This article was originally published by Colin Morrison in Flashes & Flames’ ‘How I do it’ series on 29 July, 2022. To enjoy more premium content like this, visit Flashes & Flames site.
Kumaran Ramanathan (“Ram”) is president of Foundry (formerly IDG Communications) the media-data-events subsidiary of the US-based IDG Inc. He is a Brit who started his media career in advertising sales at VNU, in London, and has spent a total of 14 years (in two spells) with IDG, and also as an executive at Incisive Media and CMP. Ram was appointed to his current role in 2017. He has been credited with effectively adapting the company to the constraints of COVID, not least by launching an informative weekly video for employees (The Weekly Jam) and by moving quickly and profitably into online events. (It operates a total of more than 1,000 live and virtual events annually).
It is 55 years since the then weekly newspaper Computerworld was launched by IDG founder Pat McGovern. At its peak, the $4bn IDG Group employed 13,000 people and had a portfolio of 300 B2B and B2C print magazines and exhibitions in 100 countries. Its Industry Standard once dominated B2B publishing in the US as the biggest ad page generator with a record 7,000 ad pages in a year. In 2020, IDG Inc had $1bn revenue / $105m EBITDA, generated 50% of its revenue from subscriptions and employed some 3,300 people.
One-third of the IDG headcount is in Foundry whose Future of Work research among IT directors recently identified “concerns around hybrid / remote work including efficient collaboration, morale and burnout, and security maintenance”.
It has been assumed that Blackstone last year acquired IDG from its former Chinese owners (for $1.3bn) primarily for the IDC research and data operations. But Foundry itself is said to be “very profitable,” to generate a mere 10% of its revenue from advertising, and the majority of revenue from outside the US. More than that, the PE firm supported the management’s vision of a company which is using its long-established tech brands, audiences and relationships to build a subscriptions business from businesses hungry for “intent data”. The company was renamed Foundry earlier this year.
What were your earliest career ambitions?
My childhood dream was to play cricket for England. While I didn’t quite manage that, I did play semi-professionally until I was in my mid-thirties and still play the odd game of cricket.
What was your first job in media and what did it teach you?
I broke into media in 1990 through advertising sales on Accountancy Age, at VNU. I absolutely loved working there. But, if anything could have deterred me from continuing a career in media, it would have been the compensation (£9k per annum and £5.4k commission). Not the most competitive! But I was surprised at just how much I enjoyed media sales. At VNU, I learned the importance of teamwork. It was a highly competitive market and we were laser-focused on winning. We learned to be articulate, sharp, considerate, tough, and courageous – week in, week out. It prepped me for the titanic struggle that was to follow when digital challenged the print operating model. It taught me to run towards problems, not away from them. The job was pitched as ‘graduate sales training’ – but it was actually life training. Broadwick Street, in London’s Soho circa 1990 – what a time to be alive!
You rejoined IDG in 2010 after 10 years. Was it a different company?
The company had changed massively. I had first worked at IDG in the global sales team during 1999-2001, and it was a print behemoth at the very time the publishing business was going digital. One reason I left was that I felt the leadership wasn’t taking the bold steps necessary to reset the business. I hadn’t planned on a return, but I had always felt there was unfinished business, and I had always enjoyed the innovation of the tech industry. And, of course, our unique global reach. The IDG I returned to had been transformed with digital revenues already higher than print. The US leaders had done a terrific job of dragging the company forward and – even though IDG was late to market in digital, demand generation and marketing services – we were able to quickly build competitive solutions.
How was IDG transformed from magazines to digital?
When we set out to re-shape the company’s strategy, we certainly faced difficulties. There was the well-founded view that we were turning the company upside down, in every way possible, in order to step into uncharted territory. The transformative vision gave us energy and momentum but our greatest challenge was modernizing and reinventing while continuing to deliver revenue growth. When we proved that we could maintain revenue growth in the first two years (2018 and 2019), everyone’s confidence grew and, when we started to roll it out, it was as if we were liberating the business.
To execute our strategy, we focused on a plan to ‘build, partner and buy’. It was clear that acquisitions were key to delivering on our goal to be the leader in the upper sales pipeline. Acquiring technology and data companies, Triblio (2020), KickFire (2021), LeadSift (2021) and Selling Simplified Group (2022) complemented the work we had done as a publisher and enabled us to transform in a way that built on – rather than turned away from – the work IDG had done for 50+ years in the tech industry.
Now, with the acquisitions in place, the traditional media brands actually take on a renewed relevance. Our trusted brands (CIO, Computerworld, CSO, Network World, Infoworld, PC World, Macworld, Tech Advisor, TechHive) give context and meaning to the data and technology story; they have never been more important. We are in the third era of the web (the era of trust) and that is why we have reinvented ourselves as a company at the intersection of marketing and technology.
What’s special about Foundry?
While many things set Foundry apart, perhaps our greatest differentiator is the trust and credibility that we continue to earn. It’s a privilege to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the industry we serve, decade after decade, on a truly global scale, building deep relationships with our community via digital engagement and the 1,000+ events we organise each year. Foundry’s vision is distinctive because it seeks to re-imagine and re-invent the way that teams work, grow, and succeed.
The Foundry rebranding not only honors our legacy but allows us to evolve. A “foundry” was originally a place for casting metal – a nod to our media heritage – but “to found” also means the creation of something new.
We are unrecognizable from the company of just four years ago. Behind the rebranding is a wealth of change and improvement in data, technology and, most importantly, in our people. Our four acquisitions not only raised the stakes for our product offering, but also injected new ideas, talent, and spirit. I couldn’t be happier with the change.
What’s your own primary role?
I am responsible for Foundry strategy and performance, of course. But what I most love is meeting customers, being with our teams around the world, meeting potential acquisition companies, and testing the elasticity of our business to its limits. In those small margins, greatness is found. I live by the Ayrton Senna quote: ‘’And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high…’’ I love seeing individuals develop and flourish – and creating the platforms to enable that.
What’s your vision for the business?
Pat McGovern built a great, global company that firmly established us as essential partners to the technology industry. Foundry is on track to achieve this for a second time. Our goal is to both put data in the hands of those responsible for growth, and simultaneously supply the tools they need to engage, activate, and make sense of that data to ultimately grow strong, relevant pipeline. I see us dominating the upper pipeline where the stakes are high for the CMO and CRO alike. By integrating real-time insights with activation, Foundry will become their leading choice.
What has been your proudest achievement so far?
Without question, the validation of our strategy through the sale of the business to Blackstone. To have laid out a vision and transformation journey to our board in October 2017, and then for that vision to become reality is one thing. But to have that tested and validated by the world’s largest private equity company really is something for our leadership team to be proud of.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned?
It was playing for Bromley Cricket Club, in Kent, where I was captain. We were in the middle of a rain delay, and it was a must-win in order to win the league for the first time in eight years. I was anxious about the rain. But one of my teammates (an Australian who went on to play Test Cricket a few years later) said to me, “Ram, control the controllables.” What I took from that (and what still resonates with me today, both in life and business) was: you can’t control whether the rain will stop, but you can control your preparation and your tactics for when and if it does.
Oh, and the rain did stop. We got out to play and won the match and the league.
Which other companies do you most admire?
I am a big fan of companies with inspirational leaders. Close to home is Tim Weller at the recently-sold Incisive Media (where I spent some time). Tim is a genius, and I learned so much from him. Another would have to be Erik Matlick, at Bombora, who is changing an industry and doing it with good grace and humility. Finally, Art Zeile, at DHI Group, who is quietly transforming one of the earliest web disruptors, Dice.com. No easy task for a public company.