Media Fortune Fame & Folly

How B2B media can strike gold again

Preston is a little-known northern British city with an illustrious past in the country’s 19th century industrial revolution, and a football team whose best days were more than 60 years ago. It was at the heart of a world-beating textile industry, was Charles Dickens’ smokey location for his novel “Hard Times”, and – 200 years ago – was the first town outside London to have gas lighting.

A business park in Preston seems an unlikely location for a dynamic business-to-business media group. But this is the home of the 170-year-old Farmers Guardian whose founder was a local campaigner against alcohol. But it was his national lobbying for the repeal of restrictions on grain imports which provoked the launch of the weekly newspaper which, until 1958, was called the Preston Guardian. Its location 370km from London might explain why

Farmers Guardian was neglected by its long-time owner United Newspapers (now UBM).

For years, it was managed as part of a regional newspaper group while its London-based parent independently launched a competitive (and, ultimately, unsuccessful) weekly for farmers. Divestment of Farmers Guardian had seemed inevitable, even before UBM began its sale of magazines and “content” in order to concentrate on exhibitions.

In 2012, it was acquired by Briefing Media (subsequently renamed AgriBriefing), a start-up led by Neil Thackray who has spent almost 30 years managing the highs and lows of publishing and events for some of Europe’s largest B2B companies. He had started out selling recruitment advertising for Reed Business Information before becoming publishing director and then CEO in companies large and small. Along the way, he became a punchy advocate of reinvention in traditional media.

In 2010, he teamed with Rory Brown (a former Metal Bulletin and Incisive Media marketing whizz) and Rupert Levy (a Finance Director from Haymarket and UBM). Briefing Media started, slightly confusingly, with Media Briefing, a web site which quickly became a significant source for analysis of the digital media wars. It became a platform for the British Media Awards and for high-flying media-tech conferences.

Then came the breakthrough £10m acquisition of Farmers Guardian and the medical newspaper Pulse from UBM, another of Thackray’s former employers. His strategy for Farmers Guardian presumably included four objectives:

  • Combine print and digital – for readers, advertisers and sponsors.
  • Grow digital revenues while maximising print
  • Replace subscriptions and copy sales with a membership scheme
  • Build strong exhibitions, conferences and awards events

The UBM acquisition had been the culmination of years of chasing private equity-funded deals, and Briefing Media hit the ground running. It moved quickly to acquire the 34-year-old LAMMA machinery show which spawned the three-year-old CropTec exhibition and then the LAMMA Exchange machinery digital classifieds. Last year, it bought the five-year-old Agrimoney which gives a foothold in the international agribusiness and commodities market, where it claims 70,000 users in 170 countries.

Briefing Media has been able to exploit the low costs of operating in Preston, where 70% of its 100 people are employed.

The business is moving quickly and almost everything seems to have worked. Even the 2013 sale of the Pulse (with £2m turnover and profits of c£400k) helped to knock more than £2m off the company’s borrowings. Briefing Media has hardly missed a beat. Turnover increased from £9.3m in 2012 to £13m in 2014, while EBITDA profit increased by 63% to £3.6m. Profit margins were up from 23% to 27% across the same period. That’s not how it’s meant to be for what had been an old-fashioned “trade magazine” business.

In July this year, it became clear just how successful Thackray-Brown-Levy had become when they swapped one private equity backer for another. The new owner, Lyceum Capital, is believed to have valued the company at some £40m – an increase of four-times in three years. No wonder the outgoing shareholders were euphoric. But the good news keeps coming. In 2015, Briefing Media expects to achieve revenue of £14.5m and EBITDA profit of perhaps £4m. Some 90% of the turnover probably comes from agriculture.

The company seems set to achieve revenue of at least £20m and profit of up to £6m over the next three years. That would give Lyceum the opportunity to exit with Briefing Media valued at some £60m – and suitably rewarding its founders who could then own at least one-third of the company.

This performance is likely to be substantially enhanced by further acquisitions, not least in European agribusiness. But, even with just the existing operations, these are strong growth rates in what are regarded as unpromising times for print-centric businesses. Two results from the farming operations tell the story:

  • 19,000 (more than 50% of the Farmers Guardian’s copy sales) are registered members. Average revenue per user has grown by 53% as the company has added information “value” to the membership offering. Membership now accounts for 30% of all revenues.
  • The LAMMA exhibition (which accounts for more than 15% of the company’s total revenue) has doubled in size in the past three years. It is now the industry’s largest exhibition with over 900 exhibitors and 1m sq ft of display space. It attracts over 40,000 farmers from around the UK and overseas.

