Women to Watch 2010

Women to Watch: Sara Ohrvall

Director-Research and Development, Bonnier Corp.

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Magazines haven't always had R&D departments, but they need them if the business is going to succeed on platforms such as the iPad, said Sara Öhrvall, who was recently named director of research and development at Bonnier Corp., the publisher of magazines from Field & Stream to Saveur.

Ms. Öhrvall had led efforts at Bonnier's parent, Sweden's Bonnier Group, to develop a platform called Mag Plus, a project to rethink the way magazines might be read on a new generation of color touch-screen tablets. She spent most of that project in the U.S.; now she is officially based in San Francisco, where she is close to the important tech companies creating new opportunities for magazines.

Print may still supply most magazine revenue, but publishers have to develop tablet editions now anyway, Ms. Öhrvall said. Too much "wait and see" will leave the industry trailing the mass market later. "They don't have a predefined segment in the digital space," she said. "I just don't think you can take anything for granted in this new economy. You have to fight not only for your brand's position but also for your category."

Experience working for Volvo helped prime Ms. Öhrvall to constantly think about change. "If you've been in the car industry, everything is about R&D, thinking about the next car model, the next product," she said.

It also gave her plenty of confidence to help magazines create new digital versions. "Building a digital magazine is easier than building a car," she said, "so it's not that scary." (Ms. Öhrvall was "confident without being cocky" during the development of the Popular Science iPad edition, said Gregg Hano, group publisher at Pop Sci. "She's humble by American standards.")

And it got her accustomed to working with teams of people with many specialties, including engineers, designers and environmental experts. "That's what's missing in media companies," she said. "It tends to be different disciplines working in different silos."

The Mag Plus project broke that habit, bringing together user-interface experts, designers, researchers, developers and print editors in rooms with "lots of white boards," Ms. Öhrvall said, "just prototyping, prototyping, prototyping."

If tablets' ultimate importance for magazines depends partly on what publishers do sooner than later, there's also a necessary element of creativity. "If you just think the things we do for print can be republished, then other people -- technology companies or non-media companies -- will do the innovation, create products based on our content," she said. "I guess that's why we're trying to re-create the digital magazine a little bit, because unless consumers see we really tried to create something new for them, I'm not sure they're going to pay."

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