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Reed Phillips: 2024 Media Industry M&A Outlook

A speaker at next month’s Mx3 Barcelona Summit, Reed Phillips, CEO of Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips investment bank, explains how M&A is rebounding and why this year is set to be more dynamic as corporate owners shed non-strategic assets and private equity firms realign their portfolios. And keep a firm eye on the Creator Economy…

We are just six weeks into the new year and already the outlook for M&A in media is much brighter than a year ago. Last year was an off year for M&A in general. That’s because there was too much uncertainty around inflation, interest rates (higher rates cause the cost of capital to be greater) and whether the world’s leading economies were growing.

According to Bain & Company, the M&A market dropped 15% in 2023, to its lowest level in a decade. However, M&A by strategic buyers only dropped 6%; it was private equity owners who pulled back the most.

This year M&A is rebounding. The US stock market finished strong in 2023, largely due to the strength of technology companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple, Netflix and Meta, and has continued its ascension in 2024. Bain & Company expects corporate owners to sell non-strategic assets and private equity owners to be more aggressive in shedding older investments as well as ramping up their acquisitions of new properties. 

Let’s hyperfocus on five sectors where my firm, the investment bank Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips (based in New York City), is active: digital media, book publishing, magazines, events, and the creator economy. We also cover insights, advertising, marketing services, software, healthcare media & communications, education technology, information, and entertainment technology, but I selected five sectors that are the most relevant and interesting to readers of Mx3.

Meet Reed in person to discuss M&A trends and what they say about the future of media. Reed will be one of our speakers at Mx3 Barcelona, joining us for both days on 12 and 13 March. Our Early Bird offer on tickets ends on 14 February. View the agenda, speakers and partners, here, and purchase tickets here.

Digital Media

A lot of the talk in digital media circles has been about the 2023 changes in algorithms for search and social media that caused traffic to drop sharply at many advertising-dependent sites. According to one of my partners, Jay Kirsch, “Google’s emphasis on EEAT (Experience, Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness) to prioritize search results has been a major reason for this trend.” Many US digital media companies have been impacted including Buzzfeed and The Messenger (which shuttered after spending $50 million in 2023, the first year of the startup). Vice Media, once valued at almost $6 billion was sold for $350 million in 2023.

Despite challenges faced by these news-related sites, Semafor is performing well. They countered the advertising pullback by holding almost 50 events in 2023, which nicely diversified their revenues.

Since 2021, several digital media companies, like Politico (in 2021) and Industry Dive (in 2022), had outstanding valuations, both selling for 15x EBITDA. [In 2020, my firm, Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips, sold E&E News, a digital media company, to Politico].

More recently, Penske Media acquired a 20% stake in Vox Media in exchange for a $100 million investment, according to The New York Times. And, Betches, a women’s brand in social media, events, podcasts and newsletters, was sold for $24 million, plus additional proceeds if future growth projections are achieved.

I expect to see moderate activity in the digital media sector, though valuations will be substantially lower than they were in 2021-2022.

Book Publishing

A surprising and unexpected bright spot in media M&A has been book publishing. Unlike print counterparts in magazines and newspapers, book businesses are performing well and some had exceptional results during COVID.

This performance has not gone unnoticed by buyers. Three important independent book publishers were sold in the past couple of years:  Workman to Hachette for $240 million; Cider Mill Press to HarperCollins (News Corp); and, Hay House to Penguin Random House (Bertelsmann)  [my firm handled all three of these transactions]. These highly sought-after publishing companies all sold for more than 10x EBITDA.

Another significant transaction in the book industry was the acquisition of Simon & Schuster by KKR for $1.62 billion last year (8x EBITDA). KKR is expected to be very aggressive in doing add-on acquisitions in 2024, which bodes well for more M&A in book publishing.

I expect book publishing deals to continue in 2024 as the big four companies – Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster – vie for the best independent publishers. Multiples will remain high as the big four look to consolidate more of the market.

Events

The events industry, across the board, was crushed more than any other media industry during COVID. But, the rebound for events has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. Just this week, the Global Exhibition Barometer announced it is anticipating 15% growth for the industry in 2024.

Recently there were several blockbuster acquisitions. The largest was Informa’s acquisition of Tarsus for $940 million, which checked in at a double-digit EBITDA multiple. Informa has reported that “post-synergy savings” will add another $20 million to Tarsus’s EBITDA, bringing the effective multiple down to 9.9x.