In the media sector, the company’s three annual UK conferences – Monetising Media, Digital Media Strategies, and B2B Media Strategies – may this year attract about 1,500 delegates for an impressive range of speakers from the world’s leading media companies. And the British Media Awards is strongly profitable. This year, Media Briefing branched out with a New York conference, Digital Media Strategies USA. It had a pretty good start with almost 200 delegates, some good reviews, and a profit.

The Media Briefing division was the company’s launch-pad – and may now be profitable. But it is farming that marks the company’s real achievement and potential. It seems like a perfect case study for what can be achieved when talent meets opportunity – even in the chaotic landscape of traditional media.

The depth of media disruption may be measured by the frequency with which long-time publishers predict the end of print – even while digital-tech companies increasingly use magazines and newspapers to promote their own services.

New-wave operators understand the accessibility, promotional power and relatively low-cost of print. But traditional media seems unable to accept that – while print may never again be the primary profit-maker for a modern media business – it can be a durable complement. Arguably, traditional media’s insistence on using identical branding for quite distinct print and digital services underlines the expectation that print will soon be gone. Like the on-off decisions of whether to have a paywall, these companies seem to lack subtlety. It’s all or nothing.

Briefing Media understands the point, especially when applied to a real community like farmers whose whole livelihood is pushed and pulled by politicians, retailers and foreign producers. The UK now produces only two-thirds of its own food, with dire predictions that – unless politicians come to the aid of farmers – this will fall further. Farmers – and their media – are energised by life-blood issues like ‘food security’, the EU’s always-controversial Common Agricultural Policy, and urban populations who don’t understand what they’re on about.

But there’s something else that appetises Neil Thackray. His alma mater, Reed, owns Farmers Weekly, a 81-year-old magazine that has thrived in the decade since the UK-based RBI had publications in more than 20+ B2B markets. Those were the days when it was easy to operate magazines in multiple vertical sectors with a shared business model and economies of scale. Some publications were paid-for and some were free controlled circulation. But, in the long-time advertising boom, they mostly shared high profit margins. Now the one-size model is broken and every sector demands something different.

The dramatic change is emphasised by the fact that, 30 years ago, Farmers Weekly actually owned and operated no fewer than six farms

in the UK and France. What sounds like a joke media strategy was theoretically justified by the magazine content yielded by the farms. Perhaps, it was really a lifestyle choice by the company’s senior executives. RBI bosses, with their sprawling portfolio, had sometimes seemed obsessed with the prestige of a single magazine which was not even its most profitable. But it was said to be read by the Queen. Those were the days when it was stuffed full of classified ads and selling 120,000 copies every week. Half of those sales and all of the farms have long gone.

Farmers Weekly now heads one of the six UK-based (but increasingly global) RBI market groups, which include banking, chemicals, aviation, property and HR. They have transitioned variously from print into digital information, transactional services, software, and consulting. The farming group’s ancillary brands include Crops, Power Farming and Poultry Word. And its Farmplan provides accounts, stock-keeping and mapping systems to support managers of farms and rural businesses. Last year, RBI paid £7m for the £1.5m-revenue Farmade, one of the UK’s major crop management software businesses which has been expanding internationally.

The Farmers Weekly Group generates at least £20m of revenue and, perhaps, £4m of profit which makes it an attractive – but tough – competitor for Farmers Guardian. Market share estimates are unreliable now that advertising is sold in combination across print, digital and events. But independent monitoring shows Farmers Weekly has a 30% share of print advertising compared with 14% for Farmers Guardian. However, when Farmers Weekly’s two and Farmers Guardian’s three associated magazines are included, Reed’s lead is halved (34% v 26%). Game on.

Farmers Guardian’s circulation of 35.6k is 37% lower than Farmers Weekly’s 56,752 but you wouldn’t guess it. Briefing Media’s research claims that Farmers Guardian is the “best read weekly title at farms of all sizes in the UK”, echoing the belief that the gilded Farmers Weekly has many non-farming readers. You can almost hear Neil Thackray’s salesmanship in the forecast that “Over the next five years, farmers who read Farmers Guardian and not one of its main competitors will be responsible for £2bn of spend”. But, then, his company is the try-harder challenger with the skills and competitive hunger that has brought it this far.

