There is an undesirable tendency amongst old consultants to want to write ‘Finis’ after everything, as if to say “after me, the Flood”. I try to resist, but there are mornings, and this is one, when the cycles of a lifetime stand out in particularly sharp contrast. Rehearsing the full cycle would be a bore. Suffice it to say that anyone who emerged from the content ownership valuations of the late 1960s into the Content is King subscription and advertising markets of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when valuations were built around ‘have to have, need to know’ content ownership, now knows they are living on another planet. 

Yet while things change, things remain the same. In the content days in M&A some of us used to talk about ‘happy families’ values, meaning that we sought to sell to a strong player the one content section that would complete his critical content field, secure his vertical market dominance and induce him to pay over the odds to get card into his hand. I spent many years hunting for ‘Mr Bun the Baker’, usually in the ‘80s to satisfy the whim of a Robert Maxwell or similar, convinced that if you owned all the right content the market would be forced to your door. 

But these are not content markets. That form of B2B publishing really disappeared in the Great Dotcom Bust of 2001-3. But we were too busy to notice at the time. We were like the RoadRunner, off the edge of the canyon but going so fast that we somehow maintained momentum. Yet each year the subscript sank and the advertising diminished and Wile E Coyote got closer, until there was only one way out – Re-invention! And then I read this in the inestimableOutsell News:

“IHS Markit and Informa announced the exchange of the majority of the IHS Markit Technology, Media and Telecoms (TMT) intelligence business for Informa’s Agribusiness Intelligence group. The agreement values the two exchanged businesses at equivalent EBITDA multiples, with Informa contributing an additional $30 million cash to IHS Markit to reflect the larger EBITDA contribution from the TMT business.”

So are we going back to Happy Families, or what? I have three certainties about B2B and a few hunches. I am certain that there are powerful businesses to be built in workflow, whether you call it Robotic Process Automation or smart decision making solutions. I know that this is no longer a content market but primarily a software driven market. I know that when people like me talked about the Age of Data we kidded people that data and content were somehow the same. In fact, data, from IoT and elsewhere, is omnipresent. Ownership may prove impossible. All and any usage of it compromises and commoditises it. You can never have enough. I also think that news and information in B2B will be important as video and sound feeds, that the current trends to strong industrial training software will continue, and that the information businesses of B2B is largely inside Events, and sadly few of those really exploit the data that their market touch creates. 

OK, so what were IHS Markit and Informa about? In a word or two, consolidating and deflating. UK observers are well used to seeing companies like Top Right selling off piecemeal and slowly subsiding like a saggy balloon, or Centaur Media sadly diminish. This is a little different. The justification for consolidation is market requirement and access. Both players continue to hope that they can concentrate in a less competitive space to find the software solutions users require in these sectors. Neither have approached the regeneration issues yet in the thorough going way demonstrated by Mark Kelsey at RBI over a decade or more. But consolidation reduces risk and can enhance short term returns. We must never forget that this is now a software market, driven by licensing and maintenance agreements. It seems unlikely ever to produce the revenue size or margins of the content market it has replaced, duopoly if not de facto monopoly will be needed to encourage and justify investment, and when we wake up next a comprehensive recon extraction of this information marketplace will have taken place.

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