What’s Behind WarnerMedia’s Marketing Executive Exodus

Jim Gallagher Lisa Gregorian and Blair Rich
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Add marketing executive at WarnerMedia to the endangered species list. In the space of two weeks, the media and entertainment giant has bid farewell to a dizzying array of marketing gurus, leaving major holes in the top executive ranks.

In short order, Jim Gallagher stepped down from his Warner Bros post as executive vice president of marketing animation and family films, Warner Bros Television Group President and Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Gregorian announced she would leave at the end of 2020, and Warner Bros. Co-President of Worldwide Marketing JP Richards said he would exit in February. On Friday, news broke that Blair Rich, head of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros., was out, following months of rumors that her job was in jeopardy.

The spin from WarnerMedia is that some of the executives involved in this exodus did so of their own accord and that their departures were entirely organic.  Their exits, they maintain, had little to do with the significant number of layoffs being enacted at the company.

However, it seems unusual for top executives of entire departments, composed of fiercely ambitious people, to simultaneously up and leave in a pandemic that has severely shrunk the job market. Insiders say that Rich was growing unhappy with her shrinking portfolio of responsibility. In the case of Gregorian, her exit may have been partly inspired by the departure of her longtime bosses, Jeff Schlesinger and Peter Roth. It doesn’t appear, however, that WarnerMedia went to herculean lengths to retain these executives. Richards and Gallagher were apparently cut as part of the broader restructuring.

A spokesperson for WarnerMedia declined to comment.

Instead, it seems as if WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar and Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff were looking to shake things up to better integrate Warner Bros.’ film and television operations with HBOMax, the Netflix challenger that has struggled to catch fire since debuting last spring. They were also unhappy with the film studio’s output, insiders said.

Accelerating streaming integration isn’t just essential to the survival of the WarnerMedia content portfolio, it’s proven to be a stunning smoke screen for Wall Street. Take Disney, which has mounting quarterly losses due to the closure of theme parks and canceled cruises, but saw its stock rise thanks to the subscriber growth at Disney Plus. AT&T, which took over Time Warner and rechristened it WarnerMedia in 2018, has made no secret of its belief that HBOMax is critically important to the company’s future. Kilar, who was recruited by AT&T to take the top post at WarnerMedia, has not hesitated to oust executives he felt were not up to the task, pushing out programming chiefs Bob Greenblatt and Kevin Reilly on the heels of HBOMax’s disappointing launch.

Prior to coronavirus, Warner Bros. had released one commercial dud after another, producing a slate of bombs, flops, and disappointments that included “The Goldfinch,” “Just Mercy,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “Doctor Sleep,” “The Kitchen” and “Richard Jewell.” The billion-dollar grossing “Joker” and New Line’s “It Chapter 2” were the only bright spots. As it has many times before at other studios experiencing problems, marketing got the blame.

Warner Bros. studio chief Toby Emmerich, who clashed with Rich in the past, appears to have been spared. He has a warm relationship with Sarnoff and was recently promoted by being handed control of making feature films for HBOMax. Sarnoff is also, according to one insider, feeling bullish about Warner Bros.’ upcoming slate, which includes “Wonder Woman 1984,” “In the Heights” and “The Batman.”

It’s unclear who has the requisite skill set to replace Rich, who will certainly have her pick of opportunities given her two decades of experience. Richards, who boasted a keen understanding of digital marketing, has been widely seen as her heir apparent. Warner Bros. was interested in poaching Universal marketing chief Michael Moses, but he apparently turned down the job. Other candidates such as Disney Plus and Hulu curation executive Ricky Strauss and Universal Pictures Domestic Marketing Co-President Dwight Caines have good gigs and might not want to make the move.

Warner Bros. is considering hiring former Universal Pictures marketing head Josh Goldstine, but there is concern his selection would provoke internal blowback. Goldstine was ousted from Universal in 2018 over unspecified allegations of “inappropriate conduct.” He later received a massive legal settlement, reportedly in the $20 million range, after an arbitrator ruled that Universal had erred in the way it handled his firing. Goldstine, who also had a top marketing post at Sony, has been doing some consulting work for Hollywood studios.

Goldstine did not return Variety‘s request for comment.

Others expressed hope that WarnerMedia might widen its search, in efforts to be more inclusive.The theatrical business isn’t likely to come back from the COVID-19 downturn for months, if not years. That means that HBOMax will be increasingly important. These insiders believe that the company might be better served by finding an executive with branding experience or with a deeper knowledge of the streaming landscape.

Still, as the layoffs mount and veteran leaders pack up their desks, many veterans of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank say that it feels like the end of an era.

“I barely even recognize this place any more,” said one executive. “It’s not the company it used to be.”

(Pictured: Jim Gallagher, Lisa Gregorian and Blair Rich)

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Josh Goldstine was employed by Warner Bros. as a consultant on “Dune.” The studio denies that he was paid as a consultant.