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Publisher Future forges ahead with marriage of media and ecommerce

Hobby magazines have always coaxed readers into spending money but Future, the publisher behind titles such as Homes & Gardens and PC Gamer, has turned this into more than a side hustle.

The FTSE 250 group last year helped retail partners make just under £1bn in sales. Future’s commission for doing so — £216mn — made up more than a third of its total revenues.

The company has become a darling among investors who have become used to sliding magazine circulation, while many media companies struggle to make money from online readers.

Chief executive Zillah Byng-Thorne said the sales Future makes through links to products recommended in its articles have become one of its core areas of expertise. “We own our own ecommerce technology,” she said.

Future’s in-house system, which took two years to build, automatically adds links to products from sellers that the publisher has a revenue-share agreement with and updates these based on price and availability. When the pandemic-related supply chain crisis peaked in the run-up to Christmas, its titles ran live blogs pointing readers to retailers that stocked products they were looking for.

Future declined to comment on the investment required to build the system, but it now employs 180 people in its tech development team.

Future’s chief executive Zillah Byng-Thorne: ‘We own our own ecommerce technology’

Like other publishers, Future also makes money through digital advertising and subscriptions to its magazines. But revenue in its ecommerce arm grew 36 per cent year on year to £216mn in 2021, becoming its fastest-growing division.

On an average day, readers buy roughly 43,500 items — from luxury dog beds to remote-controlled golf trolleys — after clicking on links in articles written by Future journalists.

Byng-Thorne, who has been at the helm since 2014, is also senior independent director at THG, another group known for its ecommerce technology.

The Scot joined Future as its part-time head of finance just a few months before she was tasked with turning the company round, having earlier helped Auto Trader in its transition from a magazine to a digital ecommerce platform.

“[Future] is essentially the poster child in the magazine media sector for . . . managing to grow in the context of a declining and struggling industry,” said Abi Watson at Enders Analysis.

That success has led to spectacular share price growth: the stock has risen almost 16 times over the past five years, although it has lost 37 per cent of its value since the beginning of 2022.

Future’s largest UK rivals by magazine circulation — Immediate Media, publisher of listings guide the Radio Times, and Bauer Media, the group behind women’s magazine Grazia — have both moved into ecommerce. Neither of the two private companies, however, would disclose the extent to which it contributes to revenues.

“Magazines have always been in the recommendation business,” said Chris Duncan, chief executive of UK publishing at Bauer. But it was not until late 2018, when Google’s search engine algorithms started bumping up shopping recommendations from “trusted” sites, that ecommerce as “a separate discipline” really took off, he added.

Future’s success in adapting to Google’s algorithms has coincided with a push into the US, where the London-based company claims to reach one in three people. At last count the group had more than 130 magazines with a global circulation in excess of 3mn.

But critics have argued that it is difficult to work out how much of Future’s growth is organic. While the first part of her tenure was marked by a restructuring that led to the departure of four in 10 staff, Byng-Thorne has spearheaded an acquisition spree over the past two years, with the company spending £1.4bn scooping up rival titles.

Future last month announced small bolt-on acquisitions of online entertainment publisher WhatCulture and Waive, a data insight platform. That followed the acquisition of several magazines last August, including MoneyWeek and news title The Week in a £300mn deal, while in 2020 it bought price comparison website GoCompare for £594mn, arguing that it would help it obtain more data on readers and launch a slew of sites focusing on personal finance.

The percentage of shares out on loan, one of the best proxies for short selling, peaked at 12.7 per cent in July 2020 but has since dropped off to less than 1 per cent, according to IHS Markit.

Matthew Earl, managing partner of hedge fund ShadowFall, has been one of Future’s most outspoken critics. ShadowFall argued in 2020 that its own calculations on Future’s organic growth did not add up with those issued by the company, adding that it was too reliant on acquisitions to meet short-term growth targets.

Earl told the Financial Times he no longer holds a short position in the company but remains sceptical about its growth.

“The acquisitions enhance our view that all it is good at doing is generally buying other people’s business at lower valuations than what its shareholders subsequently value it at,” he said. “Meanwhile the management continues to be richly rewarded for this.”

Organic revenues from Future’s printed magazines, stripping out recent acquisitions, have on average declined 13 per cent over the past two years, with the company battling trends seen elsewhere in the industry. The equivalent figure for its websites and events is, however, up by a quarter, with ecommerce revenues having jumped 47 per cent.

At the time of ShadowFall’s attack, Byng-Thorne told the FT she did not comment on research “whether good or bad”, but said the group had a “robust operating model”. Speaking this year, she said Future would continue to grow by acquisition, adding: “I don’t see any reason to change that strategy as it’s working.”

Byng-Thorne, who last year earned £8.8mn, has made almost £34mn from Future in the past five years.

The group has suffered shareholder dissent for two years in a quarrel over remuneration. In February more than half of votes cast were against the company’s remuneration policy, including a proposal that could award Byng-Thorne more than £40mn, with shareholders having staged a significant protest over the same plan in 2021.

An especially sore point was a £532,875 cash bonus given to former chief financial officer Rachel Addison when she left the business last year. The company’s board is in discussion with shareholders following the non-binding vote.

Although 55 per cent of investors voted against the pay proposals, shareholders have made large earnings under Byng-Thorne’s leadership. Were she to leave, the group’s share price would suffer, one top 10 shareholder said.

Sir Peter Wood, the former GoCo chair who is also the company’s fourth-largest shareholder and backed the recent pay proposals, said Byng-Thorne was “worth every penny”. “I always thought accountants and lawyers don’t make good CEOs but I’m eating humble pie,” he said.

Analysts attributed the more recent fall in the share price to a broader slide that hit digital companies particularly hard. Roddy Davidson, from Shore Capital, said: “All sorts of highly rated stocks with a tech element have taken a bit of a hammering due to geopolitical concerns. I guess we’re looking at a broader market effect.”

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