Future Moves with Sajeeda Merali, CEO of The PPA

What’s the future of published media in a world of rapid-fire user-generated content?

How can you keep perspective despite a demanding day job as a CEO?

What’s the role of brand in helping membership organisations to thrive?

Sajeeda Merali is the CEO of The PPA (Professional Publishers Association). Working closely with her on the PPA’s recent rebrand gave us a rare insight into a business leader who not only lives and breathes values and vision on a daily basis but is turning that vision into long-term tangible value for both the PPA’s members and her team. As a strategic leader with 20 years of experience in the publishing industry as well as being co-founder of the Amal network, which champions Muslim women in the workplace, we were keen to sit down with her and ask about what moves the publishing industry is making to continue to thrive in the future against the backdrop of AI, algorithms, attention spans and user-generated content.

Nat: Welcome Saj! Tell us a little about yourself and what you do…

Saj: I'm the Chief Exec of the PPA and my role involves so many things. Every day is different and that's what I love about it. The PPA represents about 200 members now, including the multinational consumer publisher side, smaller independents and B2B media. My job is to make sure we deliver as much value as possible to each of those segments of members and unlock any blockers that my team might have in enabling them to do that. 

Nat: And how did your journey start? 

Saj: Many people have an odd journey into publishing, they often fall into it and I was no different.  I actually studied chemistry and physics at University. I felt a bit lost when I graduated and it was just by chance that I bumped into a friend of mine who convinced me to go for an interview to sell recruitment ads for Accountancy Age. I got the job and the rest is history! I then worked my way up to different commercial roles at Euro Money and Incisive Media until I was Chief Revenue officer for New Statesman Media Group. Now, at the PPA I get to champion the industry I grew up in.

Nat: What drew you to the opportunity of heading up the PPA? What was the opportunity?

Saj: I had quite a strict brief from the board when I joined, which was that we need a trade association that represents the businesses that we are today. They are all multi-platform publishers writing content that truly engages their specialist communities, both consumer side and B2B. So a big part of my role was to create a strategy that really spoke to the members as they are today and create programs and initiatives that would drive value. 

Nat: How important is the role of brand for membership organisations?

Saj: I think your brand is what you stand for and has to reflect who you are and how you behave as well as your values, and I think that the topic of trust falls into that as well. So, customers trust brands rather than businesses and that's a really important distinction. If I put my publisher hat on, our publisher's brands are really integral to the communities that they serve. 

We recently rebranded so that we could reflect the business that we're becoming. We wanted to be able to tell our story very quickly, not just through me talking about it, but via every touchpoint we have so that a member knows who we are and what we stand for. We are in a place today where we're proud to direct people to the website and for them to really get who we are very quickly.

Nat: What’s the big opportunity for the future of the PPA?

Saj: With new technologies emerging we need to get to a point where we understand how we work with AI. I mean, it's massively important. We are already in a world where there's lots of fake news and misinformation. We've got an election year so it will be interesting to see how that plays into it. I think the thing that excites me the most is the value of the content that our members create. There’s a lot of user-generated content out there, and algorithms are designed to keep feeding you the stuff that it thinks you might like. When it comes to publisher's content, you will often come across something that you didn't know that you were going to enjoy or find interesting. Our content is trusted. It's carefully curated and fact-checked. It's real! There’s a real need for that now more than ever. So, that's what I'm excited about.

Nat: We believe diversity and inclusion are business critical and not just a box-ticking exercise- what’s the PPA’s view on this?

Saj: One initiative that we've launched in the last year is the industry talent campaign to drive more diverse talent into the sector. We’re also making space for a broader and younger set of voices as well and we recently launched our Next Gen Board that works in tandem with our main board which is a cohort of 15 individuals. They are not just diverse from an individual perspective, but also diverse by the types of roles they do and the types of businesses they work for. We want our overall direction and business strategy to be as relevant as possible to the up-and-coming talent in the sector. So those are two things that we're thinking about from a D&I perspective at the moment.

Nat: What’s the benefit of these businesses coming together under one roof at the PPA?

Saj: It’s about power in the pack. We are all part of one industry and of course, there will be more power in a collective than in individual conversations. Right now there are several areas where the collective voice is much more relevant e.g. our industry response to achieving net zero, working with online platforms or how we represent our asks to the government when it comes to regulation and legislation. 

Nat: And what’s your point of view on sustainability?

Saj: We recently launched the PPA Action Net Zero Pathway, which is an initiative to try and get our members thinking about five actions and each of those five actions is really accessible no matter where you are in your sustainability journey. The idea around getting these five actions together is that everyone then thinks about the same things and therefore we can progress at a sector level and see tangible progress. 

Nat: Are there any personal experiences that have had a direct impact on the way you think and lead? 

Saj:  I recently went to Iraq with my family to volunteer at a medical camp. It was phenomenal. My kids came over for the week and we met 600 or so patients. Most of them were orphans without parents and shoes. It was pretty dire and my job was actually to run the admin. So you think right, how difficult is it to register someone, triage them, get them to the doctors, dentist or whatever it is that they need to see? But honestly, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. It was a powerful reminder that sometimes we can get tricked into thinking that our work in the media is the real world and it isn't. It was so grounding and it’s given me a lot of perspective. So I would encourage anyone to volunteer or expose themselves to such situations. It's a powerful reminder of gratitude and helps to put the hard day at work into perspective.

Section Two: Moving Forward

Nat: A book, podcast or cultural movement that's made you think differently 

Saj: I love things that give me frameworks for my job. At the moment I'm in the middle of Lucy Küng's book on Strategic Management in the Media, and I'm really enjoying how she's thought about the media and the wider ecosystem etc. I've also loved Robbie Coleman Baxter's books on the forever transaction and the membership economy.

Nat: Which future technology (or application of existing tech) are you optimistic about? 

Saj: It has to be AI doesn’t it, but I think it’s about how AI can create efficiencies for talented people to just do the thing they’re great at and get more creative.

Nat: Your hope for creativity in the future?

Saj: That multi-platform publisher brands will continue to inspire people. Quite often you come across something that you never knew you would like, or it kind of sparks a neuron in your brain and it kind of gives you that “oh my God” moment. Like when you get really interested in something that you never thought you would find interesting… So I think that my hope for creativity is that we don't become a nation of people who are told what to think and what to wear as that sounds really boring. Doesn't it? 

Nat: One word to describe your hope for the future 

Saj: Optimistic