Media Forum: Can Pearson grow FT success?

Does Pearson have what it takes to secure the title's future, Alasdair Reid asks.

Back in 2003, during what were arguably the darkest days ever faced by the Financial Times, its management promised that the title would bounce back in 2005. Last week, it was proud to announce that it had been as good as its word - the pink paper is now back in the black. Losses of £32 million and £9 million in 2003 and 2004 respectively have been superseded in the 2005 figures by a £2 million profit.

Luxury goods led the way as ad revenues kept improving right across the year, with the strongest performance coming in the last quarter. And there's growing evidence that the FT is managing to leverage its brand across multiple platforms - it is becoming routine for advertisers to book campaigns running across both the paper and

But all is not sweetness and light. City investors have begun to urge Pearson to sell while the going is good.

Pearson, its critics say, is basically a book publisher. As the owner of Penguin Books, plus a wide range of educational publishing assets, it is one of the classiest acts in the book world - but that doesn't necessarily make it a good newspaper publisher. In an arena where dog has been known to eat dog, more aggressive instincts are often called for.

On the other hand, you suspect that more mainstream publishers might struggle to understand the rarefied world inhabited by the FT and its readers. But there are those who believe that the brand has lost some of its sheen in recent years. Editorial cuts have led inevitably to a decline in the paper's scope and authority. Over the past few years, too many decent stories have slipped through its net and libel proceedings have undermined its reputation for God-like infallibility.

There's a free paper now in the City; and each day, it seems, new sources of business information keep popping up on the internet. Pearson, in short, still faces a Herculean task. Is it up to the challenge?

Nick Manning, the chief executive of OMD, says the nature of the challenge is obvious - but that doesn't make it any easier to crack: "The FT is an incredibly strong brand. The question, of course, is how it chooses to mould those brand values to a new multiplatform world, where content is king. Would you choose to go to a Google or a Yahoo! for business information?

Probably not. You'd almost certainly prefer to go to the FT or The Wall Street Journal or The Economist. But monetising content on these new platforms isn't easy and choosing the route to go down is a huge challenge."

Manning believes that, having learned some painful lessons, Pearson may now be in a good position to profit from its past mistakes. Paul Richards, a media analyst at Numis Securities, isn't so sure: "Pearson's revenue base remains relatively small - £200 million for the main FT brand and another £130 million from Les Echos and business-to-business publishing.

Revenues of £330 million for a newspaper publisher remain modest on an international basis. Compare that with the resources Dow Jones is able to put behind The Wall Street Journal. Or think what News Corp could do with it."

Antony Young, the chief executive of ZenithOptimedia, says this is becoming a high-stakes game of poker. "None of its competitors in the business market - online publishers, free papers and other national dailies - appears to be turning a profit. Lots of players are throwing chips into the middle of the table hoping someone else folds first. The card the FT can play is that it has a terrific brand that is transferable to multiple channels. It also has a global product, targeting an ever-more-global business world. The challenge faced by the management is whether it can monetise its content and brand more effectively and efficiently - and whether it can do so with sufficient urgency."

But Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat, points out that, though the bounce back has been commendable, there are aspects of the figures that continue to give concern. He says: "You can certainly argue that it is ahead of the game in the UK, in terms of blending the on- and offline products. But you can also argue that the online revenues were disappointing given the fact that online ad revenues grew by more than 50 per cent in the UK (2005 versus 2004). Traditional print (advertising and circulation) continues to be a declining market - so it will be interesting to see how Pearson manages to maintain its enthusiasm for this business."

YES - Nick Manning, chief executive, OMD

"I don't think anyone doubts that, for those with the right content, new digital platforms are on the verge of being incredibly lucrative.

So you could well argue that, having come this far, this is not the right time, from Pearson's point of view, to be considering selling the FT."

NO - Paul Richards, media analyst, Numis Securities

"I think it is clear that the FT remains an underdeveloped asset. It is a powerhouse brand and in terms of developing it, has been a success, albeit with a huge investment. Arguably, however, there are groups out there who could make more of (the brand)."

MAYBE - Antony Young, chief executive, ZenithOptimedia

"The FT is not alone in facing these challenges. Every company the FT writes about is trying to figure out their digital and international strategy.

If the FT can crack theirs, then they have a bright future. I think they can do it, but Pearson needs to decide if they want to play this hand."

NO - Neil Jones, managing director, Carat

"It's a fantastic brand - a global leader - and there will always be a market for it. It has done well compared to the dreadful years previously but I think it will struggle to maintain that growth. Is Pearson the right company to take it forward? You really would have to question that."

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