Global Economics

UBM: Core Media Brands for Core Audiences


United Business Media's reshuffling of resurgent U.S. publisher CMP follows a number of recent successful moves by CEO David Levin

London-based United Business Media (UBM.L) is hardly a household name. But ask people in the tech industry if they have heard of Interop or Web 2.0 conferences—all now fully or partially owned by UBM—and they will immediately recognize those brands. Or ask U.S. tech-heads if they know CMP, a well-known U.S. publisher behind core technology publications such as InformationWeek, and few would know UBM is the parent. That relative obscurity suits UBM Chief Executive Officer David Levin just fine. "We do not need the corporate brand to be well known, we need the individual brands to be known because that is where the passion is in these narrow communities," Levin says.

Levin is an activist boss. The former mobile industry executive has achieved a radical transformation at CMP, which was once heavily and disastrously dependent on print products for its revenue. On Feb. 29, UBM announced that CMP would be broken up and integrated into four market-focused businesses, a move UBM says it hopes will allow each new entity to operate closer to its customer base. While CMP used to get only 25% of its revenue from nonprint sources, now it gets 62%. CMP's profits, which were $70 million in 2000, plunged into losses of $12 million by 2001. In 2007 they shot up 30%, to $50 million, from $38 million in 2006.

Mixed Media Aimed at Business

The turnaround at CMP is an example of how UBM, a low-profile company with a market cap of $2.5 billion, is getting the mix between print, community, and Internet right in ways few media companies have managed. Levin has been quietly building a tightly integrated multimedia empire, purchasing 52 online and exhibition companies since 2005 with an average return on investment of over 13%. UBM looks to make another $1 billion in acquisitions in the next two years, says Levin.

Under Levin's watch UBM has exited seven noncore businesses, selling them for a total of $1.4 billion, and made a big push into emerging markets such as India, Brazil, and China, where it is now the largest private trade fair organizer. The company, which is now in 30 countries and derives only 15% of its profits from business in Britain, reported 2007 revenue for the group was up 8.5%, to $1.6 billion, while profit was up 11.5%, to $330 million. Through dividends and stock buybacks, some $1.5 billion has been given back to shareholders under Levin's watch. He hopes to give back another $400 to $600 million to shareholders by the end of 2009.

The company's margins, which were around 8% in 2002 and are now 21%, are roughly in line with media companies like Pearson (PSON), Reed Elsevier (REL), and exhibition organizer Informa (INF). But UBM was starting from way behind and is now among the best positioned going forward, say financial analysts. All media groups are going through portfolio changes. Pearson has made small bolt-on acquisitions, Informa has merged with an academic publisher to make it less vulnerable to cyclical changes, and Reed Elsevier is trying to sell its print magazines. But none has made as radical a transformation as UBM.

UBM covers a variety of sectors, including technology, ingredients in food and pharmaceutical products, beauty and health, jewelry, shipping, and cruises. Its print publications, online properties, trade shows, and exhibitions are targeted at business professionals, not consumers. "The guiding principle in the last three years has been, 'Can you develop a holistic community touching each audience and serve that community with multiple media?'" says Levin. "We think one media serving a community is a joke; you have got to use different media to really surround and wrap a community in it."

How Integration Works

Take the case of gaming. UBM puts on an annual conference in San Francisco that attracts some 18,000 professional game developers. It also publishes an award-winning Web magazine targeted at game developers called Gamasutra, and it runs a social networking site called MyGDC (short for "my game developer conference"). At this year's event, some 4,964 attendees signed up for the new social network, turning conversations that used to last just a few days a year at the show into a yearlong dialogue between game developers. So how does UBM leverage that? It hopes to use the networking site to drive participation at its yearly event, to pinpoint the hot topics for the yearly conference, and identify new movers and shakers who might make interesting speakers. Over time, the site can be used to develop recruiting databases and make money from online classified ads.

While CMP has launched virtual career fairs and seminars, one of the key lessons it has learned while integrating various media forms is that live events are increasingly important. Just as kids who download music for free over the Internet will still pay big bucks to attend a rock concert, the same is true of business professionals who still see a value in pressing the flesh in person and exchanging paper business cards. That is why events are a growing part of the business and a key component of its branding strategy.

Finding the Focus

Levin has not only transformed CMP but all of UBM, which was originally incorporated in Britain in 1918 as United Newspapers Limited and still publishes titles that were launched in the 19th century, including Building magazine, a title created in 1843, as well as The Engineer and Chemist & Druggist.

The company's dreams of becoming a big player in television were dashed when British regulators nixed its plans to make various acquisitions, leaving it holding an expensive minority stake in Britain's Channel 5. Levin sold off the TV stakes and other noncore businesses and made a series of smart online purchases at low valuations, say analysts. Now, UBM's existing businesses are being organized into four areas with deep synergies. One addresses the chief information officers of Fortune 2000 companies; another the electronics industry; a third focuses on micro-communities, such as gaming, help desks, and calling centers; and the fourth area focuses on strategies for selling to small and medium-sized businesses. "We think we have a formula that is working," says Levin. "We are seeing a rich payback from integrating media and focusing on really catering to communities."


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