An ever-shifting media economy has brought with it uncertainty and an overwhelming amount of choices. For some publishers, to have survived the digital revolution with most business units intact is considered good going.

But United Business Media isn’t interested in standing still: under CEO David Levin the company has bought 80 companies and continued to grow its events business in the UK and, particularly, internationally. The $278 million (185 million) purchase of US publishing and tradeshow group Canon Communications) was its biggest to date.

Last week I caught up with the softly spoken, cerebral Levin in his office at UBM HQ on London’s South Bank, with its spectacular view of the capital. So what does he think about the future of B2B media and the health of UBM? In the first part of an exclusive interview with me for the TheMediaBriefing, we hear why there are too many B2B magazines, why he’s not certain about charging for news online why titles with “week” or “news” on its masthead is in trouble…


TheMediaBriefing: What’s the mood like at UBM and what’s the health of the company?

David Levin: We’re in a little bit of a hiatus waiting for clearance on what’s been the largest of 80 acquisitions so we’re kicking our heels – we can’t wait to get the train set.

We’ve moved our business hugely over the last few years. The really interesting question is what’s the future shape? We’ve navigated the first five years of the digital wipeout – but the next wave of transition is coming, so how do companies position themselves? That’s something I’m very focused on.

You’re best known to most people as a magazine publisher. Are you now an events company that happens to own some magazines?

Half of our earnings are now out of events and live media. I joined in 2005 and we’ve made 34 acquisitions of event companies and that’s taken our events business to the centre stage of the company.

I do believe that in this digital age events are incredibly effective. And also they are symbiotic with online… Have many publishers been successful on the web? The answer is: not many, because – ghastly word – the paradigm was so radically different. Whereas, interestingly, the most creative things we’ve got on the web are led by people who had their foot in events.

With this move towards digital, you appear to have a very unsentimental approach to your print titles and their role…

There’s a distinction to be made. Having an editorial take on stories is very important – editors have a phenomenal role to play… and we’re losing that. The sad thing about the 24-hour news culture is that we live in silos and people are becoming less aware of things that they should know, that they need to know.

In a B2B world, you’re only as good as your audience says you are. We have to listen to the audience and say “We’re not trying to provide generic news”. In fact most titles whose headline is “something news” or “something week” are structurally going to struggle, by definition.

Where can they add value? We have 20 paid content initiatives where people are saying “we can add value” not by offering the same content as somebody else but by offering discrete content which is different and/or views or data adjacent to it.

The Journal of Commerce now has a subscription value of more than $200 a year – it used to be controlled circulation and we’ll see over the next two or three years whether people find their way to love and appreciate that paid content.

So do you think there’s still a question mark over digital paid content?

Yeah, I do. I’m form factor-agnostic. Personally, I like magazines. I sit on the tube and read The Times on my iPad every morning. I like the metaphor of the laid-out page. Do I think that there’s a future for print? Of course there is, but it’s smaller.

You’ve already shut some print titles – are there are more tough decisions ahead?

Structurally print is over-published. There are too many B2B titles. Not in every sector, but in some sectors where there are three, four, five titles… I heard of a sector the other day with seven titles eking out an existence when really there’s only room for one.

There’s a great vibrant future for a winning title, but the publishing industry as a whole has got to get to grips with it and work out how to shut things.

Tim Weller at Incisive told me recently he wants to install registration walls, what he calls gateways, on all his free-to-air sites. Are you comfortable with giving content away?

The question is: can you monetise the audience? Whether that’s with a cookie that follows an audience member that has visited a website and you look at the ads that they look at when they leave your site, that kind of behavioural tracking is very possible.

Do you need to charge for the title? No, you need to be able to monetise and follow the individual.

What do expect and hope for in the next 12 months?

The first thing we’re hoping for is the integration of Canon… the next year will see a lot of activity around that. And there will also be a lot of activity around emerging markets, as we launch and develop products there. That’s exciting because things are on the up – for the last three years the feeling was of dealing with things that were on the down, so it’s a change of gear and emphasis.

As we look at the way online is impacting the news distribution market, I think that’s going to be really exciting. Seeing the way what was essentially a corporate news release vehicle becomes increasingly a marketing news vehicle (UBM owns PR Newswire). So I’m busy, is the short answer!

What’s the biggest threat on the horizon?

On the known unknowns, the biggest one remains how print business models take themselves forward. Print is still 17 percent of our revenues, but only about five percent of our profits. We know that it’s structurally changing – how that is going to play out is the biggest unknown.

It’s very easy to become engaged in emerging markets, but actually that a rather difficult thing… it’s inevitable that there are ups and downs in these fast growth markets and we’ve just got to be patient.

Come back to TheMediaBriefing on Thursday to see the second part of this interview, in which Levin talks about the future of events and tradeshows and why his acquisition spree will continue.