Speaking to Campaign in the week Guardian News & Media reported underlying losses (before exceptionals) had fallen below £20 million for the first time in seven years, the Guardian’s leader hailed the newsbrand’s publishing strategy that has seen it surpass 100 million unique browsers.
However, even with the launch of Guardian Australia in May 2013, and the formation of Guardian America in 2012, turnover for the group rose just £14 million to £210.2 million during the 12 months to 30 March.
But Pemsel dismissed suggestions the Guardian’s advertising-led approach to publishing online was reaching a saturation point, pointing to the 24 per cent growth year on year in digital revenues, to £69.5 million.
Pemsel said: "Have we fully bottomed out the financial prize of ‘open’, clearly we haven’t. I don’t think we’ve got anywhere near to looking at the global prize, and obviously our aspirations in relation to membership [services] is also something we’re exploring."
He declined to reveal what proportion of GNM’s digital revenues can be directly attributed to advertising, as opposed to subscriptions from the dating service, Guardian Soulmates, and the group’s various apps, but sources suggest it’s less than 50 per cent.
Pemsel insisted "a large chunk of that is from advertising" and credited the Guardian’s "audiences not platforms" approach to sales for gaining traction among advertisers as a way to reach the newsbrand’s "progressive audience".
"If you look structurally, we are outperforming the market on so many levels it’s extraordinary," he said. "You [Campaign] talk to all our other competitors, you know mine and [CEO] Andrew’s (Miller) equivalents in all those other businesses, and I’m not sure any of those guys have had a course of sustained commercial growth, as well as this print and digital transition."
Global expansion planned
Going forward, GNM’s parent Guardian Media Group is now financially secure, at least in the mid-term, having boosted its coffers by more than £600 million with the sale of its remaining 50.1 per cent stake in Trader Media Group.
GMG now has £842.7m in the bank and the deputy CEO highlighted two area’s ringfenced for investment as the Guardian’s nascent membership service – "which will evolve over the next couple of years" - and in expanding its global footprint.
He said: "We need to make sure we make the most of America, now that we’ve got traffic that we’re comfortable with. The Pulitzer Prize for the NSA stories has given us huge confidence that our brand is relevant there.
"We’re not going to break out the American numbers – but we’ve doubled growth year on year. Does America have the potential to be a very significant part of the commercial strategy, absolutely."
Defending Guardian’s ‘golden opportunity’ in America
But what of last month’s scathing criticism from media analyst and former Guardian contributor Michael Wolff, who wrote in a GQ article that Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations had "hopelessly demoralised, and, in a sense, broke the Guardian US, or at least the people working on it".
Among the damning observations made by Wolff is that Snowden, and all the stories around him, had not made any money for the Guardian. He claimed: "They had broken the biggest story of the day - vastly increased traffic, made people famous, changed history! - and been unable to monetise it."
An agitated Pemsel said: "I see no sign of it at all. I’m on the coalface of having to present to agencies and clients, and we’re attracting talent. There is literally nothing in that Michael Wolff story that concerns me at all – not one single-word.
"We are going through the process of hiring some very significant players from the commercial side, and it wasn’t even discussed – such was the bile that was written by him.
"We are in the business of creating big, impactful stories that allow us to grow our reach as well as also attract advertisers – and the NSA stories did that in spades.
"I’ve sat with CMOs of General Electric or senior people from HSBC who want to advertise around our premium audience, of which the NSA has absolutely contributed to; so that’s on the commercial side.
"And then The Pulitzer Prize is the single biggest endorsement of the cultural impact The Guardian has had in that market, which is completely unique.
"So I cannot translate one word that he has written. And to marry that, all the [GMG] board are saying, ‘how much more money do you want to put into the States?’"
Among the more cutting observations made by Wolff is the suggestion US editor Janine Gibson returns to London this summer, "either as a reward for shepherding the Snowden story or, in ambiguous Guardian fashion, as a sort of punishment for the management turmoil provoked by the story".
Pemsel said: "Moving [editor] Kath Viner to America from Australia is another signal of our ambition there. For me personally, America is one of our biggest and golden opportunities."
He added: "It’s really important that the American opportunity is understood and not judged against what he wrote. The circulation of GQ, I don’t even know how many people read it, 30,000 or something? It’s just not relevant."
Pemsel did concede that even with The Guardian’s blend of advertising and subscriptions, and the new boost from strategic partnerships around branded content via Guardian Labs, "there’s only so much you can take out of one market". He noted: "The bigger prize will ultimately be from what we can take globally."
The Guardian leader said a number of documents already exist detailing potential plans for further launches in large English language markets.
When pushed, Pemsel revealed: "India is probably the next launch – it’s somewhere the Guardian has relevancy, [editor] Alan [Rusbridger] talks very eloquently about taking our journalism to where it’s most needed, and I think that India will probably be somewhere that we will look to."