At last month's eighth annual DeSilva & Phillips Media Dealmakers Summit in New York, the speakers and panelists often looked back with a mix of horror and wonder at the recessionary year of 2009.
Jeff Horing, managing director of Insight Venture Partners, offered the most succinct summary of last year's mood: “We were all freaked out,” he cracked during a panel discussion.
The overall feeling at this year's conference seemed to be that media companies had stabilized and M&A activity may be rebounding. “I feel real good about the companies that survived the past 24 months,” Horing said.
It's unclear, however, just how good those companies feel about themselves and their business models. Much of the discussion during the panel sessions focused on how media companies were handling the erosion of print revenue, how they were hoping to generate additional revenue from Web advertising and sponsorships, and how they were contemplating experiments with online paid content.
There seemed to be no pat answers. “There is no status quo,” said panelist John Harris, editor in chief of Politico, who described the feeling this way: “We feel like a water skier just holding on.”
Tony Uphoff, CEO of United Business Media's TechWeb, used a similar wild-ride metaphor. “We're in the front of the roller coaster,” he said, describing the tech information business' tendency to be affected by changes in media consumption habits before traditional trade publishers.
Uphoff said that three years ago, 70% of his unit's profitability came from print. “Now, it's 20%,” he said, noting he remains bullish about particular parts of the business, such as custom media.
Sharon Rowlands, CEO of Penton Media, touted vertically focused business media. “I'm upbeat on vertical markets,” she said, adding, “We are where the knowledge is.”
The key now is to generate revenue from this knowledge, Rowlands said, by helping marketers figure out how to use it to reach customers. She said the rise of marketing services and consultative selling poses challenges for Penton's sales staff, which has been built for more than a century to sell ad pages. “There's a huge talent gap,” she said, adding, “Only a fraction of our sales force is capable of effectively selling [marketing services] to customers.”
(Last month, Penton announced an agreement with its lenders to restructure its debt through a prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan.)
Politico's Harris said his company was also working to gain revenue from marketers, mainly through advertising both in print and online. Even in the Internet age, the key to generating revenue is “owning a narrow space,” he said. “The only way to do that is by investing heavily in content.”
The investment bankers who spoke at the conference tried to assess the combined impact of the recession and the rise of digital media on M&A activity. Most agreed that content was still king—or at least remained royalty.
Richard Zannino, managing director of CCMP Capital, said he continued to evaluate media businesses on their ability to generate “indispensable and differentiated” content. Speaking on a panel at the conference, Zannino, who was a top executive at Dow Jones & Co. before it was acquired by News Corp., said of the combination of buying in the current environment and not as a strategic acquirer, “Everything scares the crap out of me.”
Zannino said a chief concern remains overpaying. Even with many private equity companies preoccupied with restructuring deals made in the past three to five years, there were other private equity funds still pursuing available companies. “Overall, there's still way too much money chasing too few deals,” he said. M