I blinked at today’s announcement with incredulity. Neilsen Expositions sold to private equity for $950m? (http://www.followmag.com/2013). Where does this madness end? Since 2008 we have been living, in traditional B2B markets, with the reality of the network. We have all talked increasingly confidently about the irreversible decline of advertising in print, and our inability to replace it in a satisfactory way online. We have talked of companies getting smaller – but more profitable – and we have talked about the future in terms of creating workflow solutions for our customers, using our data to create these service solutions for them, and using our metadata as the sandbox of new product development to build applications that really bind customers to us. The opportunity is now open to us to effectively lead our markets into the future, basing our claim to our clients squarely on the proposition that we can improve their productivity (and thus cut costs), and enhance their decision-making by getting all the salient knowledge into the right framework at the right time, while protecting their backs against the thorn hedge of re-regulation that encroaches the post-recession world. This is a wonderful opportunity, and how good it is to see Thomson Reuters, Reed Business, Lexis Risk and others getting fully to grip with it.

Meanwhile, how sad it is to see the old B2B players in Europe dodging the inevitable. While Schibsteds and Axel Springer in the declining newspaper market now make a fetish of collecting B2B classifieds services (Reed sold Total Jobs to the latter very shrewdly), mainstream B2B in the UK, outside of the market leaders mentioned, seems to have something of a collective death wish at the moment. Like Gaul, EMAP is in three parts, each of them unsalable as they stand. The data section is too diverse, the exhibitions is too small, and the magazines too unprofitable. Over at UBM, they now talk the language of exhibitions and conferences as if it was the golden hope. B2B at Informa remains a collection of fragmented and unrelated businesses, which was how management wanted things historically, but now ignores the need to centre on data, and play the combined strengths of all the data into the key markets you want to grow. And if Datamonitor does not provide a rich way of enhancing service values across the group then what does? Meanwhile Incisive and Haymarket seem to groan for solutions, while only Centaur amongst the smaller players seems to have woken up and smelt the coffee.

I am reciting this doleful catalogue as a way of steeling myself for this week’s PPA Conference in London. What would make me most happy is hearing someone say – “Yes, we are re-investing our events portfolio with a transformative agreement with a software partner. The object is to build readership into virtual events, extending our conferences and exhibitions into year-long happenings, open 24/7. Yes, we know we have to give attendees at real events more – find out what they want, research and book meetings for them etc, while giving exhibitors a better deal, client introductions and profiles, and a year long follow-up with new product releases and regular contact. Yes, we know that, even if it almost too late, we need to build community urgently before we finally lose the chance, and we know that conference delegates, exhibition attendees and exhibitors all want a better deal. Not several better deals – just the one will be good enough”.

I was once, briefly, non-executive chairman of an events software company. I know that rapid development has taken place to assemble data, match buyers and sellers, set up itineraries and update core data holdings with key changes year by year. And I go to about 15 conferences and exhibitions each year, but have yet to be asked who I wanted to meet, or what I wanted to realise from the experience. Afterwards, however, I am deluged with surveys about what I accomplished and how good the show was. This seems to me to be quite upside down. Like most of my fellow citizens, I am well-known in the network: find me on LinkedIn or Twitter and you could even guess, from my friends and contacts, who else I might like to meet. UBM bought the rights to reality-failed COMDEX, and launched a virtual exhibition in November 2012. It attracted an audience that seemed to please UBM, but on the website I see no mention of a 2013 edition, or even of a web presence continuing from the last effort. And last year’s registration asked none of the questions that might be thought relevant to using the meeting effectively. Yet, as I have mentioned here before, if virtual reality is cheap enough to teach language learners spoken English proficiency (www.rendezvu.com) then it will surely sustain the 5000 visitors and 50 exhibitors that came last year. Or will it just slip away, just as London’s Online show has slipped back into a library conference in the hands of Incisive.

So I am worried by what I will find at the PPA. Meanwhile, virtual reality is being used intensively in other places – particularly in the cash-starved museums and art galleries of Europe. Maybe our publishing directors should organize an outing to the local resource to see how its done!


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1 Comment so far

  1. Ben Heald on May 31, 2013 15:29

    Eloquent and provocative as ever – I take the view however that the new reality is already with us. It’s more complex, there are more products, more players and everything’s going to keep on moving fast. I really don’t think we’re heading for a new settled paradigm. And in particular for those of us trying to build long term value in the B2B space, above and beyond profit, it’s not at all clear what will be deemed to be strategic; nor who might buy things in the future. The successes though are bound to be based around niche groups; however hard they try the digital titans can’t be all things to all men. So community will be a thread that will continue to run through B2B business planning.