Dex Media Focused on Digital Growth

Dex Media plans to spend 2014 moving past the integration phase that occupied much of last year, and into an execution phase focused on dialing in the right digital product set for small-business advertisers. The result should be an improving trend on digital revenue, and possibly a more stable picture on the print side.

That’s what we inferred from this morning’s Q4 and year end 2013 earnings call. Dex Media executives do not offer guidance, and they largely resisted analysts efforts on this morning’s call to provide any specific revenue forecasts.

What we do know is that the digital results moved in the right direction in Q4, following a negative trend through the first three quarters of 2013. Dex Media reported zero Q3 digital ad sales growth on its Q3 earnings call, culminating a steady declines in online ad sales throughout the year. For Q4, digital ad sales were 5.1%. What accounts for the improvement? Dex Media executives blamed much of the poor performance on the inevitable integration disruption. The improvement is a combination of moving through the bigger integration hurdles while also making some progress on the product and sales effectiveness side.

For the full year, Dex Media generated 24% of its roughly $2.1 billion in revenue from digital, or about US$500 million in online revenue. Print ad sales results stabilized a bit in Q4, but CFO Dee Jones cautioned not to over interpret one quarter. He noted that the mix of markets in Q4 slightly favored better print results. That said, the effect of bundling print along with digital products is expected to have a slight stabilizing impact on print over time. Print ad sales declined by 19.1% in Q4, compared with a 20.6% Q3 drop. In Q4 2012, print ad sales were down 23.3%.

Dex Media CEO Peter McDonald was more focused on the digital opportunity on today’s call, emphasizing the opportunity Dex Media has to make digital simple for small-business advertisers. He noted that with 2,000 local sales reps, Dex Media is well positioned to bring SMBs online at scale, something others have tried and failed to do. When asked about competition, McDonald said the biggest threat is from what he referred to as “that guy,” an informal expression Dex Media has coined internally to describe small local digital consultants and agencies.

“They tend to be good at one or two things, like SEO or social media,” McDonald said of these small local agencies. Dex’s opportunity is to offer a simplified, comprehensive solution for SMBs that includes presence, search engine marketing, social media, reputation management and other solution, with measured performance. “Businesses need us.”

McDonald said Dex Media is constantly trying out new bundles, looking for the right mix that will maximize revenue growth and retention. At the entry level, McDonald said  the company is getting traction with its Start Smart bundle.

Dex Media ended 2013 with about $2.7 billion in bank debt, down from $3.3 billion at the end of 2012. Moving forward, the company plans to use some of its cash to further reduce debt, but when asked, Jones would not rule out making strategic investments, including acquisitions.

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