International Business Media: Back to business

The economic crises since the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2001 forced business media to diversify or die, Jason Deign says.

The year was 2000 and BusinessWeek, like other players in the international business media sector, had never had it so good. The magazine was bagging the biggest profits in its history, selling out all 14 US and most of its international editions, and still taking on more advertising.

What happened next was what Bill Kupper, BusinessWeek's president and publisher, and many others in the sector, have termed "the perfect storm".

The dotcom bubble burst in 2001; then 11 September; 2002 brought war with Iraq and corporate scandals; 2003 had Sars.

The effects of this simultaneous crash in the finance, technology and travel sectors, the main sources of revenue for the business press and TV, are summed up by BusinessWeek's ad revenues: down 17 per cent from 2000 to 2001; 10 per cent from 2001 to 2002; and 9 per cent from 2002 to 2003.

At least BusinessWeek survived; others were not so lucky. Industry Standard, Upside and Red Herring were among the American new-economy titles that folded in the wake of the dotcom crash. Business 2.0 ceased publishing outside the US, while Forbes decided to kill its ASAP technology supplement.

Of the more mainstream survivors, perhaps the one that has fared worst is Pearson's Financial Times. The perfect storm caught it in the middle of a major expansion aimed at heading off competition from The Wall Street Journal.

"A lot of the FT's business comes from mergers and acquisitions ads, and that just completely stopped," Frances O'Neil, the managing partner at Mediaedge:cia Worldwide, says. By 2003, advertising volumes at the title had fallen by nearly two-thirds from their 2000 level.

One international press buyer puts it bluntly: "I think business schools will look at what Pearson did from 1998 until now as an example of what not to do."

Even Ben Hughes, the paper's worldwide advertising director, admits: "It is probably true to say that the past three years have been the worst we have had in the history of the FT. People who were used to running large global campaigns stopped doing it."

The paper responded with a three-point plan that has become a blueprint for survival across the sector: diversifying into new content areas, making it easier to book integrated campaigns across different media platforms, and finding new ways to show its advertising works.

On the first point, the FT can at least take some comfort in having led the way. Its How to Spend it supplement, which launched ten years ago as a UK quarterly, has been hailed as a model of brand diversification.

There are now 19 editions a year, distributed around the world, with advertising revenues growing at a rate of 5 per cent to 8 per cent year on year, according to Hughes.

It helped inspire a rash of lifestyle-related spin-offs as the advertising downturn began to affect other media owners. Time, now Europe's biggest international business magazine in terms of advertising market share, led the pack with the launch of Style & Design three years ago.

Nadine Howarth, the ad sales director at Time, says the supplement is "going from strength to strength". It launched in Europe as a test and now has four editions, quarterly in Europe and America and three times a year in Asia and the South Pacific.

BusinessWeek followed Time's lead with FashionWeek in March 2003. Paul Maraviglia, BusinessWeek's international managing director, says the supplement has been such a success that the publisher will be putting out an Asian version this November and a Chinese-language edition in 2005.

O'Neil says supplements "are a smart thing to do, because they give us, as planners, a much more interesting 'media surround'. They are worth considering."

Meanwhile, Fortune has diversified into events, staging major shindigs such as the Fortune Brainstorm in Aspen, Colorado, billed as the US answer to Davos, or the Fortune Global Forum, which last year gathered 250 business chiefs in Beijing.

Some global business broadcasters have also broadened their range to include lifestyle content programming, including Fortune's Time Warner stable-mate CNN.

According to Jonathan Davies, the senior vice-president of CNN International advertising sales, EMEA, some of the channel's biggest advertisers are lifestyle brands, including Johnnie Walker, Rolex and the Egypt Tourist Board.

"Travel and tourism is now our biggest revenue group," he says. The company is also using lifestyle programming to gain incremental revenues from its traditional advertisers, for example persuading the financial services brand UBS to sponsor a series called Inside Sailing.

A few business broadcasters, however, remain wary about stretching their brands too far. At Bloomberg, which admittedly does not rely so much on advertising as it derives most of its revenue from desktop terminal sales, Trevor Fellows, the European head of media, says: "We do some lifestyle programming at the weekend but would not run advertiser-funded programmes.

"We have relied on a discipline of breaking news first. As a channel, you need to stick to your knitting; it's unlikely that we would do better lifestyle programming than the BBC."

Bloomberg has, however, diversified geographically, with local-language channels in five European countries.

This combination of non-reliance on advertising, a strong new emphasis and local-language programming has helped Bloomberg steal market share over the past few years from the likes of CNBC, although Fellows accepts that the brand will always be a niche player compared with CNN.

CNBC Europe, meanwhile, is fighting back with a proprietary on-screen graphics system to show when stocks or indices are trading at daily highs or lows, plus local camera crews based in European business centres such as Brussels, Frankfurt and Zurich.

The channel has already tied up a deal to provide German-language news feeds from its Frankfurt bureau to the Berlin-based broadcaster N24.

