This is a story about a story. For any organisation, changing the narrative is tough. For Josh London, IDG’s first CMO, it required a monumental global effort. Find out how he set about unifying the story of multiple magazine titles across multiple markets, set against the changing backdrop of the global media industry.
You’re a new CMO, the company’s first ever. You’ve come on board after a much-scrutinised change of ownership. Your business operates hundreds of publications in the ferociously competitive trade media sector, and your staff are located in more than 100 countries around the globe. Your mission is nothing less than to change the entire story of your company – both inside, and out.
These were the circumstances facing Josh London when he took the reins as chief marketing officer at International Data Group (IDG) in 2015. Research revealed consumers were largely unaware of the company’s breadth. The challenge was to get the highly distributed global giant came to speak with one voice.
“Historically we’ve been extremely decentralised,” says Josh. “In the past, if I wanted to reach CIOs, I’d go to cio.com.” Now, with integrated teams selling across titles, buyers can reach CIOs when they are most receptive to an advertising message, both on cio.com and across the entire IDG portfolio.
“When those other items were revealed to them, not surprisingly, readers started engaging more and our advertisers started taking advantage of cross-sell and upsell opportunities globally,” Josh says.
One of the most challenging aspects of a rebrand is bringing long-term employees with you on the journey – especially for an organisation with more than 13,000 in 147 countries.
To drive the brand unification through IDG’s disparate offices and properties, Josh and his team worked to identify key driving-force personalities who could become advocates for the new approach across the globe.
“One of the ways we did that was with a welcome kit, which re-welcomed long-standing employees and new employees alike to the company. It explained how we articulate ourselves, our value proposition and what we believe in,” says Josh.
Like the streamlined internal communications plan, simple consumer-facing changes belied the complexity of the business case behind them. New branding needed to reflect a wide range of titles and existing brand awareness. In some cases, individual publications like PCWorld and MacWorld held greater brand resonance than IDG itself.
“We did something very simple and also very subtle, which was to associate [all titles] with the master brand. So instead of just CIO, we use CIO from IDG. That subtle reinforcement says ‘There’s something more here’,” says Josh.
“We also did backlinking where it makes sense and content sharing between publications, but it really was about saying ‘Instead of this room that you’re used to entering, there’s a grand house for you to explore.’”
Join The CMO Show hosts Nicole Manktelow and Mark Jones as we dive into the details of IDG’s monumental rebranding effort and learn how one of the world’s biggest media and research companies’ reinvented its legacy print brand in a complex digital age.
- A CMO’s View: How IDG rebranded 100+ media properties – Marketing Land
- Tata rebranding case study – Financial Times
- How Rebranding an Organization Starts From Within – Huffpo
The CMO Show production team
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Hosts: Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow
Guest: Josh London
MJ: Welcome to the CMO Show. And thank you for joining us. My name is Mark Jones.
NM: I’m Nicole Manktelow.
MJ: And we have a very special guest today, Josh London, who is the CMO of IDG, the largest, if not one of the largest, global trade publishers in media publishers around the world. Thanks for joining us.
JL: Thank you for having me.
MJ: And I understand that you’re the first person to be in this role. Do you want to describe what you do?
JL: Sure. IDG is, as you mentioned, the world’s largest technology, and media, data, and marketing services company. We operate in over 147 countries worldwide. We’re a 53-year-old company. Historically, we’ve been extremely decentralised. And so one of the opportunities that we saw as audience-buying takes some of the place of brand-driven buying was to unify under a single brand. And so I was hired as IDG’s first global CMO to do just that.
MJ: And I think that’s interesting. If you just want to talk about the brand aspect of your work, I think, is quite fascinating. Just declaring my interest as a former employee of something close to 10 years, 8 to 10 years. I really appreciated the decentralised aspect of the brand so here in Australia and also in America. There was a very strong cultural identity at a local level. But also, you were connected to this big family story, founded, of course by the late Pat McGovern. And so you felt like you were part of a big thing, but you had a strong local identity. What happened from those kind of early roots to where it ended up before you came along?
JL: Yeah. Look, a lot of what made IDG unique is still what makes IDG unique. That hasn’t changed. One of the things that has changed is the dynamic of how people are looking to target their prospects and customers. And in the past, it used to be if I want to reach CIOs, I go to cio.com. Now, they want to reach CIOs when they are most receptive to an advertising message, both on cio.com and across the IDG portfolio and beyond. And so that brand to audience shift, brand’s still very important, but enabled us to say, “Can we leverage all of IDG’s assets on a global basis in a different way?”
And so the move from, as we like to say, a house of brands to a branded house was one that was driven in large part by our customers, who said to us, “I knew this aspect of your business, but I didn’t know that you offered all of these other things.” And so our research showed when those other items were revealed to them, not surprisingly, they started taking advantage of more and more of them. Readers started engaging more and our clients, our advertisers started taking advantage of cross-sell and up-sell opportunities globally.
MJ: One thing to add there, Nicole, I’ll…
NM: We’ll fight for this.
MJ: I know we’ll fight for this. My experience, actually, particularly in the States, was that you had this very big brands. There was 400 people on InfoWorld Magazine when I started working for it, which in Australia, and probably globally, is just enormous, right? But you had this siloed sales function as part of that larger team. So is what’s happened now, if you like… You mentioned cross-selling as an integrated sales function. Is that how it’s changed?
