2019 Chief Executive’s Statement

We delivered strong organic growth, with both revenue and Adjusted EBITDA up 6%, and Adjusted diluted earnings per share up 21%. Our Adjusted EBITDA margin was in line with 2018, at 31%, with the planned investments made to position the Digital Commerce products in our Sales segment as the number one platform in the market funded by strong operating leverage in our Product Design, Marketing and Built Environment and Policy segments. This investment, along with acquisition payments and capex investment of £131.6m, was funded by good operational cash generation with operating cash flow conversion of 88% (2018: 106%).

We have delivered well against the priorities we set for the year, in particular:

  • We are pleased with the levels of Execution demonstrated by our market leading digital information products such as WGSN and Flywheel Digital and have built on the important initiatives that we have put in place to develop our cross-Ascential strategic client programme.
  • We have made progress with the integration of Edge, which commenced in the second half of 2018 and will run until the end of the first half of 2020. The major focus for the forthcoming year is to return the Edge business back to good billings growth, in the second half.
  • Following the re-set for Cannes Lions and MediaLink's strategic re-alignment in 2018, Marketing segment growth was robust.
  • We have made progress in developing the Ascential Operating Model, with key changes implemented in our Finance, Marketing, Data Science and Product Development functions. These changes will drive efficiency and cross-sell and accelerate the development of our products.

In 2018, we adopted a new operating model, aligned to our strategy of serving customer needs in the functions of Product Design, Marketing and Sales. We have now further developed this model to highlight the particular specialisms within each of the segments in which we serve our customers.

After the year end, we have made some changes to the responsibilities of our key leaders to align our management structure more closely to our core segments of Product Design, Marketing and Sales, as well as Built Environment and Policy. Given the importance of returning the Edge business to strong growth, I shall be taking personal responsibility for leading the Digital Commerce sub-segment (within the Sales segment) in 2020.

In another successful year for Product Design we achieved Organic growth of 8%, led by an exceptional performance from the advisory practice. This was supported by continuing solid growth from the core subscription business through a combination of high retention rates and successful product launches, with WGSN Beauty a recent example.

Following re-sets for both Cannes Lions and MediaLink in 2018 the segment returned to strong Organic growth of 9% in 2019. For Cannes Lions, this was driven in part by the increasing participation of brands in the Festival, across all three revenue streams. For MediaLink the focus on brand-led business, both project-based and retainer, was successful in delivering a more sustainable business. The higher profile presence of MediaLink at the Cannes Lions festival also illustrated the benefit of collaboration and cross-selling initiatives that are an area of increased focus across Ascential. Continued growth of our digital revenue streams, such as The Work, together with that of WARC and the recent strategic investment in the media buying platform, Hudson MX, point to continuing diversification of the Marketing segment’s business model in favour of recurring and repeat revenues.

For the Sales segment, following several key acquisitions and event launches in 2018, 2019 was a year of consolidation with growth of 3% on an Organic basis, or 11% Proforma including the contributions of Flywheel Digital and BrandView. The Digital Commerce brands within the Sales segment (Edge, Flywheel Digital and Yimian) grew by 9% on an Organic basis, or 21% Proforma.

2019 was an important year for the integration of the four brands that comprise Edge. The initial phases of integration, covering organisational structure and CRM systems, were completed by June 2019. Progress has also been made on the underlying platform consolidation, with the phased roll-out of digital shelf catalogue systems to market share customers completed on schedule in December 2019 and the recent launch of the new market share platform. Reflecting our efforts to deepen our relationship with key customers it was pleasing that Edge was appointed as the preferred partner to Coca-Cola for its worldwide eCommerce operations.

In December we also completed the acquisition of Chinese eCommerce analytics business Yimian that will provide a more holistic offering for Edge in China, with its sales and share expertise. Yimian's expertise in China provides an excellent fit with that of our Edge business across US and European marketplaces. Additionally, Yimian's capability in semantic analysis and record of innovation offers exciting opportunities for new product development.

