Ah, the Theatre of the B2B marketplace! After two days at the Briefing Media Digital Media Strategies event, I feel I have seen every Shakespearian death rattle in the book. From noble senators quaffing the offered hemlock with disdain to the King falling publicly on his sword. Above all, the sense that honeyed words and sweet poison poured in the ear in the form of complacency in the face of extinction is a stoic exit in the context of inexorable change. O for some raging in the dying of the light!

Or perhaps I am being a bit too theatrical. There were positive elements and signs of a new industry appearing. But not in the ruins of the old, where playing the new game as if the old rules still mattered is disastrous. Take Piers North (Strategy Director, Trinity Mirror) and Stefan Bitzold (MD Digital, BILD). They told a panel on adblockers that it is all about Hard Power and Soft Power. The user must be told to behave. If not, the privilege of getting free or even paid for information will be withdrawn. This may make the audience in the room feel happy, but it avoids simple and inconvenient truth: the user is in control and not the supplier and this has been the case since 1993. And the news is now fully commoditised. If news vendors do not accept that, then Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles should convince them.

Monty Python had a dead parrot. We had the “Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”. Simon Fox, CEO of Trinity Mirror is such an evidently nice guy that one has to wonder what crimes in a previous life sentenced him to this. His counter strategy is to go back into print with his New Day product. Only eight ad slots and no classified. Written by men and women for women and men (this, apparently is a first!). They sold 150k at launch last week and have now increased the price to 25p en route to 50p. No need for a digital strategy here, because there is no digital. Hello, wake up and smell the coffee, it really is 1945 all over again! But Trinity Mirror have their presses to optimize, their editorial headcount is down to 25, quality maintenance must be a nightmare, and it’s getting harder to maintain margins by cutting overheads. Consolidating LocalWorld (the regional papers of DMGT’s Northcliffe) into Trinity Mirror’s locals can again lead to consolidation to maintain margin, but has nobody noticed that while the newspaper market has leaked advertising and circulation for 20 years now, decline gets steeper towards the end? It may be too late now to rediscover what all those people on the commuter trains are doing on their smartphones in the morning.

Much less sad was David Pemsel, MD of the Guardian Group. Getting a global footprint for a liberal minded commentary on the news has plainly worked. He will use Google and Facebook as a channel to market for branded content. The problem here is a business strategy for holding the losses and satisfying the mandate of the Scott Trust to keep the not for profit going. Will membership do it? It’s a hedge against the decline of advertising was the answer. Not too hopeful but at least there are options. Will print end soon? Possibly – a print free Guardian could be envisaged but not nearly yet. The game was more niche markets, more editions, more specialised writing directly at targeted audiences. The Guardian staff is over 900. It has major experiments in citizen journalism. It appears, as a nineteenth century creation, to be busily about its task of finding a new role for the 2050s. There will not be many survivors in the pasteurised news market – only the strongest brands with a reputation for accuracy and a twist on their commentary position can hope to do so.

Hope came from even more unlikely places. LADbible has a good value exchange position. I was disappointed that sex, celebrity and body shape came as low as fourth is its audience priority but with a reach of 150 m in the 13-24 age range, and with 30% of its readers female it seemed to have created a real niche in a wholly digital world. It’s CEO, Mimi Turner came through Northern and Shell to this role, clearly a valuable apprenticeship in a market where communications must say it all in under 12 seconds, and the vital frontline is 6 seconds of attention span. so the notification to the Lockscreen does become the vital attention grabber. But no print heritage here to worry about, and a declining amount at Immediate Media. Francois-Regis Coumau, Group Managing Director, is ex-eBay, so obviously sees no problem about buying a TV merchandising channel for selling jewellery and creating a web presence around it. All media plays, using the best way or combination of ways to reach specialised audiences, suits the old BBC Magazines and Magicalia group, another rare example of post-print life after death.

But, alas, life in the morgue went on relentlessly. Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential (sorry, it will always be EMAP to me however many times they change its name) told us he was only 4% ad dependent. And now, just before the recent float, he had turned off all print, since it was now an “unviable platform”. 80% of subscribers at that point were digital. But the larger issue looming over the conversation concerned the decision to abandon all print, even that which still makes money. Did that sweeten the float by suggesting that all legacy problems had been resolved? And why would you float 43% (post debt some 25%) if you could sell it? Or is this one of those instances where failure to sell at a premium to a third party resolves into using the public markets and the private investor as a fall back position?

And the last interment, given the high hopes when Ashley Highfield went to Johnston Press, was sad for some listeners like me. Jack Moriarty, Chief Digital Officer, made a game showing, but failed to explain to me at least why this group bought the Independent’s I newspaper for £24m. And the idea that they cannot use Independent or Evening Standard derived material digitally adds to the queries. The idea that users will accept copy branded Scotsman or Yorkshire Post in its place seems very odd, even if these brands had any resonance to a smartphone user of a service like this. A glance had their new service developments like wow24/7 also fails to reassure. It makes LADbible look sparkling! Where is the Alfred Lord Northcliffe of our times who will rethink the connection between content, aspiration and media? Unfortunately his name is Zuckerberg and he does not work on the Northern Echo.

This was a combative and vital meeting of DMS. In my country village childhood funerals were always red letter days. But we know that when print declines, it goes slowly for years then plunges rapidly towards the end. I expect soon to attend all digital meetings here in a sector which is consolidating rapidly around a workflow and data analytics driven view of the world. News is vital there, but only when it changes something, and the user reading it may be less important than the machine knowing it.

