What’s it like to be a female CEO of a major media company?
As the digital publishing landscape continues to evolve, media outlets are becoming innovative in their approach to staying relevant. Digital publishing revenue is expected to grow to more than $11 billion by 2025. As a result, leaders are finding new ways to stay ahead of social changes and trends.
Michelle Sobrino-Stearns, CEO of Variety, found ways to achieve nine consecutive years of revenue and innovation gains, marking the strongest period of growth in the company’s history. Editorially, the brand has been consistently recognized for excellence in journalism by various associations, receiving more than 187 nominations and 43 wins in the past year alone. Under his leadership, it paves the way for future wife CEOs and leaders.
“The biggest challenge is how are you going to evolve as a brand? explains Sobrino-Stearns. “That was the challenge before I became CEO. That has always been the challenge; how does a brand constantly evolve? I always have that in mind. In the end, I always want to introduce new IPs. I want to constantly evolve as a brand. We do this as a team… We always want the print product to evolve as we continue to invest heavily in print, be it photography or journalists. Then there is the video. We have invested heavily in a very strong video team over the past few years. Same thing with social networks. Same thing with branded content. We hire professional storytellers and journalists to work in what we call the content writing studio. Right now, we are lucky because we have the highest traffic of any entertainment business news website. It’s not luck. It is not by chance. It’s strategy.
Sobrino-Stearns began his advertising career in media buying and planning. When she moved to the second agency, the office shared a building with Variety. She networked whenever she had the chance and quickly befriended one of the outlet’s employees. She was up front with the individual, expressing that she would love to work at the publication.
One day his phone rang with an opportunity. Sobrino-Stearns applied for the job and accepted a hybrid coordinator-slash-sales junior position.
“I started to study Variety as a business as soon as I started there,” says Sobrino-Stearns. “How were they organized? How were they structured? Where was the opportunity? I knew nothing about the world of entertainment. I read that there was this booming market in Miami for the Latin market. The only thing I had was that I was bilingual and perfectly fluent in Spanish; it is my first language. After three months of work, I wrote a business plan on how I would take over the Miami market and the Latin market. And I even added projected income.
I was young. I have to go to Miami and South Beach twice a month. Take long meetings. I have to use my Spanish. I made some amazing relationships. This is key number one; build relationships in any industry you work in. That’s what catapulted my career to Variety. It got me noticed. I brought new business. I had new relationships. This is what differentiated me from some other leaders in the company.
Sobrino-Stearns worked her way up the corporate ladder, eventually becoming group president and publisher before being named CEO. She orchestrated many Variety divisions and franchises, including their event operations, during his tenure. This division produces hundreds of virtual and live events and summits each year. Franchises she has created include the Power of Women event series in partnership with Lifetime Television. The annual event celebrates women in the entertainment industry who lead the charge and dedicate their off-screen time to support various charities and causes. Additionally, the media CEO spearheaded the multiple Emmy-winning Actors on Actors series in partnership with PBS.
Training to empower team leaders and encourage them to take risks is key for Sobrino-Stearns. She understands that brand evolution happens at the intersection of trust and proactive thinking.
As Sobrino-Stearns evolves its leadership style and brand, it is focused on the following critical steps:
- Know your audience. Invest in tools that will engage with your stakeholders.
- Hire people with different skills. Make sure your team is diverse and every voice is heard and represented.
- Adapt to the world around you; it is constantly evolving. If you don’t follow the trends, you will be left behind.
“At the end of the day, we serve an audience,” concludes Sobrino-Stearns. “That’s what we have. That’s what we care about the most. We’ve just been able to take a lot more risks than ever, which is so exciting.