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It is a testament to the breadth of the media sector these days that it merits two categories at the Citywire Elite Companies Awards: interactive and diversified. That’s largely the result of the dominance of the internet and the rise of the digital age – where media effectively used to mean print, broadcast and advertising, it’s now at least as much about the mechanisms for online entertainment and commerce.
The five shortlisted companies in the Emea interactive media category – representing top-performing portfolio managers’ highest conviction investments in the sector – underscore that multitude of different offerings. They range from a UK-listed retailer of internet domain names to a multinational e-commerce investor quoted in the Netherlands.
Among the diversified players, which tend to be in the business of mass communication, there is an academic publisher, a marketing company and several ad agencies. Oh, and call it unfashionable, but one of them actually owns a TV channel.
The winners will be unveiled at a gala event at the London Stock Exchange this evening.
Find out more: Citywire Elite Companies Awards
Source: FactSet. PE = price-earnings ratio. PE and dividend yield based on 12-month forecasts
CentralNic Group PLC (GB:CNIC) is a rapidly growing UK-listed business that sells internet domain names to individuals, companies and resellers. It also offers web services, including domain management and the protection of digitally important brand names. Founded in 1996 and listed on London’s junior Aim market in 2013, it has since made almost two dozen acquisitions, including domain registrars, managers and retailers.
It owns and operates several brands that help customers advertise and profit from their websites. By some margin the smallest of the companies on the interactive media shortlist, it is nevertheless profitable. Pre-tax profits of $14.8m last year were modest, but were sharply higher than the previous year’s $1.6m and revenues rose by 77% to $728.2m. And despite an acquisitions drive, it carried net debts of less than $60m at the end of last year, helped by its sizeable cash generation.
Founded in Sweden in 1987, Modern Times Group MTG (SE:MTG.B) was created in its current form in 2019 when the business was split and the Nordic entertainment and studio arm took its own separate listing. The move enabled MTG, as it is more commonly known, to concentrate on growing as a gaming company.
Until last year, MTG was also in the e-sports market, but it sold off its ESL Gaming unit to a trade buyer for $1bn, arguing that gaming was the most relevant modern entertainment market. While some of its games are available to buy, others are free to play and target revenues from digital advertisers.
The company owns numerous games, developed for mobile phone users, including Forge of Empires, Top Drives and Bloons. And it has a growing portfolio of developers and publishers, based in multiple countries, including the UK, Germany, New Zealand and the US. MTG’s shares are listed in Stockholm and last year the group generated operating profits of SEK566m on revenues of more than SEK5.5bn.
While Prosus (NL:PRX) tends to attract attention because of its near 26% stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Tencent, this Dutch-headquartered internet investor has lots of other strings to its bow. Among its portfolio of public and private internet investments are stakes in Berlin-based food ordering service Delivery Hero and Hong Kong-listed online travel agent
Prosus is majority owned by the South African multinational group Naspers, which was founded as a publisher in 1915 and still owns the country’s Media24 empire. A cross-shareholding structure consisting of voting controls as well as economic interests means that the fortunes of the two remain closely tied.
The group’s portfolio of companies, some of which are held as investments while others are fully owned and operated, are broadly grouped into four categories: classifieds (the best performer), food delivery, payments and fintech, and edtech (education technology). While collectively the portfolio remains loss making, Prosus has been working hard to improve each company’s performance and is aiming for them to reach profitability during 2025.
While the health of Prosus’s finances is underpinned by the holding in Tencent, the size of the position also acts as a drag on the shares if the Chinese group’s price is itself under pressure, which it has been for more than two years. Along with other listed investment positions, it contributes to the substantial discount at which Prosus stock trades relative to the net value of its assets.
Prosus’s plan is to reduce the discount by buying back its own shares using proceeds from regular sales of Tencent shares. It has made progress but as of the middle of June, the discount was still a chunky 35%.
Read more: The digital play on the consumer of the future
The fourth company on the interactive media shortlist is (GB:MONY), an early mover among price comparison websites that was founded in 1993 by billionaire entrepreneur Simon Nixon and occupies a slot in London’s FTSE 250 index of mid-cap stocks.
The group provides an array of price comparison and switching services, ranging from loans and home and travel insurance to broadband and energy contracts. It also owns the cashback website Quidco. Although it has had obstacles to overcome, including a collapse in travel during the pandemic and a freeze in customers switching energy contracts, has more recently been trading strongly.
Pre-tax profits grew by 21.4% to £85.2m last year on a 22% increase in revenues to just under £390m in a return to trading health that continued into the company’s first quarter this year. The shares, which lost more than half their value over the three years to last June, have since recovered much of their poise.
And fifth among the interactive media companies is Perion Network (IL:PERI), an Israeli digital advertising specialist that makes most of its money in North America. Founded in 1999 by two cousins, Perion Network has been listed in Tel Aviv since 2006 and also has a quote on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the US.
The group operates across multiple digital advertising channels, including display, search, social media and connected TV. It also works with publishers as well as corporate brands, giving it a diversity that has helped it to weather the market downturn amid lower spending on marketing drives. Over the year to the end of December, the group’s revenues grew by 34% to just in excess of $640m and its net profits were 156% higher at $99.2m. That stellar growth continued into the first quarter of this year and the shares have almost doubled over the past 12 months.