…in fifteen years. Now, settle down around the tree, children, for here is a Christmas tale to gladden your hearts. In which everyone is a hero, there is no recognizable Scrooge (like the recent BBC Dickensian production) – and Bob Cratchit aka the internet investor stands to make great rewards – in the Future. Our tale begins just before the millennium when the present writer first beheld the warehouse-like offices of Durrants of Banner Lane, London. This part of the City was full of low-rent offices of proto-information companies in the 1990s so I was not too surprized by what I found, but the dialogue in Reception was not encouraging, as I stood behind a long line of elderly ladies waiting to sign in. “It’s getting colder outside” I ventured to one. “Why do you think we come ‘ere – just to clip papers?” replied a voice from the queue, preparing me in mood if not in vision for the long office with desks covered in marked up newspapers being clipped into articles and gummed to headers which indicated the story and the company or product featured and the PR agency to whom the clippings should go. The rasp of the shears, the gossip of the shearers, the huddle of messengers on bikes – all this seemed the antithesis of the digital world I knew was coming. Surely this was typical of what was doomed? Or damned? Or both? In the 1990s I knew clearly, so I thought, where the digital future lay… and this was most certainly not it, even if it provided warmth and piece work on a cold day.

Today that same company lies at the very heart of a combination which City cognoscenti tell me is likely to seek a valuation of well over $2 billion after it does a further deal and comes to a public offering in 2016. So what happened in the meanwhile to transform its fortunes, and then it’s sector? In the 1990s this was a deeply unfashionable spot in the information marketplace, effectively doing the washing up after PR and advertising had finished dinner, a low margin service industry that measured the impact of PR campaigns by checking where they had achieved notice in the media, and recorded the fact that an advertisement, once booked, had actually appeared. Two operators sifted the industry waste in the UK – Durrants and Romeike, the latter being part of Observer Group, a Scandinavian-based roll-up which had emerged as a quoted company. The former had just been purchased by a private equity player and I had turned up to see the incoming CEO – and find out how on earth such a strange decision had been made.

The new man was an old friend, fresh from running Thomson’s global law enterprises outside the US. (Amazingly, Observer were soon to be run by an ex-Lexis chief – I feel there is a PhD thesis lurking on “The influence of law publishers on the development of online marketplaces 1975-2000!”). He explained what I rationally knew – there was huge potential in automating work processes in high cost service verticals. He then explained what he would do about it, starting with the search for scanning and coding systems that would automate the shears and remove the need for the bikes. In short he initiated the Productivity Revolution that is such a marked episode of every successful online business venture of the past 25 years. But it was only the first of at least five discernible phases.

Making the outcomes of PR activity machine -readable almost immediately triggered the second. Typically, the first PE investor was able to pick up the results of Rev 1, but then fund Rev 2 in order to get out himself. And the Analytical Revolution came in on time to allow this to happen. Old Durrants was still needed to fuel the engine, but two software acquisitions to provide the data analytics that helped to persuade the clients of PR agencies that the agency contract was really worthwhile – or how the technology enabled you to succeed without them – changed the name of the company to the name of one of the purchases – Gorkana.

And what, you eagerly ask, had Observer Group been doing all the while during this Revolutionary Age? Well, very much the same. Selling out its old clippings business in the UK to Durrants helped concentrate the market there, while giving them the ability to concentrate on dominating North American markets. In the failing days of newspapers, print managers stopping seeing both companies as a threat and instead began to appreciate them as a revenue source. In turn both companies began to monitor all media and not just newsprint. And then the Observer Group morphed into Cision and bought Vocus. And then the merged company bought Gorkana, mid-way through 2015. Sell off a few trifles to satisfy the regulator and then you have a really powerful, unavoidable dominant player across North America and Europe. The network tends to monopoly despite the regulator: you don’t really need two. Game set and match, said the commentators in the press box. Vertical integration in the recording and analysis of PR and advertising impact brings frenetic change to an end in a typical frenzy of M&A.

But that judgement is too hasty. We have come through three Revolutionary stages in fifteen years, yet we still have two more to go. The first began a week ago when new Cision with added Gorkana successfully bought UBM’s PR Newswire business. At the time of the Gorkana sale I felt this was becoming the imperative step: bringing together the whole cycle of PR activity from the cradle of the news release to the grave of the newspaper morgue. And it gives Cision a customer base of corporate users, vital as more companies decide that they want to buy creative inputs while being able to manage their own PR in the network with the help of Cision to manage the process and measure the results. Let’s call this the Process Integration Revolution.

Only one to go then. And the word on the street is that the next deal is the Global Integration Revolution. The final touch required to make this work is AsiaPacific, so predictably the next target will be iSentia, Australasia’s version of Cision. Tuck this one away and begin on the integration of global marketplaces in a very threatening manner, and then plan the IPO for late 2016. The integration of all of these rapid acquisitions is a nightmare prospect, so go to market as soon as possible. If ebitda is in the $250m zone, as looks possible, then a valuation of up to $3 billion could on the cards. Or is the strategic threat great enough to turn an IPO into a menu for Sir Martin and WPP? In either event, IPO or acquisition, competitive pressures will not harm valuations. And when it is all over, the revolutionary disruption of a service sub-sector will have irreparably changed the industry it once served. These five revolutionary steps are widely applicable: you have this from a man who had the Jeremy Corbyn Colouring Book for Christmas and has been busy with his red pen ever since!

With all best wishes for 2016 to every one who gets this far!

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