Participant’s Jeff Skoll Faces Digital, TV Hurdles as CEO Jim Berk Departs

Philanthropist and billionaire “rolling up his sleeves” to fix socially conscious media company

Last Updated: April 14, 2015 @ 11:45 AM

After the resignation of his CEO Jim Berk last week, Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll faces big challenges in driving his ten-year-old company’s lagging TV and digital arms on top of an ambitious film slate.

Skoll, the philanthropist and former eBay president known for his shyness, will serve as interim CEO until he can find a replacement for Berk, with whom he clashed over choosing a board of directors and who he criticized recently as overwhelmed.

In a recent broad-ranging interview with Variety , Skoll said that he viewed Berk “as overloaded with day-to-day operations….’At some point, you just can’t take on much more.'” Skoll said he needed an expanded board of directors and outside consultants to help manage the company. On Friday, a week after the interview, Berk resigned.

Participant insiders confirmed that Berk was unpopular inside the company, and one said that some employees stood and cheered when the email went out that the CEO was resigning. “What the company really needs is to be cohesive,” one of those individuals told TheWrap. “Jeff has vision, and when he talks you believe it. The mission everyday is to change the world. Jim made it more about him personally.”

Berk’s management was meticulous at best, according to the individual, who said he was prone to “rearranging people’s desks,” and required that no Post-It notes be visible. “He had a concentration on things that were not business-critical,” said this individual. “He was more concerned about the colors on Power Point presentations.”

Housekeeping at Participant may extend beyond Berk. Jeff Ivers, the current COO and an employee since 2004, is said to share a similar set of values with his former CEO.

“Jeff Ivers is next,” the insider said,” he still sees the company as 20 people, but it’s 220 people. There’s not a lot of trust for executives on Ivers’ part. He’s a COO concerning himself with $200 invoices, and stuff like hearing arguments for hires and promotions. It’s antiquated business practice.”

Participant Media declined to comment on this story.

But Participant faces challenges well beyond the immediate executive leadership.  McKinsey & Company began a strategic review in 2014, and according to insiders has delivered its recommendations. Skoll himself acknowledges that a decade into his Participant experiment, he is trying “to figure out the long-term path for this organization,” as he told Variety.

But that won’t be easy for a singular Hollywood company aimed at making a profit while inspiring social change, a dual bottom-line structure that is unique in the entertainment industry. And the absence of a seasoned insider at the helm will undoubtedly make that harder.

It’s unclear how Skoll will fit with the hands-on role of running an entertainment company, which requires abundant face time and strong networking with actors, producers, writers and fellow entertainment executives. Shy to a fault, Skoll may find that role less than enjoyable.

“It’s not his intention to stay in the role, but he’s totally rolling up his sleeves,” a Participant executive told TheWrap. “He’s absolutely present and engaged.”

The company is behind high-profile films with social messages like the Oscar-nominated “Lincoln” and “The Help.”  But there have been struggles in gaining viewership for its expensive cable channel investment Pivot and a web venture aimed at do-gooders, TakePart.com.

Pivot launched in 2013, taking the combined space of Participant-owned cable stations Halogen TV and The Documentary Channel, with a mission to rouse millennials to activism. Though the combined reach of Pivot exceeds 40 million subscribers, the programming has not yet found an identity — even with 18-34 friendly talent like Meghan McCain and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

“It was shortsighted to start a TV network in 2014,” the first individual added. “These are the areas that require the most investment. TV is in a very transitional time, and there are countless business models on the web.”

TakePart.com has broad offerings from food, culture and volunteer portals to celebrities giving back, but reportedly suffered a similar identity crisis thanks to consistent tinkering over details like font and color schemes from Berk.

Participant’s film division is by far its most robust and star-studded. The company has forthcoming projects in “The Light Between Oceans,” directed by Derek Cianfrance and starring Michael Fassbender and the Steven Spielberg-directed “Bridge of Spies” with Tom Hanks and Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation.”

There is no timeline for installing a new permanent CEO. For now, it would seem, that Skoll will need to be the right person for Participant.”Jeff is a methodical guy. He wants to get through this process and find the right person for the job,” the Participant executive said.

Other insiders said that was mission critical. “Participant is a really great place but we need direction and leadership,” said the insider. “Jeff Skoll’s legacy is Participant, and that brand needs to mean something.”