How Citywire Elite Companies works
The diversified media sector is, as the name suggests, very diverse.
The companies on our awards shortlist span activities from publishing weighty academic works to putting corporate logos on mugs. Many shortlisted companies fit the media playbook and are cyclical, but there is also one reasonably defensive play. Some face threats from technological change, but others are looking to harness these forces to create opportunties. 
Here are the five companies in the running in the Emea diversified media category of the Citywire Elite Companies Awards.
Source: FactSet. PE = price-earnings ratio. PE and dividend yield based on 12-month forecasts
Over the last decade, the advertising industry’s big players have had to face up to digital disruption as ad dollars flood online. For the world’s third-largest advertising group, France’s Publicis (FR:PUB), the answer to this challenge has been to splash the cash buying digitally savvy companies.
First, in 2014 came the €3.7bn acquisition of US digital advertising company Sapient. Then in 2019 Publicis bought Epsilon for €4.4bn.
The payoff from these deals was not immediate. Integration was tough going and drawn out. But it looks like 2023 will be the year that the virtues of these mega deals shine through.
Despite a rather torrid economic outlook, Publicis has reported better-than-expected trading recently and says it expects 2023 to be a year of growth. The digital advertising businesses, which account for about a third of sales, are making a particularly strong contribution to this rosy picture. Its performance is also lifting hopes that digital work may be less economically sensitive than traditional advertising jobs.
So Publicis appears to have wind in its sails, which may be particularly helpful at the moment because the ad industry looks like it could be about to run into another major challenge, or perhaps opportunity: the dawn of generative artificial intelligence (AI) advertising.
Publicis and other advertisers are far from alone in facing both threats and opportunities from generative AI. This has been a major focus for shareholders in another one of our shortlisted companies this year, Relx (GB:REL).
The London-listed publisher, data analysis and exhibitions group is no stranger to fears that its large margins could be threatened by disruption. In particular, universities have regularly mounted attacks on its highly profitable academic publishing business. However, open-source alternatives to its publishing model have never managed to create serious problems.
Key to Relx’s commercial success is its control of vast amounts of data. It uses this to help its clients generate valuable insights.
If it can keep that data out of the hands of others, it potentially has an incredibly rich training ground for generative AI programmes, which tend to only have outputs that are as good as their inputs. While not dismissing the threat, it is not farfetched to think owners of well-maintained specialist datasets could prove big winners from these technological advances.
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In the meantime, recent trading at Relx has been strong, its markets are reasonably defensive, and the events business is bouncing back following a Covid-related hiatus.
Two of the companies on our diversified media shortlist, Bolloré (FR:BOL) and Vivendi (FR:VIV), are intimately connected.
Vivendi is 29% owned by Bolloré and is run by Yannick Bolloré, who recently took the reins from his billionaire businessman dad Vincent.
Septuagenarian Vincent Bolloré, meanwhile, is chief executive and chairman of the eponymous Bolloré investment group and his family owns 63% through their  Financière de l’Odet investment vehicle.
As well as the family ties, both companies are major holders in Universal Music Group (NL:UMG), which was spun out of Vivendi in 2021. Bolloré owns 18% of the Dutch-listed music giant and Vivendi owns 10%.
The UMG spinout is part of the deal-doing that characterises both groups.
In the case of Bolloré, a key recent focus of deals has been to focus its interests on the media industry by selling off ports and logistics investments. At the end of 2022, it disposed of its African ports business for €5.1bn and this year has agreed the sale of its logistics operations to shipping company CMA CGM at a valuation of €5bn.
Vivendi, meanwhile, is keen to shrug off its reputation as a collection of media investments and become a more cohesive company. Making investors see the business in this new light could improve the share valuation. The group, which owns TV station Canal+, has interests in pay-TV, publishing, and advertising and public relations through communications agency Havas.
Vivendi has recently received clearance from competition authorities to buy Lagardére, which owns the world’s third largest publisher, Hachette, as well as several top media titles including Paris Match. It has agreed to sell some domestic publishing assets in order to get the green light.
For investors interested in capital-light business models, 4imprint (GB:FOUR) makes a fascinating case study.
Last year it produced $9.34 of sales for every $1 of capital employed by its operations. This incredible ability to produce money from very little investment meant that its return on invested capital for the year came in at a bumper 66% in 2022 even though operating margins were just 9%.
4imprint is effectively a marketing machine that does the vast majority of its business in North America.
The company links corporate customers that want promotional items, such as hoodies and cups adorned with their logos, to companies that can supply the goods. Payment terms are short and orders are shipped directly from suppliers, all of which relieves 4imprint of the need to concern itself much with time- and cash-consuming activities such as sourcing, manufacture, inventory and logistics.
It is a well-oiled machine that focuses on winning new accounts and providing high levels of customer service. It has also been wildly successful at boosting sales since the end of lockdowns.
Much of the exceptional rebound from lockdown was thanks to an increased use of TV and radio advertising. The company also has a keen focus on data to inform its marketing efforts and help it get more bang for its buck.
The downside for investors is that the business is cyclical. That said, the current economic worries are yet to have a marked effect on trading.
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