Christian Van Thillo is executive chair of the Belgium-based, family-owned DPG Media (formerly known as De Persgroep). In 30 years, he has transformed a small regional magazine publisher into a diversified €1.9bn-revenue group across newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, streaming and digital media in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark. It’s one of Europe’s largest and fastest growing media companies. Van Thillo has made five major acquisitions in the last decade costing some €1bn. But the one that got away was last year’s unsuccessful €700m bid for RTL’s Netherlands broadcasting. He is chair of the European Publishers Council.
You have worked in what is now DPG Media for your whole career since university? Did you ever want to do anything else? Have you ever wished – even briefly – you had done something else instead? After graduating in 1989 from Duke University’s business school, in the US, I immediately started working for our company. In 1990, I was appointed CEO. I was 28 years old. I had been dreaming about media for many years, and I feel very privileged that I could spend my entire career in this wonderful business. Nothing else comes even close.
What is the most important lesson you have learned? Creativity and discipline have to go hand in hand, if you want to build a successful media company.
What is your primary role in the company? I appointed Erik Roddenhof as the new CEO in March 2020, having filled that role myself for the previous 30 years. He now runs the day-to-day operations and together we discuss strategy, M&A, and product development. Besides that, I focus very much on content, in publishing as well as in broadcasting. I am the sounding board of our media-makers: editors-in-chief, TV and radio programme managers. I just love well-crafted media, but I also want to make sure that we perform very well as a business. I guess I am the guy who connects both dimensions.
What is your company’s proudest achievement during your leadership? That we became an international media company with market-leading brands in publishing, broadcasting and online services, with a very simple strategy and a set of DPG Media values that have remained the same for more than 30 years.
What has been your biggest disappointment or failure? Probably the failed acquisition of RTL Netherlands in 2021.
How has the pandemic changed DPG Media? The pandemic has substantially accelerated our digital transformation.
What is your vision for the company in, say, 10 years? 10 years from now our business will be mostly digital. I hope that we will be able to replicate our strategy in other European countries.
What’s so special about DPG Media? Its passion for media, entrepreneurship and its unique culture.
What is the future of print media? It’s all about reinventing quality journalism for the digital age. We all discovered that people do want to pay for great content, but we will have to dramatically improve our digital offering in order to have a future-proof business model.
Is multi-national media ownership inevitable in most countries? Digital transformation requires major investment. Therefore, you need scale. If you operate in a small market, international expansion is probably the way to go, unless you’re a successful niche player.
How much progress have the European Publishers Council and its members made this year in their fight to get funding for their content from Facebook, Google et al? I think we have made great progress. Both Google and Facebook have come to realise that they will have to pay for our content, and that the remuneration for our IP will have to be substantial. Deals will be made throughout Europe in the coming years. I am quite optimistic.
Which companies do you most admire and why? I admire Axel Springer and Schibsted for their commitment to great journalism, and their track record in digital transformation.
What is top of your agenda for 2022? To further improve our digital offering in both publishing and broadcasting, and to grow our online services portfolio.