: (apart from the Telegraph) Netflix, Spotify, Apple News, Bleacher Report, LinkedIn, The Economist
Interests: Football, skiing, Fantasy League, movies and TV series (always on catch-up), my kids, exercise
One thing you don’t know about me... I have an identical twin. I’m the better-looking one, though

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