Blog Post

So Much For ‘Working It Out’: Michael Wolff Is Out At Adweek

After two months of rumors of “he’s out/he’s here to stay,” Michael Wolff is out at Adweek, a little more than a year since he was hired to remake the b2b trade magazine into a more buzzworthy media news and lifestyle title.

In a note on Adweek’s site, Executive Editor Jim Cooper will take over day-to-day operations immediately. Cooper had been a veteran at Mediaweek, one of Adweek’s two sibling publications that was folded into a single title under Wolff’s direction last April.

The change comes two weeks after Jimmy Finkelstein, chairman of Prometheus Global Media, Adweek’s parent, told paidContent that Wolff wasn’t fired, but that they still had issues to work out. He left it open as to whether they eventually would or not, but implied that nothing was imminent.

For Wolff’s part, he had been a bit coy about what his status within Adweek was, telling an audience at an Advertising Week panel earlier this month, “”I have a job. I am still employed. That story may be different if you ask me or The New York Post an hour from now,” according to a NYT item.

Whether Wolff was pushed out or left on his own accord is still murky. It looks like a combination of both, as Wolff and Finkelstein had clashed over Adweek’s direction in recent months. Apart from complaints about lavish spending for photo shoots and travel, Finkelstein and Prometheus’ backers had been spooked by the alienation of the advertising agency by the new, personality-driven slant of the publication.

While ad pages have been flat to down the past few months, sources have told paidContent that Adweek has had difficulty attracting sponsors to its conferences, which is a major source of revenue, due to the more “media-centric” direction. Adweek’s web traffic has grown substantially since Wolff’s redesign, but that doesn’t pay the bills or attract/retain print subscribers.

Interestingly, in Cooper’s own memo to readers, also posted on the site, he writes that “Editorial will work closely with our publisher and events team to program impactful and informative conferences and events throughout the year.”

Finkelstein had been trying to pull Adweek’s editorial focus back to a more traditional b2b style in hopes of getting the advertisers and old readership back. It is not clear if Cooper will make any major staff changes, as Wolff brought in a number of younger, more web-centric reporters while veterans had exited over the summer.

Speaking on his Advertising Week panel, Wolff told his audience that “There is a discussion going on in my company over what this magazine should be.” One side “wants a magazine that tells a smaller story, the traditional ad trade magazine story, who’s winning what accounts. I would not want to tell” that story.

It looks like Adweek will go back to telling that story with Cooper in charge, at a time when b2b titles continue to be challenged by changing publishing conditions in general and the media/advertising business in general.

Among the other issues that had spoiled the relationship between Wolff and Prometheus was his frequent attacks on Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., which is close to Prometheus backer Guggenheim Partners. According to sources close to the magazine, Prometheus had been getting some pressure from Guggenheim to jettison Wolff after a series of articles this summer about News Corp.’s phone hacking problems in the UK.

It’s probably just a coincidence, but on the same day of Wolff’s departure, the site posted what appears to be his last piece, the proffers the idea that Murdoch’s name is less valuable as News Corp. prepares for its annual shareholder meeting on Friday.

In the meantime, the brief end of the Wolff era at Adweek ultimately means the triumph over the traditional b2b approach over the value of “buzz.” In that vein, Adweek will likely undergo a subtle shift back to what it was before without any dramatic cosmetic changes.

In recent weeks, there has been talk that Publisher Erica Bartman may also be headed out the door along with Prometheus CEO Richard Beckman, the former Condé Nast salesman who brought in Wolff to reimagine Adweek to begin with. While the company still says Beckman is CEO, his role has shifted in July. Instead of his original role of overseeing Prometheus’ trade mags, which include The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and Adweek, he was put in charge of a new division devoted to branded content.

Full disclosure: I was an Adweek staffer from 2001 to 2004