Interview with Foundry president Kumaran Ramanathan

Foundry president Kumaran Ramanathan: B2B journalism remains our ‘heart and soul’ despite martech push

Kumaran Ramanathan, chief executive of Foundry

Foundry may be the largest global media company you’ve never heard of.

Headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, the 58-year-old publisher – formerly known as IDG Communications – owns Macworld, Tech Hive, CIO, PC World and several other tech-focused titles.

The media arm of International Data Group, Foundry is understood to generate annual revenues of nearly $1bn.

It has around 1,400 staff based across offices in Boston, London, Singapore, Bangalore, Dublin, Dubai, Munich, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo and Warsaw. 

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Its president since 2017, Kumaran Ramanathan, is based in London. It may sound somewhat unconventional for a US-headquartered company to be led by a UK-based president, but Ramanathan says the set-up works well and benefits Foundry as a global business. 

“We’re not just a North East-HQ company with all of our leadership there,” he says over a Zoom call from his office. “We’ve got a great global footprint – 50% of our revenues are international.”

How Foundry thrived amid Covid-19 disruption

Ramanathan grew up in London. He attended Malvern College boarding school and is a graduate of the University of Reading. 

He started his career in advertising sales at VNU and first joined IDG in 2010. He was made president in October 2017 when his predecessor, Michael Friedenberg, left for Thomson Reuters.

This means that around half of Ramanathan’s tenure as president has been heavily influenced by the Covid-19 crisis.

Internally, Ramanathan and his team worked hard to keep their international workforce safe and connected through this period.

“What we took was a very flexible bi-market approach with a general theme of protecting the health of the staff at all costs and protecting the health of the business,” he says.

“It’s hard for me to say this publicly, but we did a really great job of supporting our organisation. You know, we launched a weekly video – we call it the Weekly Jam – where I’m interviewed by our head of training and resource… We’re now up to episode 88, or 89 I think it is.”

Financially, Foundry was one of several large media businesses that found a way to thrive through disruption.

“We had digital at our heart,” says Ramanathan. “We weren’t a print publisher anymore. And so we were able to pivot very well.”

Event revenues fell between 2019 and 2020, but Ramanathan says the company bounced back fully in 2021.

“We were able to pivot to digital events very quickly,” he says. “Because our audience is totally focused around technology it was kind of an easier pivot for us than it might have been for other B2B and B2C publishers.”

Ramanathan says Foundry’s editorial brands also benefited from an increased interest in IT products and services during the pandemic as companies sought to adapt to remote working.

“People came to our sites, as they came to other sites like your own – they went to what they trusted,” he says. “They needed some assurances about how to handle, from a technology perspective, this whole workforce that was used to being in an office that has now dispersed. Our CSO brand [targeting chief security officers] just went through the roof.”

How Foundry became a martech giant

International Data Group, made up of Foundry and its sister company International Data Corporation, was founded in 1964 by Patrick McGovern.

In 2017, three years after the death of McGovern, the group was acquired by China Oceanwide Holdings, an investment company. Last year, US private equity giant Blackstone bought IDG for $1.3bn.

Under its previous and current owner, Foundry has undergone a significant shift in focus. In 2017, when Ramanathan became president, 50% of its revenues came from advertising on its media brands.

Today, advertising accounts for 10% of Foundry’s turnover. Data and software sales now make up 55% of revenues. A further 20% come from marketing services and 15% from events.

The growth in data and software sales has been driven by four marketing technology (martech) acquisitions. Since June 2020, Foundry has acquired Triblio, Kickfire, Leadsift and Selling Simplified.

Are more acquisitions on the way? “Yes, absolutely,” says Ramanathan. “Not in the immediate short term. We’re actually going through that exercise. We’ve identified and we’re working through a couple of areas where we think we could enhance our capabilities.

“We’re also starting to think about, and have had good conversations also on the media side about, audience acquisitions. The four acquisitions we’ve made have been all around data…

“In-house, I’d say the next largest investment has been almost entirely in our media business. We’re really spending and investing in that area. That’s launches, it’s investment in CMS, we’ve got a massive programme with an outside agency on our user experience across B2B.

“Charles Lee, who runs that group, was telling me we’ve launched more B2B properties in the last six months than we have in the last 16 years. So it’s a really important part of our business. It’s starting to get overlooked, but it’s the heart and soul of what we do.”

Journalists are the ‘oxygen’ of the business

Foundry is one of several B2B companies that have diversified revenues away from traditional media advertising and towards data, events, and other business areas, in recent years.

But Ramanathan says that media and journalism remain key to Foundry.

Foundry’s martech and media divisions, he says, are essential to one another. “Media generates data that marketing technology needs to thrive. And on the other side, marketing technology is something that media companies don’t have. We just didn’t have that access to those capabilities.”

Ramanathan adds: “Martech does not work without behavioural, quality data. But then the media business doesn’t work without technology. And those two things coming together is very much our value proposition. [So] if we’re going to be a dominant player in the upper sales pipeline, having trusted media brands is absolutely essential.”

Ramanathan believes that some publishers – particularly those pursuing traffic and programmatic advertising revenues above all else – have lost sight of the core principles of the business. Foundry pulled its B2B brands off the open advertising exchange in 2020 to “enhance user experience and reinforce a commitment to brand safety and contextually relevant messaging”.

“You’ve got to build relationships with readers – that’s the 101 of publishing,” he says. “I do think, in the last 20 years in particular, the industry has struggled for relevance. And they absolutely fell into the venus flytrap that was adtech…

“And they actually forgot the very fundamental basics of working hard to build a close relationship with your readers – invest in quality content, editors.”

Ramanathan admits that Foundry, in the past, has fallen into the trap of making editorial cuts. But, he says, this is now in the past. His company currently employs 220 full-time journalists and works with a network of around 400 freelances.

“Don’t – as I’ve seen, and I won’t name the company –  react to a 10% fall in revenue by cutting 10% of your editorial staff,” he says.

“That’s the bloody oxygen of your business. Why would you do that? Cut the support people before you cut the people that are actually generating your value proposition.”

Quickfire questions with Kumaran Ramanathan

Favourite film? Fire in Babylon, a documentary about the West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s

Book? The Fight, by Norman Mailer, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X – “that had quite an influence on me”.

Newspaper? The Times

Magazine (apart from your own)? Vanity Fair

Music? The Jam and The Clash

TV show? Succession, Mad Men, The Newsroom

Update: This article was altered on 24 March to state that Ramanathan is the president, not the chief executive, of Foundry.

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