Cannes Lions owner Ascential to split in two, Phil Thomas to be CEO

Duncan Painter moves to lead digital commerce business

Clockwise from the left: Cannes Lions, Phil Thomas and Duncan Painter
Clockwise from the left: Cannes Lions, Phil Thomas and Duncan Painter

Ascential, the British owner of Cannes Lions, has told investors it plans to split in two and spin off its digital commerce business into a separate US-listed company.

Duncan Painter, the long-serving chief executive of Ascential, who floated the company on the UK stock market in 2016, will become CEO of the digital commerce business. Scott Forbes, the chair of Ascential, will also move to become chair of the digital commerce business.

Phil Thomas, who already oversees Cannes Lions as CEO of Ascential Intelligence and Events, will succeed Painter and become CEO of Ascential.

Rita Clifton, currently senior independent director of Ascential and a former chair of Interbrand, will succeed Forbes as chair of Ascential.

In addition, Ascential plans to put WGSN, its digital trends business, up for sale.

Ascential’s restructure and split is the result of a strategic review, which began in April 2022. Typically, a company will consider selling some or all of its assets during such a review.

The board said it made sense to separate its assets in what it called a “a series of interdependent transactions”, which will “better position each business to independently pursue and achieve their growth ambitions, while also realising the best near- and long-term value for shareholders”.

Ascential listed a series of benefits from its proposal:glob

  • Enable the return of a significant proportion of WGSN sale proceeds to shareholders;
  • Provide growth capital for all of the Group’s businesses;
  • Better enable digital commerce to attract and retain talent, have its own currency for M&A and ultimately open up incremental pools of capital;
  • Position a well-capitalised events business, comprising some of the best assets in the industry, being Money20/20 and Lions, including Warc, for continued success as a high-quality, independent UK-listed business.

Ascential’s shares jumped more than 20 per cent on the news.

Thomas is a well-known figure in UK and global advertising whose career dates back to the days of Emap, the publishing and radio group, which was one of the biggest names in UK media in the 1990s and 2000s. He started in journalism as editor of Empire and then managing director of FHM.

Emap split its consumer and B2B businesses in two in 2007; the latter eventually became Ascential under Painter’s leadership.

Painter has radically reshaped Ascential, disposing of many of its publishing assets and expanding in digital commerce, in particular.

He already had a record as an entrepreneur, having founded the consumer intelligence business ClarityBlue, which was bought by Experian. He went on to work for Sky.

Ascential added in an update to shareholders that its 2022 revenue and profit were “ahead of the top end of the range of market expectations” in all of its business segments.

The marketing segment had “significant growth with the strong return of the Cannes Lions international festival of creativity to Cannes [after two years without face-to-face events], where revenue exceeded pre-pandemic levels supported by double-digit growth from Warc’s subscription business”.

Ascential also owns Spikes, the leading advertising awards in Asia, in a joint venture with Haymarket, the owner of Campaign UK.

This article first made an appearance on Campaign UK.