Flywheel Digital had an outstanding year. Having joined the Group in 2018, it made significant strides, expanding its business into Europe, Australia and Japan, while also launching a service offering for Walmart in the US. Flywheel Digital enables us to not only report on the performance of our customers but also provide them with a real time trading platform to enable and drive actual sales growth.

Money20/20's modest performance reflected continuing strong growth from its European edition, offset by the competitive challenge in Singapore and a combination of adverse macro and local market factors that necessitated the deferral of the Chinese edition.

The Built Environment & Policy segment continued to trade solidly, with Organic revenue growth of 5% and expansion of margin, despite testing conditions in its UK-based markets, a testament to the market leading products in this segment.

In July 2019 we acquired a 35% stake in Avast's marketing analytics subsidiary Jumpshot. While Jumpshot's business model was attractive in its own right, we also benefitted from access to their high quality information to refine and improve the product algorithms within the Edge business. This benefit persists, notwithstanding Avast's post year end decision to close Jumpshot as it was no longer core to their mission. In January 2020, we sold our stake back to Avast recovering all of our investment and expenses.

Consistently strong levels of cash flow conversion, combined with our disciplined capital allocation, has resulted in a net debt leverage ratio of 1.4x at the 2019 year end. Furthermore, following the sale of the Jumpshot investment in January 2020, our Proforma 31 December 2019 leverage ratio is 1.0x which is well below our historical norms.

While we have a pipeline of attractive bolt-on investment opportunities, we recognise that the delivery of shareholder value requires a return of cash to shareholders if M&A cash needs are not near term and when our balance sheet is sufficiently strong to finance acquisitions should they arise earlier than expected.

Having reviewed our capital allocation policy the Board has decided to utilise part of its authority to make on-market purchases of our ordinary shares. We anticipate spending up to £120m in a share repurchase programme, which we will review on an ongoing basis based on the then competing opportunities for capital deployment.

Our dividend policy which targets a 30% payout ratio of adjusted profit after tax is unchanged.

This year we launched our new Corporate Responsibility Framework covering all elements of environmental, social and governance activities. This comprises solid foundations (such as health and safety), strategic issues (environmental sustainability and diversity and inclusion) and a signature focus on helping young people thrive in a digital world. This programme is designed to celebrate our existing activities, as well as provide inspiration for our people to launch new initiatives and to enable Ascential to take a clear lead as a responsible business.

The Board is actively monitoring the unfolding situation in respect of the Coronavirus outbreak. While China is an important long-term strategic growth market for Ascential, revenues from Chinese customers are today a relatively small part of the Group (less than 5% overall and with just 2% of attendees of Cannes Lions from China, for example) and we have not yet seen any material impact on trading from the situation. As a precaution and to reflect travel difficulties in the region we have previously communicated to participants that we have moved the date of Money20/20 Asia in Singapore from March to August 2020. We continue to monitor the potential impact of travel restrictions for Chinese delegates and sponsors to events in Europe (such as Retail Week Live in London in March).

We are also mindful of the impact that Coronavirus might have on the business performance of our customer base in areas such as fashion but again have seen no significant impact to date. Our business continuity plans are enabling the majority of our approximately 200 staff in China to remain both safe and productive.

Person working on laptop and reports on table

OUTLOOK

Over the coming year we will continue to utilise our unique insights and expertise to provide our customers with ever more relevant and critical information. With our product sets even more closely aligned to customer requirements, we believe we are well positioned to continue to drive strong performance in our scaled and structurally growing markets.

In 2020, we expect to deliver strong Organic growth with Group revenue in the range of £425m-£455m (using current exchange rates) and adjusted EBITDA margins of between 30% and 32%.

Duncan Painter
Chief Executive Officer
21 February 2020

"In 2019, we enjoyed a year of consolidation and progress. This follows a reshaping of our business in 2018 to support long-term growth, notably through the sale of the Exhibitions business, the acquisitions of WARC, BrandView and Flywheel Digital and the re-set of Cannes Lions and MediaLink's strategic re-alignment. We are pleased to report a successful performance in 2019, growing both revenue and profit and delivering well on the priorities we set out. "

DUNCAN PAINTER
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
2019 ANNUAL REPORT

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