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UK publisher Future has had a rollercoaster existence, fighting its way back from the brink on numerous occasions. Now, as it announces the acquisition of Dennis Publishing, we take a look back at the business buys that have helped it move forward in recent years.

Future’s acquisition of Dennis would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. The £300m deal, which grants the UK-based publisher access to a suite of e-commerce and tech properties also brings a number of Dennis’ best-performing titles into the fold. In addition to bolstering Future’s wealth and B2B information, the acquisition is in service of accelerating its push into North America.

Zillah Byng-Thorne, chief executive officer of Future, said: “I am delighted to announce the acquisition of Dennis, a high-quality portfolio of trusted brands that will accelerate our strategy, enhance our content capabilities and bring additional geographical and vertical revenue diversification, whilst materially increasing the proportion of recurring revenues across the group.”

The deal itself leaves a few odd titles out, with the Cyclist brand in addition to niche titles Viz and Fortean Times, remaining with Dennis’ parent company Exponent. It also comes a few months after Exponent spun Dennis’ motoring portfolio and e-commerce assets out into a different company, Autovia. The response to the deal from media analysts has been largely positive, though questions have been raised about media plurality.

Just a few years ago Future was in a far, far worse position. Its transformation to the point where it could have bought up Dennis – which has itself made some big acquisitions in the past few years – for £300 million is one for the textbooks.

Rebuilt from the ground up

Future nearly bought the farm decades before the acquisition of Dennis; the company nearly collapsed in 1999 shortly after it went public. Its tech-focused publishing strategy led to the formation of several iconic brands but, as analyst Colin Morrison notes, the company lacked the capital to secure its place within the market.

The company in its current form was really formed following a subsequent challenging few years in the middle of the last decade, which saw the company struggling with profitability. In 2016 the publisher posted full year results of a loss before tax of £14 million, a far cry from the solidly profitable company it is today. Crucially, however, e-commerce and subscriptions already accounted for 25% of the company’s revenue.

Since then the company has reinvented itself through smart acquisitions and the de-prioritization of indiscriminate scale in favour of controlling lucrative verticals. Earlier this year, for example, the company completed a £594m takeover of GoCompare and Look After My Bills owner GoCo Group.

In April last year Future also acquired TI Media, another media brand that granted it access to a number of big brands and (more importantly) audience data and scale in growth verticals. Crucially it came as many of those brands were seeing the start of an uptick in e-commerce capability – which Future wasted no time in taking advantage of. It has consistently invested in Marie Claire’s affiliate revenue capabilities, for example.

Its e-commerce and affiliate success is apparent when you look at the value it delivered during the two days of Prime Day in June – £16.4m across the portfolio. Matt Smith, Future’s managing director of e-commerce, stated at the time: “One of our key goals for Prime this year was to diversify our referral mix to Amazon and we succeeded in doing so with 6,800 sales driven directly from our social channels. In particular, we saw great success from the acquired TI brands, which saw traffic and clicks through to Amazon up over 50%.”

As a result of the focus on e-commerce, in its latest half year results Future announced it had achieved a 95% year-on-year increase in the number of affiliate partners achieving sales from Future sites. For the full year 2020 the company drove almost $1bn in affiliate revenue.

American expansion

Over the past few years Dennis has made substantial inroads into the US with its flagship news and current affairs titles The Week and The Week Junior. That foothold is undoubtedly a key part of Future’s interest in the acquisition given its own North American ambitions; in August it announced the launch of a new Canadian division.

It follows the acquisition of other US brands, like the B2B digital pureplay Smartbrief in 2019 and Purch’s consumer division in 2018. With Dennis, Future has also acquired finance sub-brand Kiplinger, which has a primarily US readership.

Though it is less of a focus, Future’s drive for international expansion can be seen through other launches. Its music brand Metal Hammer, for instance, launched a Japanese edition last year and its football title FourFourTwo also expanded into Turkey in the same quarter.

But while geographic expansion is a key part of the strategy, the real benefit of Future’s acquisition of Dennis is in the depth of engagement and user data both publishers currently enjoy. Publisher first party data has regained primacy in marketing strategies and niche titles that wholly exist to serve discrete communities are the new hot commodity. 

Dennis, perhaps more than any other UK magazine title, has subscription expertise baked into its practices. Future now has access to that proficiency, plus its pre-existing e-commerce and affiliate prowess. As those are both currently the largest areas of growth for media businesses, that means that Future’s ability to generate revenue now matches its brazen international ambitions.