The Norwegian media group Schibsted now aggressively invests in startups. The goal: digital dominance, one market at a time. France is in next in line. Here is a look at their strategy. 

This thought haunts most media executives’ sleepless nights:My legacy business is taking a hit from the internet; my digital conversion is basically on track, but it goes with an massive value destruction. We need both a growth engine and consolidation. How do we achieve this? What are our core assets to build upon? Should we undertake a major diversification that could benefit from our brand and know-how?” (At that moment, the buzzer goes off, it’s time to go to work.) Actually, such nighttime cogitations are a good sign, they are the privilege of people gifted with long term view.

The Scandinavian media power house Schibsted ASA falls into the long-termist category.  Key FY 2012 data follow. Revenue: 15bn Norwegian Kroner (€2bn or $2.6bn.); EBIT: 13.5%. The group currently employs 7800 people spread over 29 countries. 40% of the revenue and 69% of the EBITDA come from online activities. Online classifieds account for 25% of revenue and 52% of the EBITDA; the rest in publishing. (The usual disclosure: I worked for Schibsted between 2007 and 2009, in the international division).

The company went through the delicate transition to digital about five years ahead of other media conglomerates in the Western world. To be fair, Schibsted enjoyed unique conditions: profitable print assets, huge penetration in small Nordic markets immune to foreign players, a solid grasp of all components of the business, from copy sales to subscribers for newspapers and magazines, to advertising and distribution channels. In addition, the group enjoys a stable ownership structure (controlled by a trust), and its board always encourages the management to aim high and take risks. The company is led by a lean team: only 60 people at the Oslo headquarters to oversee the entire operations, largely staffed by McKinsey alumni.

The transition began in 1995 when Schibsted came to realize the media sector’s center of gravity would inevitably shift to digital. The move could be progressive for reading habits but it would definitely be swift and hard for critical revenue streams such as classifieds and consumer services. Hence the unofficial motto that’s still remains at the core of Schibsted’s strategy: Accelerating the inevitable (before the inevitable falls on us). Such view led to speeding up the demise of print classifieds, for instance, in order to free oxygen for emerging digital products. Not exactly popular at the time but, thanks to methodical pedagogy, the transition went well.

One after the other, business units moved to digital. Then, the dot-com crash hit. In Norway and Sweden, Schibsted media properties where largely deployed online with large dedicated newsrooms, emerging consumer services built from scratch or from acquisitions. Management wondered what to do: Should we opt for a quick and massive downsizing to offset a brutal 50% drop in advertising revenue? Schibsted took the opposite tack: Yes business is terrible, but this is mostly the result of the financial crisis; the audience is still here, not only it won’t go away but, eventually, it will experience huge growth. This was the basis for two key decisions: Pursuing investments in digital journalism while finding ways to monetize it; and doing whatever it took in order to dominate the classifieds business.

In Sweden, a bright spot kept blinking on Schibsted’s radar. Blocket was growing like crazy. It was a bare-bone classifieds website, offering a mixture of free and premium ads in the simplest and most efficient way. At first, Schibsted Sweden tried to replicate Blocket’s model with the goal of killing it. After all, the group thought, it had all the media firepower needed to lift any brand… Wrong. After a while, it turned out Schibsted’s copycat  still lagged behind the original. In the kind of pragmatism allowed by deep pockets, Schibsted decided to acquire Blocket (for a hefty price). The clever classifieds website will become the matrix for the group’s foray in global classifieds.

In 2006, Schibsted had acquired and developed a cluster of consumer-oriented websites, from Yellow-Pages-like directories, to price-comparisons sites, or consumer-data services. Until then, the whole assemblage had been built on pure opportunism. It was time to put things in order. Hence, in 2007, the creation of Tillväxmedier, the first iteration of Schibsted Development. (The Norwegian version was launched in 2010 and the French one starts this year).

Last week in Paris, I met Richard Sandenskog, Tillväxmedier’s investment manager and Marc Brandsma, the newly appointed CEO of Schibsted Development France. Sandenskog is a former journalist who also spent eight years in London as a product manager for Yahoo!  Brandsma is a seasoned French entrepreneur and former venture capitalist. Despite local particularisms precluding a dumb replication of Nordic successes, two basics principles remain:

1. Invest in the number one in a niche market, or a potential number one in a larger one. “In the online business, there is no room for number two”, said Richard Sandenskog. “We want to leverage our dominance on a given market to build brands and drive traffic. The goal is to find the best way to expose the new brand in different channels and integrate it in various properties. The keyword is relevant traffic. We don’t care for page views for their sake, but for the value they bring. We see clicks as a currency.”

2. Picking the right product in the right sector. In Sweden, the Schibsted Developement portfolio evolves around the idea of empowering the consumer. To sum up: people are increasingly lost in a jungle of pricing, plans, offers, deals, for the services they need. It could be cell phones, energy bills, consumer loans… Hence a pattern for acquisitions: a bulk purchase web site for electricity (the Swedish market is largely deregulated with about 100 utilities companies); a helper to find the best cellular carrier plan based on individual usage; a personal finance site that lets consumers shop around for the best loan without degrading their credit rating; a personal factoring service where anyone can auction off invoices, etc.
Most are now #1 on their segment. “We give the power back to the consumer, sums up Richard Sandenskog. We are like Mother Teresa but we make money doing it….” Altogether, Tillväxmedier’s portfolio encompasses about 20 companies that made a billion of Swedish Kröner (€120m, $155m) in 2012 with a 12% EBITDA (several companies are in the growth phase.) All in five years…

France will be a different story. It’s five times bigger than Sweden, a market in which startups can be expensive. But what triggered Schibsted ASA’s decision to create a growth vehicle here is the spectacular performance of the classifieds site LeBoncoin.fr (see a previous Monday Note Schibsted’s extraordinary click machines): €98m in revenue and a cool 68% EBITDA last year. LeBoncoin draws 17m unique viewers (according to Nielsen). Based on this valuable asset, explains Marc Brandsma, the goal is to create the #1 online group in France (besides Facebook and Google). “The typical players we are looking for are B2C companies that already have a proven product — we won’t invest in PowerPoint presentations — driven by a management team aiming to be the leader in their market. Then we acquire it; we buy out all minority shareholders if necessary”. No kolkhoz here; decisions must be made quickly, without interference. “At that point, adds Brandsma we tell managers we’ll take care of growth by providing traffic, brand notoriety, marketing, all based on best practices and proven Schibsted expertise”. Two sectors Marc Brandsma says he won’t touch, though: business-to-business services and news media (ouch…)

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com