Private equity buyers were also very active in the events sector. Providence Equity acquired Hyve for $389 million (15x EBITDA) and CloserStill Media, an events company already owned by Providence Equity, acquired UKI Media & Events and the Hydrogen Technology Expo and Carbon Capture Technology Expo in 2023 and acquired a majority stake in Trailblazer Summits GmbH, a fast growing events business in Germany in January 2024.

Emerald acquired Cocina Sabrosa Food & Beverage Trade Expo in 2023 and Advertising Week [one of my firm’s transactions] and MJBiz in 2022.

I anticipate that M&A in the events industry will be extremely active in 2024 and that EBITDA multiples will be in the double-digits because there is an abundance of both strategic and private equity buyers. For 2024, keep an eye buyers such as Informa, Blackstone, Providence Equity, RX, DMG Events, Diversified Communications [my firm sold Smart Energy Decisions to them in 2022], Nineteen, Raccoon Media Group, and Arc Media (which is backed by private equity firm EagleTree).

Magazines

M&A activity in the magazine industry has been less robust than other industries. In particular, magazine companies which are dependent on advertising have been challenged, whereas those that have emphasized subscriptions, events, data and other sources of revenue are performing better.

A major problem for the consumer magazine industry is that it has consolidated to a few major companies:  Dotdash Meredith, Future, Hearst, Conde Nast, Burda, and Bauer. Many of them are looking to diversify beyond magazines so are not good candidates for acquiring more magazines.

Over the past few years, Bonnier sold most of its US properties in five separate transactions [my firm handled three of these]. Craig Fuller acquired two of the Bonnier groups and his Flying Media Group has acquired five more brands in that industry. In the UK, Future sold its shooting magazines. In the US, Taunton was sold to Active Interest Media [my firm handled this deal].

Prospects for B2B magazines and media are better. In a small transaction, Thomson Reuters just acquired World Business Media, which focuses on insurance and reinsurance. AgriBriefing, a data provider to the agri-food industry, was acquired by Mintec, in a deal that Flashes & Flames estimates at £175 million (15x EBITDA). Haymarket acquired Bay Publishing early in 2023. Some of the most active buyers in the B2B media space include Endeavor Business Media, GovExec, and Informa.

Overall, magazine industry deal activity will be lower than other industries and so with the EBITDA multiples. Many of the strategic buyers, whether consumer or B2B, are looking to diversify their businesses away from magazines.

The Creator Economy

This is a new industry everyone in media should be watching in 2024. The companies in this industry are compatible with media companies because they produce content and sell advertising. These companies are focused on video, audio/podcasting, newsletters, and social media posts.

The creator economy is estimated at $250 billion by Goldman Sachs, who expect the size of the industry to double in the next four years.

Spotify is a leader in this industry and has been very active in blockbuster deals with podcasters. It was just reported that they inked a new partnership deal with Joe Rogan for $250 million.

In 2023, Jellysmack, the UK-based social media conglomerate, acquired Network Media [a transaction managed by my firm] in a deal that brings together two dominant players in short-form video.

This industry is ripe for consolidation through mergers and buyouts. Advertisers prefer to make larger buys from fewer companies, but must currently deal with an almost infinite number of influencers and midsized agencies. I expect to see a lot of smaller deals in this space.

Buyers to watch in 2024, in addition to Jellysmack and Spotify, are Viral Nation and Spotter. We expect to also see newly formed companies that are eager to roll-up smaller players. And, some of the large media companies, like Warner Bros. Discovery, Walt Disney, Vivendi, Sony, Sanoma, Comcast and Live Nation may decide to play here.

Conclusion

Another new sector to definitely watch in 2024 is AI. It is early but a lot of M&A activity seems to be brewing. For example, Reuters bought Casetext, an AI company for legal professionals, for $650 million and said they’d earmarked another $10 billion for investments in companies with AI capabilities [our own AI expert, John Matthews, has been very active lately].

As noted, I expect a lot of M&A in the media industry in 2024. To follow this activity and other media industry news, I recommend you consider subscribing to Flashes & Flames, the newsletter published weekly by Colin Morrison. He does a good job of capturing the important M&A activity all in one place.

You can meet with Reed – and Colin – at Mx3 Barcelona on 12-13 March. You can see more about the summit, including agenda, speakers and partners, here, and you can get your tickets here.


Reed Phillips is CEO of Oaklins DeSilva+Phillips, an investment bank for the media, marketing, and technology industries, based in New York City. He is the author of “QuickValue: Discover Your Value and Empower Your Business in Three Easy Steps,” published by McGraw Hill.