The past week demonstrates triumphantly that human ingenuity knows no bounds in finding fresh ways to invest in content and software marketplaces, with appetites apparently undaunted by the many examples available which show how hard it is to get growth in traditional media and how hard it is to get margins in the newer variety. Pearson’s results, despite positive underlying trends and signs of more normal market conditions in the US, failed to set investors alight. The mean machine at Amazon, trying to cope with the margin constriction of online retail while desperately seeking other sources of value add profits in logistics and AWS got a chilly response from markets. And yet, during the week, a number of unrelated deals demonstrated a continuing hunger for media and information marketplace assets that belies the difficulties and provides new exemplars of market reconstruction and consolidation at work.

We are all used of course to the cellular division process employed by McGraw Hill and News Corp to create a Good Bank/Bad Bank division of assets that enables the bit with prospects to be revalued and become a new growth point. This week we could call this the Murdoch Gambit, as Twentieth Century Fox, aka Good Assets, went after Time Warneur while the latter was in process of casting its Bad element, aka Time Inc, overboard. The acres of screenspace devoted to discussing this rather obscured remarkable goings-on in the wholly less glamourous but once far more profitable field of building and construction industry information. A few weeks ago McGraw announced that it was selling its properties in this area, clearly not relishing the build to a workflow-based BIM marketplace, with market players only slowly migrating to towards a new world of data handling. Last week Reed Elsevier went one further, by selling its RS Means building costs division to Warburg Pincus (who own the competitor, Gordian Group) and including 49% of Reed Construction in the deal. This demonstrates two interesting possibilities: Reed really are a portfolio player now, with a clear strategy on the rules of investment engagement and a determination to let others share the risk when retooling and re-investment becomes necessary; and private equity is becoming recognised again as a good place to go for those re-investment activities. Warburg Pincus in particular can point to their years of patient market and service development work at GlobalSpec, now a key element in the IHS positioning at the front of the Engineering information market.

And this was not the only interesting news from Reed Elsevier. For a start, it’s revenues are now 82% “digital”, a figure that only financial analysts seem to care about, long after the rest of us had assumed the figure was 100%! And for a moment midweek we could have been forgiven for thinking we were returning to the “Happy Families” consolidations of the 1990s as Reed (Lexis) sold its Polish law assets to Wolters Kluwer, who with equal solemnity sold their Canadian assets to Lexis. It all made perfect sense. Neither Thomson Reuters or Lexis ever made Germany work, yet WK did. Poland was the same, only smaller. Canada was much more comfortable for Lexis, which had considerable assets there already. One can only wonder why rationalisation sometimes takes so long. Whatever the answer, looking at the assets as a portfolio investment manager and not as a committed investor in certain markets and geographies certainly aids the thought process and clarifies the rules. One of Reed’s mantras in recent years has been reducing reliance on unstable advertising marketplaces. This week’s results indicated that advertising is now down to 2% of gross revenues. Mission accomplished then, since Reed are clearly not interested in the marketing services environments which will succeed old-style advertising, and which created what for me was Deal of the Week: the sale of Bizo to LinkedIn. When we look back for benchmarks of the recognition of marketing services online as a wholly new service concept, then Russell Glass’s company, itself a breakout from ZoomInfo, will be the measure.

So should we expect more weeks like this as the industry vertically restructures and consolidates? Will Wolters Kluwer seek a revaluation of its wonderful health portfolio by floating it separately from the less vibrant business, law and tax divisions. Informa, who recently announced a very logical and much more service-centric structure, could take a similar view, since the relationships between, for example, their academic research and their trade exhibitions businesses are pretty tenuous. My guess however is that the real control here will not be the investment savvy of the suits at head office, but market tolerance and utility. In markets where data availability inside workflow driven models becomes the expectation, and each offering must be content complete in order to compete, there will seldom be more than two competitors. The portfolio investor decision is the oldest on record: stick, or …twist.


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