As Time Warner searched for a top executive to run its sprawling magazine unit, it did not look just outside the company. It looked outside the publishing industry.
After a nine-month search, Time Warner found the person it was looking for in the digital realm that is central to its future. On Wednesday the company said Laura Lang, the head of the digital advertising firm Digitas, would become the new chief executive of Time Inc., which publishes 21 magazines, including People, Entertainment Weekly and Sports Illustrated.
Ms. Lang, 55, becomes the first executive from outside traditional magazine publishing to head Time Inc. The choice underscores Time Warner’s intention to transform its traditional magazine business into digital brands that provide content beyond the grocery store checkout line.
Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Time Warner’s chief executive, has employed a “content everywhere” digital approach for the company’s magazines — particularly profitable ones like People and InStyle. The push would mold magazines in the model of the company’s lucrative cable channels like TNT and TBS and the pay network HBO. By the end of the year, all of Time Inc.’s magazines will be available on tablet computers.
“What is a magazine if I’m looking at a tablet version of People and watching the red carpet at the Emmys?” Mr. Bewkes said in an interview. “What’s the difference between that and E! Entertainment Television? It’s the same thing.”
Mr. Bewkes cited Ms. Lang’s “understanding of digital and marketing, and strong relationships with the creative and advertising communities” and called her “a great fit” for Time Inc.
While some of Time Inc.'s magazines have fared well, others have bled advertising dollars. Revenue was essentially flat in the third quarter, with a 1 percent decline on weaker advertising and a dip in subscription revenue.
A 20-year marketing professional, Ms. Lang has run Digitas, originally a direct-marketing firm, since 2008. The company was bought by the Publicis Groupe in 2007 for $1.3 billion, and Ms. Lang helped the agency expand into creating digital content for advertisers.
“It’s about this transformation, in my mind, as this business model has evolved, and that’s what Digitas is about,” Ms. Lang said in an interview Wednesday. “Twelve years ago we were primarily a direct-marketing company.”
Time Inc., the country’s largest magazine company, has been essentially without a leader since last February’s ouster of Jack Griffin after less than six months at the helm. Mr. Griffin, the former head of the Meredith Corporation magazine group, which publishes Better Homes and Gardens and Ladies’ Home Journal, among others, clashed with Time Inc.’s established culture.
This time, Mr. Bewkes doubled down on finding an executive with experience outside publishing. To help with the search, Time Warner employed the recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles International, which fielded candidates from businesses that included Wall Street to consumer goods and the cable television industry.
After a long search, Time Warner chose Ms. Lang, an executive known for her affable demeanor and her experience overseeing Digitas’s 3,000 employees in 19 countries. Ms. Lang also brings female leadership to a company sometimes criticized as an old boys’ club.
“It took a while because Jeff didn’t want to get it wrong again, so temperament was extremely important,’’ said a senior Time Inc. executive, who did not want to be named because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Since Mr. Griffin’s departure, Time Inc. has been run by a three-person management team of John Huey, Howard Averill and Maurice Edelson.
The appointment came as a relief to some Time Inc. employees, who had worried for months that the company would hire someone from an industry like consumer goods with no interest in content or journalism.
Still, Ms. Lang faces steep challenges, including making the shift from an advertising agency — a service business built on bringing in clients and keeping them happy — to a media company that is centered on owning and managing assets. That divide could prove problematic for Ms. Lang, who earlier in her career worked in strategic planning at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and product management at Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Quaker Oats Company.
“I don’t have a publishing platform, but I oversee a portfolio of agency brands,” Ms. Lang said.
She will also confront challenges unique to the publishing world. While the advertising market has stabilized, newsstand sales of magazines have fallen 9.15 percent in the last year, to 29.08 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
Terry McDonell, editor of the Time Inc. Sports Group, said that new digital offerings have helped stem the decline in newsstand sales. “They can get what they want, when they want it, on whatever platform they want it on,” he said, referring to readers.
Several analysts and investors have said that Time Warner would like to spin off its Time Inc. unit. Over the last several years, the media giant has shed assets like AOL and Time Warner Cable that do not fit into its plans to emphasize content. Mr. Bewkes said he does not plan to sell Time Inc., and the selection of Ms. Lang suggests he is committed to a long-term shift to a digitally oriented magazine unit.
“There aren’t a lot of buyers breaking down anyone’s door to buy a magazine company,” said Alexia Quadrani, a media analyst at J.P. Morgan. “As long as they’ve got it, they’re making investments to at least try to make the business additive instead of dilutive.”