Media Headliner: French Anglophile writing NatMag's new chapter

Arnaud de Puyfontaine vows to take a more media-neutral approach as the new NatMag chief executive.

Arnaud de Puyfontaine is an Anglophile trapped behind the theatrical gesticulations of a French man. He sits in the boardroom of the National Magazine Company drinking milky tea, an order that no doubt would be greeted with haughty disdain by any Parisian waiter.

The new NatMag chief executive is so immersed in British culture, he's even taken to referring to himself as a frog, saying: "This frog from across the channel - coming to lead one of the very best media groups in the UK; it's not exactly a given, and it's exciting."

He is relaxed and jovial, making even an austere boardroom feel homely. He is clearly as comfortable waxing lyrical in English as in French but he does admit to hitting the occasional stumbling block when it comes to double entendres: "From time to time I think I'm being very funny, and then I see the faces in front of me and I think 'uh-oh, that was a mistake'."

De Puyfontaine brings with him plenty of prestige as a prominent European media figure. And, as a former advisor to Nicolas Sarkozy and someone who counts Luc Besson among his close friends, he has some impressive connections.

Starting out at the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, he went on to launch Emap in France in 1995 and became the chief executive four years later at the age of 35. At the time, he says, the French regarded him as a devotee of all things English: "They said I was more 'Emapian' than the 'Emapians'." Emap's French business was later sold to the Italian media group Mondadori, and he became the president of the company with worldwide responsibilities for digital.

De Puyfontaine looked on the NatMag role as an offer he couldn't refuse. "It's as if I was back 20 years with new things to be done and so you jump on it without any kind of hesitation," he says.

He, unsurprisingly, professes great admiration for NatMag and its owner the Hearst Corporation and enthuses about the group's brands and diversity. He's not, however, a fan of being anything but a leader in the market. "What I want is to get highly recognised brands number one or number two, and if number two, with the willingness to become number one," he says, adding: "I've been taught that in a great company, first is first and second is nowhere."

Before joining NatMag, he was the president of a French economic committee on the press industry, after Sarkozy asked him to investigate the challenges facing newspapers. After grappling with the French media industry, which he describes as "more challenged" than most, he is turning his hand to NatMag, a stable of 20 magazines including Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, the upmarket glossies Harper's Bazaar and Esquire and weeklies such as Reveal.

De Puyfontaine is taking the reins at an indisputably tough time for the industry. The final act of his predecessor Duncan Edwards as the NatMag chief executive was to cut 15 per cent of his UK workforce. At the time, Edwards described the market conditions as the worst in his 20 years at the publisher. De Puyfontaine praises the steps taken by Edwards and does not rule out having to make further tough decisions. "I'm not a crystal ball visionary," he says. "Anything that we can do to get better efficiencies which will make the company ready for the future I will do."

But when things get brighter, de Puyfontaine welcomes the possibility of launches in print as well as in digital. He believes NatMag, with its digital brands including handbag.com and netdoctor.co.uk, would benefit from having another pure digital offering. He says: "New-product development is going to be high on the agenda." He states that his mission is to create an environment at the company that will attract innovative ideas.

Monetisation of NatMag's websites is a priority for the company, which recently folded its digital arm into the wider operation as part of its restructure. De Puyfontaine does not view free content financed by advertising as viable and wants to develop a business model based on e-commerce, bringing users and advertisers closer.

De Puyfontaine is as yet reluctant to completely divulge his strategy for the group, but indicates that he wants to adopt a more media-neutral approach for NatMag's titles. He regards every medium as a potential competitor. "All the boundaries that were boundaries ten years ago are getting more blurred," he says.

Edwards, whose elevation to president and chief executive of Hearst Magazines International made room for de Puyfontaine's appointment, says his successor's vast experience made him the first choice for the job: "He clearly loves the business and has a natural feel for editorial and creativity which is the foundation for any good magazine business."

De Puyfontaine says he will work closely with Edwards and "carry on his good work", adding: "Hopefully he will find this French guy with European experience quite interesting." He praises the NatMag team and describes the managing director, Jessica Burley, who was originally tipped for the chief executive role, as a "fantastic woman", saying: "I perfectly understand the reason why she was tipped. She has all the capacity to do it."

The NatMag boss says his leadership style is direct and focused on teamwork and that he sees his role as building on the company's position and "writing a new chapter" for NatMag. He adds: "I'm not here to do a bit more of the same."

THE LOWDOWN
Age: A young 45
Lives: London
Family: Wife and four children
Most treasured possession: My wife and children
Alternative career: I have the best career anyone could ever dream of
Last book read: The Hearst: Father And Son by William Randolph Hearst
Jnr
Motto: "Lead, follow or get out of the way"

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