My Media Life: Nina Zimmermann, Burda Studios Publishing

Nina Zimmermann joined Hubert Burda Media in April 2016 as Managing Director and CPO for Burda Studios Publishing, a unit of Hubert Burda Media. Nina is responsible for lifestyle and entertainment website, fashion network tracdelight, jewellery commerce site Prettique and content and influencer platform Brands You Love. Originally from London, Nina lives and works in Munich. Here she discusses leadership, lessons post-Covid and her enduring love of print…

My mother is my role model. She was a headteacher at a London school so I saw, from an early age, that you can have kids and go to work. It can be a massive struggle, but I grew up not knowing anything different.

Getting The Sunday Times was a weekend ritual in our family. It was one big fat family newspaper and everybody had their favourite bits. My brother always took the sport section, I ran off with the comics and magazines, and the politics bits would be flying about.

I still love print. There is a completely different feeling with print [as opposed to digital]. You find yourself in a different place, something in your hand, in a comfy chair, in the sun. You read and you flick through; it is a kind of conscious me-time.

I dreamt about being a journalist. I finished university and ended up in Germany, doing an internship at Axel Springer. It was an amazing feeling to get something published as an intern, but it was in German and it was such hard work – it wasn’t my native language and it wasn’t good enough. I realised early on that to do this you have to be really good, so I veered off into PR because it was the closest thing to journalism.

Everything changed when I joined a start-up. I started off as a PR intern for Ricardo, an online auction house, right at the beginning of the internet. Within 18 months, I was responsible for the internationalisation of the business. That was the defining moment of my career. I realised quickly that my passion was in the digital space.

I’m grateful for my time there because I saw that that kind of work environment existed. I saw how to develop and execute new ideas. It has a lot to do with people and culture, and I realised that this was the way forward. I was their 14th employee, and there were three young founders who had an idea and a vision. It felt different. I didn’t want to do anything else other than this. By the time the dotcom bubble burst, I’d seen how working should be.

Digitalisation is not cannibalisation. It is something that goes alongside all your products. When I joined Burda, it felt like I’d come full circle. I am never going to be a journalist, but I understand this industry. I understand the passion to create these products and I also understand the challenges.

Influencers have gone through a massive transformation, but the authenticity has stayed. When I joined Burda, people looked down on influencers and were a little disparaging – they didn’t see that people were following them, that they liked the ‘real stuff’ over the gloss. Now, whether we work with micro-influencers or those in the paid-content space, it’s about how real does it feel for their followers?

Business over the last few months has been good. We’ve not had a massive dip in revenues; the advertising business in particular online has been extremely heterogeneous. Our biggest shift is having to adjust to what people want right now – what we should be selling and what we should be focusing on.

Covid has shown there should be more flexibility in the way we work. Everybody I know who was averse to remote working had the idea that working from home would mean working less. Thankfully, that idea has been smashed to smithereens.

I am a walk-around manager who cant walk around at the moment. I love to show that I am present, so this has been hard for me. I set up daily meetings with teams so we can at least have 10 minutes of face-time, and we’ve introduced virtual coffee breaks where people get together for half an hour. We’re trying to come up with new ways to keep people connected.

Interrupting is a nightmare on video calls! Creativity comes from sitting in the same room with a whiteboard, scribbling, arguing and debating.

Leadership is about knowing yourself. I spent a week busying myself with myself, which felt rather selfish. But then I realised in the end that’s actually what leadership is all about. I will also try to find time to always find some aspect of external input because I find it very, very valuable.

Clay Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation programme at Harvard Business School was a game-changer for me. Christensen is an amazing mind and he has influenced our constant philosophy and how we work, according to his theory of ‘Jobs To Be Done’.

Many leaders see vulnerability as a weakness, but understanding where vulnerability lies is very important and I think the pandemic has hopefully facilitated a different kind of thinking in that area.

Talking about unconscious bias today feels very different when you’ve been fighting it for so many years on a subconscious level. I grew up with diversity as I come from London, which is a bubble. When I moved to Germany, it felt different and, apart from the start-ups I was at, the corporate structures have never felt diverse. I’d sit in leadership conferences looking around at the faces and not see many like me – it’s just something you take in.

Diversity will only improve if leaders are proactive. Someone once said to me, ‘How can I hire people of colour if no one applies?’ That’s a bit lame. Recruiting is a management job so, regardless of whether you have HR people or not, are you going out and giving talks at universities? Are you going to student meet-ups? Are you being proactive and using your networks?

I relax by doing sport – running, training – and hanging out with the kids. It works quite well. It gets me stressed on a different level, but it helps me work-wise. It is a different kind of recharging!

Best advice I’ve received? Don’t listen to anybody else.

Nina Zimmermann will be part of a panel addressing leadership and the challenge for content at the FIPP World Media Congress 2020, taking place online from 2-30 September. Check out the agenda here. You can sign up here.


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x