Ascential chief Duncan Painter: 'We want to be the world’s best information platform'

Duncan Painter, chief executive of Ascential

Make no mistake, Ascential is a data-led media company on the march. Dripping with insights, the self-described ‘global information company’ has gone through a dramatic change in recent years, led for the last six, almost seven, years by chief executive Duncan Painter.

Painter is a surprisingly more casual personality than might be expected considering the major decisions he has taken recently (to sell off the business’ profit-making exhibitions division) and having rebuilt a business that he is determined has a focus on its strengths, which includes major brands such as Money 20/20, Medialink, WGSN and Retail Week among them.

He joins The Drum at his base on the groundfloor of La Palais in Cannes during the company’s annual Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, where he seems to be enjoying himself, although it is still on the first day of the newly reinvented event. He greets The Drum warmly and is happy to get straight to business after a discussion over what is in store for the week ahead.

We discuss the change in Ascential since its days as Emap (followed briefly by Top Right Group until the latter end of 2015) when it has gone from owning around 500 customer facing brands to one that owns 20 brands in total.

“What we’ve really tried to do is take significant platforms or product information sources that we had where industries really believe in the quality of those and could see the quality and putting all of our efforts into making those the number one in their markets and continuing to reinvest,” he explains of the core strategy. “Cannes Lions is a good example of that – when I joined, Cannes had no digital products, it was just an event, but it was very clear what we produced, and the event was very important and the information that we gathered everyone wanted access to. The first test of that was really The Archive to see if the industry receptive to it. We’ve now upgrades that to The Work, which is a much more effective tool for the planners, creatives and people across the businesses to really use that data but in a way that would be reconstructed to help them do their jobs. That was the objective we had. Two years ago, everyone was telling me that they were struggling for growth so myself and our head of digital, Sean O’Connell had a session where we thought, ‘hang on. How can we take what we have got to and put that into a platform to help the industry figure out how to grow?’ So they get tools to help them grow and that was the original formation of The Work.”

The company is also weeks into the ownership of its new business, having acquired WARC in a deal worth £20m, to compliment The Work. This was a deal that was three years in the making, Painter reveals, but didn’t come off the first time, only to be renewed recently following a partnership between the two companies during the Tencent Cannes Lions event that took place in China earlier this year.

“What you’ll see us do over time, is see us to continue to expand information sources into that platform to give the industry a genuinely independent view of what is winning and what isn’t winning. It’s coming back to the core beliefs in product design, marketing and sales for brands and how we can really optimise their businesses to be successful by just giving them absolute faith in the fact that they have an information source that they can rely on because we’re not trying to execute anything in those markets. We aren’t saying this is the best data so buy all our media, which is where the challenges in the industry are. If you are an end-brand customer, who do you trust for information to drive your business forward?”

Asked about future acquisitions, Painter predicts “a mix” of product development and acquisition; “We are in a position where we can acquire businesses if we think what they have got something really special but the core of it is – how do we keep growing? The industry has only just started, and we have a unique insight into the next generation of the change.”

As to what is next, he talks about the company’s focus on working with digital marketplaces such as Amazon, JD and Alibaba, who he predicts will overtake the likes of Facebook and Google in their dominance one day.

“For me, the strategy of this business that we set four years ago is that I didn’t want to just transition this business to get back to a level set, I want to transition this business to be at the end of the game and that is why we went so aggressively to really understand those end marketplaces. So having a number one shares and sales platform for Amazon in the world means every single day my business knows who trades on Amazon and who is really winning than any other company in the world. And we have that uniquely and that shapes the cycle because we actually see it. We see that Amazon flywheel and we see it spin around every single day and how their algorithms change the way they work every single day and that is the business. They have built this phenomenal platform, built on a flywheel. It’s not ‘let’s plan for six months’, it’s 'what happened yesterday?’ Because what happened yesterday is what we now need to do today. We really do think we have got a business that can help the industry help and succeed on those marketplaces.”

Painter adds his belief that those marketplaces are not chasing world domination, but in fact want to allow people to activate and receive products and services with convenience.

“Amazon is the 34th best priced platform - Amazon is not leading on price – if you are a product brand on Amazon, you don’t need to fear that they are going to drive your product price into the ground, because that is not what they lead on. What they lead on is absolute convenience, ease, repeatability and loyalty. We see that in the data, so we’re helping people who are in fear of Amazon understand that if you engage in the right way, it can lead to a lot of success and we can help you do that.”

He adds the belief that such platforms are helping the market to see how they can win and questions how traditional retail can catch up with the digital convenience world when the platforms have been the ones buying up warehouse space and logistics companies that helps them succeed.

“We want to be the world’s best information platform,” he states boldly of the insights that Ascential can uniquely provide of these companies as they grow into global powerhouses.

Of that growth, it is inevitable that Ascential will have to crack Asia, especially Domestic China, which Painter already has a strategy to achieve.

"When you get great success in China, that alone can be often twice the size of Asia added up,” he claims, adding that since his fourth week in the company, it has had a footprint in the country where he spent 15 years working himself and where he has seen how little the West truly understand the culture, which is driven by different values. As a result, he plans to relocate some of the company’s executives in order to grow their understanding first-hand of Chinese values.

“What we’ve been doing is to take our time to really establish our ecosystems in there, working structures where they are supportive of business in China, supportive of what we want to achieve in China but also of the government’s objectives in China too and you have to get all three of those right. Too many western companies come in and have an immediate fast benefit but then what you’re doing is maybe cutting across the objectives of the Chinese government and that will slow you right down very quickly. We saw that with the luxury good companies; they had enormous success and grew at a phenomenal rate and then what you saw with president Xi was how he really didn’t like how that affected Chinese culture and what it was creating and he just chopped it off at the legs. You have to be very mindful of that and you are in a different ethos and structure and you have to play the long game. Chasing short term rewards in China, you can get them but they will be just that,” he advises.

Included in that strategy is a joint venture agreed between WGSN and government agency CTI, while Money 20/20 will soon begin a partnership with the Chinese government this year, and One Click and Clavis have also been “working closely” with Alibaba.

“About 15% of digital ecommerce business is Domestic China. We want to make sure we are working well with them and making sure we have a strong partnership with JD and Alibaba.”

Such international ambitions will heavily offset the growing impact of Brexit on the British-born company, a situation he claims it hard to predict but will won’t be positive, in his expectation.

“The data suggests that there is going to be a very hard brick wall, six months post Brexit as the momentum is not there and we can already see for the industries we serve that the momentum is really not there. It’s getting a bit soft… we have positioned ourselves where we may have a number of UK businesses, but it’s not life or death for us anymore.”

Finally, asked what more the British Government could be doing to help more companies achieve international growth, he wants to see the Department of Industry and Trade drive more commercial relationships, however he believes it is “underinvesting”.

“I would love to see the UK Government work closely with organisations like ourselves that do have platforms like Cannes Lions, like Clavis [Insight], Like WGSN – all these businesses because it is a great British company that is genuinely empowering global commerce and I’d love to see our UK government come out and support us more – we have some real innovation coming out of London and the UK and help us promote the benefit more of what we can bring to the UK.”

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