Like CNN, the channel is not adverse to lifestyle-related programme sponsorship and earlier this year, through ZenithOptimedia, got HSBC to back a six-part documentary called Live Long and Prosper, on the ageing global population.

It aired on CNBC's Europe, Asia and World channels.

The series also had a strong online component, including a website designed by CNBC Europe, giving the broadcaster the second magic ingredient for survival in the post-dotcom era: cross-platform media integration.

It is increasingly commonplace for advertising sales teams to put together packages across at least a couple of different media platforms. When CNN got UBS on board for Inside Sailing, for example, the deal included complementary sponsored editorial in Time magazine and online.

As a result, many international business media owners have spruced up their online offerings and encouraged closer alliances between brands in the group.

The FT, again, was among the first to offer advertisers something approaching true cross-media integration by folding all of its websites into the portal three years ago and then merging the online editorial and ad teams with those on the paper. has 76,000 subscribers and, with 3.4 million unique users, is well ahead of The Wall Street Journal's pioneering website (1.4 million unique users), which was the world's first to make a profit by charging users for its content. generates cash through subscriptions, advertising and the sale of content to third parties.

Trumping the lot, however, is Its print parent may have fewer readers than many of its rivals, but the website has grown from having just under two million unique users in 2002 to boasting 6.8 million by the end of last year. It is now the world's most-visited business website.

McGraw-Hill, the publisher of BusinessWeek, has enjoyed considerable success with its online version, BusinessWeek Online. The venture became profitable in 2002 and has stayed so ever since. Seven out of ten people who come to the site are "new to the franchise", Kupper says, and last year it brought in 35,000 new subscribers for the magazine. BusinessWeek has also ventured into events and television, with Money Talks, a weekly 30-minute personal-finance programme, which screens on US and Asian networks and is cut down to eight minutes for Euronews.

Last but not least, there is increased accountability. Any global business media brand nowadays undertakes research as if their livelihoods depended on it. CNN and CNBC both make a virtue of their panel studies, which can be tailored for individual clients.

At Time, meanwhile, Howarth says: "Five or six years ago, we did perhaps two pieces of client research a year. Now we do one piece for each major campaign, to complement the syndicated research. Everything that you do now requires return on investment - it's the new buzz word."

All this effort seems to be paying off at last, with many media owners cautiously optimistic after encouraging results so far in 2004. "Relative to consumer, international business media seems to be picking up more quickly, but it's coming back from a very low base," Jason Hayford, the international business-to-business manager at Starcom Group, says.

After all, as pointed out in Campaign (9 July), this sector never lost its audience. Kupper points out: "Our circulation actually crept up in 2003. But the advertiser support just wasn't there."

It looks as though that has changed this year. Davies reports revenues up 30 per cent year on year. Mick Buckley, the chief executive of CNBC, is forecasting similar growth. "Our ad revenues were lower in 2001 than in 2000 but have increased since then," he says.

Magazines, too, are seeing something of a bounce-back, with ad revenues boosted by returning blue-chips and new advertisers attracted by increasing levels of lifestyle content. The Economist, in particular, is widely praised by agency sources for its strong growth.

"My sector, IT, is starting to spend again," Graham Roberts, the head of advertising at Unisys, says. "And I think the way the world has gone in the past few years has played into international business media's hands. People want a more global, international view."

Even the FT is slowly starting to make a recovery. In July, ad revenue was up 3 per cent on 2003 levels, the first increase in three years.

However, while it is still "the biggest kid on the block", as Hayford puts it, the FT has lost valuable ground. "It has suffered badly since 2000, as its natural advertisers fell away. Now they are returning, but it is not necessarily the must-have that it once was."

CMR International estimates the paper's share of the EMEA international business daily advertising market between January and May this year was 68 per cent, down from 74 per cent in the same period of 2003.

And while CMR showed both The Wall Street Journal Europe and the International Herald Tribune (which has revamped its weekend offering and strengthened its reporting team across Europe) gaining ground, evidence that the dailies are not out of the woods yet came in August.

A 13.5 per cent decrease for The Wall Street Journal Europe, along with poor performances from the same title's Asia edition and Barron's, the US financial weekly, prompted its parent company, Dow Jones, to revise its third-quarter forecast.

It remains to be seen whether this is indicative of wider troubles to come in the industry, or just a blip on the graph.

Most media owners would agree that the perfect storm has forced them to become more responsive, more flexible and more accountable.

Some, such as BusinessWeek, which has seen its revenues grow 16 per cent in Europe and 12 per cent in Asia this year, have actually benefited from such a brutal reality check.

Maraviglia now looks to the future with a bit more confidence. He says: "Our growth would have been even higher were it not for the still-stagnant technology sector in the US.

"As for next year, I expect this upturn to continue modestly, not based on increased merger and acquisition activity (which encourages new companies to advertise) but more by a feeling that large corporate clients are realising that they need to start branding themselves again."

Crucially, it seems that international business media have learned their lessions, and will not be caught out so easily next time recession bites.