It enjoys the lower costs of Preston (v Farmer’s Weekly’s Greater London), of a newspaper format (compared with a magazine), and less management. It is punching well above its weight. Both companies have farming weather services but only Farmers Guardian’s has the

authority of a separate brand and domain name. Even its British Farming Awards may seem more like the industry’s definitive event than the Farmers Weekly Awards. As if to emphasise what Briefing Media has learned in covering the mainstream news market, Farmers Guardian ‘broadcasts’ a lively 60-second video news summary. Meanwhile, Farmers Weekly has just launched a 100-page print and digital magazine Home Farm, featuring “Britain’s sexiest farmers”.

This tussle between an industry giant and a so-smart independent is a media story of our time. But these two magazine-centric operations are also reminders of the way in which print once defined all B2B media relationships.

Whole professions and industries, from top to bottom, were unified by their shared reading of B2B magazines which seemed to have all the content and advertising they needed. But, as in so much media, exclusive content was increasingly sacrificed in the chase for advertising dollars. Publishers didn’t have to try so hard for readers. Now so much of the advertising has evaporated, B2B media companies must get back to providing that ‘cradle-to-grave’ service for professionals. Their information requirements can be broadly categorised as:

  1. Mass market – news and general coverage for the broadest audience in a defined market. Whether in print or digitally, such coverage needs now to be free or very low cost. It may be funded by advertising or as a promotional platform for other added-value services. The easy accessibility to news (even in individual industries) has reduced its value to readers. But it can still be the ‘glue’ for user relationships: the daily reason to go online. That’s why Facebook, SnapChat and LinkedIn have news feeds.
  2. Micro market – original information, statistics, analysis and interpretation for existing and prospective industry leaders. These services – in print, digital or ‘face to face’ events would normally be paid-for by readers/users. This area of ‘owned’ information is what got lost in the rush to build ‘mass’ audiences and advertising revenue. B2B media must again invest in information that readers/users will (have to) pay for.
  3. Education & training – ‘continuing professional development’ through print, interactive digital, conferences, courses, and branded qualifications will be an increasingly important part of B2B media. It would primarily be paid-for by users and/or sponsorship.
  4. Bespoke – Consulting and One2One advisory services  (fuelled by analytics and data) are becoming an important source of revenue for the strongest B2B brands.

The violent swing from a pre-digital dependence on print (often funded both by readers and advertisers) to online audiences which can seem reluctant to pay for anything at all, is tormenting all media companies. In the UK, many of the country’s once so-profitable B2B weeklies were buoyed by high-volume, high-priced recruitment and classified advertising, most of which has defected to the web. But B2B media must become ‘deep down’ specialists. High-value, unique information must be augmented with the curation of more generally-available content – preventing the need for users to go elsewhere. As one newspaper guru says: “Spend on the best, link to the rest.”

In the same vein, publishers which once made millions out of recruitment advertising might now provide those same job ads (even without revenue) in order to secure online traffic. The economics of media have changed but many consumer appetites have not. And the opportunities for substantial new revenues can be seen clearly from the way that Reed and others are increasingly moving into “bespoke” consulting services.

Indeed, this is where Reed Business Information and Briefing Media again come together.

Briefing Media’s new chairman is Gehan Talwatte, a seriously digital operator whose career stand-out was the development of Ascend

Worldwide an analytics and consulting business in international aviation. He sold the business in 2011, after information data group Outsell had described one of its key services compellingly: “Ascend’s Aircraft Ratings [allow banks to] get a rating for an individual vessel based on a bundle of factors including historic price movements, GDP, oil prices, noise and fuel use regulatory compliance. Ascend maintains a matrix of 328 ratings across 61 aircraft types, and its forecasts hinge on its estimates of Expected Annual Depreciation and Implied Downside Volatility. Factor all this in, and banks and lessors really can track the value of their assets with unprecedented accuracy, so that decision-making on loan approvals and asset retention becomes quicker and better informed.”

With its development of high value data, Ascend tripled revenue between 2007 and 2010, and became one of the 50 fastest growing UK companies. It went from break-even to very profitable. The business was then sold to… Reed Business Information whose Flightglobal operations have now grown – in less than 10 years – from mere magazines into a worldwide information and consulting business. Can we guess what Briefing Media will do next?

UPDATE: 16 July 2017: Haymarket Media has acquired the British Media Awards and the Digital Media Strategies conference from Briefing Media which has also announced it is closing its MediaBriefing site, in order to concentrate on the expanding agri media business. 

Briefing Media was rebranded as AgriBriefing in January 2018.