Our website is having a makeover! www.thecasecentre.org will be unavailable from 10h (BST) on Saturday 31 July until 17h on Sunday 1 August while our team makes the new site live.

Category winner: Axel Springer in 2014:
Strategic Leadership of the Digital Media Transformation

Share this page:
This case won the Entrepreneurship category at The Case Centre Awards and Competitions 2017
The case
offline-online sign

Who – the protagonists

Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the publishing house Axel Springer SE


Axel Springer is a leading source of content in Germany with its popular newspapers and magazines such as Bild and Die Welt.


In 2013, Mathias was evaluating the progress of his company’s digital transformation. The advent of the digital revolution at the end of the twentieth century had caused an appreciable shift in the publishing industry. Traditional print media players were confronted with major technological advancements plus changes in consumer tastes and how news was consumed.

The challenge for Axel Springer was to find fresh ways to distribute, monetise, and further develop its traditional products.

Axel Springer headquarters


Publisher Hinrich Springer and his son Axel founded Axel Springer in 1946. In 1953, it acquired the publishing house Die Welt, including its national daily and weekly newspaper. By 1959, the company had purchased a majority stake in the newspaper and book publishing business, Ullstein GmbH, and was established as a major player in the industry. In 2006, the company focused on organic growth and late-stage digital acquisitions. By 2013, Mathias had formulated the firm’s corporate mission to become ‘the leading digital publisher’.


The company’s headquarters are in Berlin, Germany, and it operates across 40 countries worldwide.

offline-online signKey quote

‘In business, I work under the rule of only the paranoid survive. I try to take into account the things that can go terribly wrong to avoid negative surprises.’ – Mathias Döpfner

What next?

Mathias was excited about the additional strategic opportunities digitalisation presented, but knew he needed Axel Springer to stay up to date with consumer preferences, reaffirm the company’s identity, and continue to pioneer the cultural transition within the organisation. He needed to deal with the potential threats coming from the new media technology giants and decide on the next digital strategic moves for Axel Springer in Germany, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Interested in finding out more?

Download the case

Educators can login to view a free educator preview copy of this case and the supplement.

Ref E522
Ref E522SQ
A follow-up case is also available:
The authors

Robert A Burgelman, Robert Siegel,
and Jason Luther


The authors explain how they came to write the case and the invaluable contribution made by the protagonist.

Recognition and publicity

It is nice to see the relevance, and also the quality, of our case recognised by experts outside of our own university. It is likely that this award will help reach a larger number of potential users – instructors and students – of our case. It is great to be able to develop teaching material that is useful in other academic and professional institutions.

Great opportunity

We heard about this story through a student project in our course ‘Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation’. It seemed a great opportunity to study how an incumbent company is able to transform itself to effectively cope with the disruption caused by the digitization of content. We were also happy that this case involved a European company, which increased the global content of our course.

Meeting Mathias Döpfner

Mathias Dopfner

I (Robert Burgelman) met with Dr Döpfner in Berlin. He made time to meet even though meetings with Axel Springer shareholders were also scheduled on that day. Dr Döpfner was extremely insightful, so a lot of interesting ground could be covered in a short time. The case reflects the insights he provided.

Tremendous insight

Later on, he also spoke to the Stanford executive programme participants and provided tremendous insight into the two strategic leadership challenges associated with disruptive technology: (1) the internal challenge of transforming Axel Springer from print to digital publishing, and (2) the external challenge of retaining a position of strength in relation to the online players, such as Google and Facebook, who threaten to dramatically reduce the relevance of publishers.

Wider relevance

The strategic leadership challenges associated with disruption from digitization are relevant in many industries, for instance, in the telecom operator and automotive industries.

About the authors

Robert A Burgelman is the Edmund W. Littlefield Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
e profrab@stanford.edu

Robert Siegel is a Lecturer in Management, MBA Class of ’73 Lecturer for 2016-2017 at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Jason Luther worked as a Case Writer at Stanford Graduate School of Business before joining Pacific Lake Partners where he is now Vice President.


View all the 2017 winners