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 If not, the privilege of getting free or even paid for information will be withdrawn.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.

Living at high altitudes is often credited with changing brain activity but until I read a piece by an esteemed Outsell colleague, Chuck Richard, (Outsell Insights “IHS to sell GlobalSpec” 24 November www.outsellinc.com) last week, I had not realised some of the fuller implications of that. But then again, all companies come to decisions in their own ways, and the manner in which they explain them does not always align exactly with the reasons for making them.

Yet I am still shocked. When IHS bought GlobalSpec in 2012 I hymned them with tributes (A Stroll Down Utopia Road, 13 June 2012). I had followed GlobalSpec since its foundation in 1996. Owned by Warburg Pincus, it did truly belong to the age when it was tough to sell subscriptions to engineers. But it amassed a unique collection of 10 million design briefs and specifications, as well as a library of 50,000 supplier catalogues, 70 e-newsletters and 15 online shows. I thought, in my ignorance, that this was a free workflow directed service just ready for IHS, with all their skills and specialization in engineering markets, to add some analytics and a real workflow productivity element and win hands down. How many of GlobalSpec’s then 7 million users needed to be converted and how much cross selling would take place with the existing IHS engineering strengths I thought was grist to the mill for the ever-active IHS acquisition team. After all, in a world where RBI had moved from over 200 subscription products to less than ten subscription-based, data-fuelled, workflow orientated, focussed information services and solution areas in B2B, and IHS was seen to be working in the same strategic framework, what could possibly go wrong?

The lines in the Investor Day presentation (7 October 2015) which remove GlobalSpec from the IHS roll-call are terse to say the least. On a slide which notes that the plan was to “transition” the company from an advertising-based to a subscription-based revenue model, appears this “Were not able to achieve this objective as market not ready to transition from advertising-based to subscription-based revenue models”. Did investors, hearing this, start to sell RELX shares on the grounds that Knovel could never succeed for Elsevier? Or did they ask what value had been added to those design specs to entice users out of the free into the value-added?

No, I suspect they were wholly unruffled. GlobalSpec, although a real prospect in 2012, has been massively overtaken in the annals of IHS by further waves of acquisition in fresh industrial and commercial areas. Indeed engineering itself is now heavily camouflaged and not mentioned in the deck as a business focus in its own right. A decade ago this company, having burnt its fingers as a portfolio player, decided in the time of Charlie Picasso to redefine itself as a focussed player concentrating on energy and engineering (the latter being very much where the group roots lay). Energy is still there, but a steady stream of important acquisitions over the past five years, culminating in Polk, seem to have distracted attention from engineering. This is now again a massively diversified player with outcrops of activity all over the place. Was there focus in this activity? Perhaps indeed they simply forgot they had GlobalSpec?

Well, we smile at such thoughts, but I can testify to the power of the new in corporate portfolios. Nothing was more powerful than the magnetism of the latest buy in Michael Brown’s Thomson Corporation in my adolescence in this marketplace. These companies had the best leadership practices, the best strategies, the best business models and the best sales plans, and this much was self evident… because we had bought them. Six months later, when the discredited leadership had departed and their successors were trying to explain why it was impossible to to reach the forecasts they had been committed to make, it did not seem to matter – after all, we had usually bought something even newer and shinier in the meanwhile!

Is this what happened to GlobalSpec? Maybe. But whatever the answer what happened to those 7 million registered users. Surely IHS changing the name from GlobalSpec to Engineering 360 did not entirely throw them off the track, even if it wasted the brand asset developed since 1996. And what happened to all that delicious data. Since all of those specifications and design briefs were deposited by users, and all those catalogues submitted and updated by suppliers, it could be said that the data acquisition model came out of the user community. Was none of that data useful in the engineering workflow platform which IHS has built and of which it is justly proud? Before engineering took a back seat to other sectors more newly acquired we might wonder whether any attempt was made to see where the data now to be sold off formerly worked so well in the working lives of engineers, and how it might be re-energized in a value-added service model.

And finally lets turn to all of these engineers who were “not ready” for a subscription-based world. I wonder how such readiness is measured. Is there a formula available in the management schools? Did Netflix have to apply it at the point of deciding whether they could compete with free to air advertising-supported broadcast TV. Or did they simply say “We are confident of a value so powerful that people will want to have it to enhance their lives”. Or, in the case of GlobalSpec, their jobs. Building that have-to-have value is not easy, and takes some of that detailed appreciation of how people work for which IHS was once famous – in engineering. Buying GlobalSpec and selling it again within three years does not represent a failure of markets to recognize what they should do; it represents a failure of management. Either that failure was down to buying the wrong asset in the first place, or it comes down to not deploying it effectively and getting the reward from the investment. Rather than one line on a slide investors might have reasonably expected a “mea culpa”.

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