JL: It has in the US. So what we’re seeing in the market is a lot of consolidation, that our clients want to do more business with fewer partners. And that’s for all of the reasons that you’d expect. They’re looking globally. They’re thinking more expansively. And they have fewer resources themselves to do that with. And so that was one of the secular changes that we saw. At IDG, when I say extreme decentralisation, as you experienced, each property… And we have hundreds of websites, and we do 700 plus events a year, and outside of the US, a couple hundred print publications. In the US, we’re all digital.
In addition to our marketing services and data business, each one of those had not only their own publisher, but their own HR, their own finance, their own sales and marketing. And so what that presented to the customer was a lot of different entry points, which is great, but not necessarily a unifying theme. So one of the things that we set out to do was simplify our value prop, unify our brand promise, and clarify that to the marketplace. That in turn, changed our go to market, including the way that we sell.
NM: So, Josh, I just wanted to know because it’s really easy to understand that, yes, for people who want to spend money with IDG, that it is a lot simpler to get a more holistic view, to have access to an account manager that can reach across a whole bunch of titles, a bunch of events, a bunch of regions, and provide them something. That makes perfect sense to me.
NM: However, you just mentioned then the readers were engaging more. And I find this interesting because I also have an editorial background. And I know the loyalty that individuals get to a sense of identity of a brand, or a title, or a masthead that they might more think of as their understanding of a particular audience, and their readership. And the sales function probably doesn’t mean that much to them. So how did you handle those questions as inevitable, well, we’re losing our identity? How did you handle that sort of pushback? And I can only imagine you must have had some.
JL: Yeah. It’s a great question. So the brand CIO, CSO for example, InfoWorld as you mentioned, PCWorld, MacWorld, etc, those have incredibly strong resonance with our audiences. In fact, in some cases, they have better resonance than the IDG brand as a whole. They might not have known that they were each owned by IDG and that wasn’t something we wanted to change. That brand equity was something we wanted to preserve at all costs. That relationship with the readers was something that we wanted to preserve as well.
What the opportunity for us was, was to say the editorial quality that you’ve come to expect with CIO, is that same editorial quality that you could expect from our other properties, like CSO. Now as those roles changed, the roles of our audience members changed because of changing technology, but also because of the evolving role of the CIO, for example, from more of a technical role to now, a business and strategist role as well. They have more range across those brands than ever before. So the opportunity for us was to say, “Again, this same quality that you’ve come to expect over here, you can find across our portfolio.”
JL: A CIO of 10 years ago has a very different role. It’s a larger role in many ways, than a CIO – excuse me, CIO today, than 10 years ago. Secondarily, those audiences are looking further afield, than just the one vertical that they used to identify with. And so they’re consuming content about technology and its impact on their business and how they can make smarter technology purchase decisions across a wider spectrum.
NM: So how do you expose the spectrum of content across your brands to an audience that might be coming to one? This is more than back-linking, I’m sure.
JL: Yeah. I mean, from a brand point of view, we did something very simple and also very subtle, which was we associated them with the master brand, right? So instead of just CIO, we said, “CIO from IDG.” And that subtle reinforcement was another way to say, “There’s something more here.” And sure, we did techniques like back-links, and where it made sense, content sharing across publications, but really it was to say, “Instead of this room that you’re used to entering, there’s a grand house for you to explore.”
MJ: One of the big stories of IDG, of course, in the last couple years, has been firstly going up for sale, and then the sale to China Oceanwide. It was announced on 30th March this year. What was interesting about that, to me, actually, was Pat McGovern, the late founder I mentioned, had a long history of partnering with China.
MJ: What are they looking to see from a branding and marketing perspective? How do you incorporate that context?
JL: Yeah. It’s been a wonderful partnership because China Oceanwide has been very supportive of our management’s plans, which existed before the acquisition and continued afterwards, and providing them with both the autonomy and the capital to enact those plans. So from a brand and marketing perspective, they have been fully supportive of the plans that we have been undertaking.
MJ: One of the reasons I ask is that I really believe in the importance of brands being able to tell a good brand story.
MJ: And in the background reading of the work that you did, I understand there was a book that was sent out to people and there was this idea that you want to tell the IDG brand story, right? I think it was quite simply the brand story, wasn’t it? Or the IDG story?
JL: Yeah. We had, what I thought was a very exciting way of reintroducing the company to our various constituents not only with the decentralisation. But with operations in 147 countries, it was really important that we were able to reveal all of the cultures within IDG’s brand and represent those. And so one of the ways we did that was, again, this sort of welcome kit, if you will, that re-welcomed long-standing employees and new employees to the company and how we articulate ourselves, how we articulate our value proposition, what we believe in, and so the way we did that was fun. We actually started in Sydney, and we ended in San Francisco.
And we did a follow the sun approach, where on everyone’s desk, there was a box that had gifts that represented the art and science of media that we embody, as well as this re-introduction to the company, and this brand story book talking about how it started under Pat McGovern, and how it’s evolved over time. And we’ve continued to evolve that global approach as well and reinforce that through our activation and our engagement. And we heard some really strong feedback. One never knows how this is going to be received, and there’s always that excitement the night before.
And we watched it unfold across social media. Each office, because of our decentralised approach, celebrated it a little bit differently. And we had champagne in one, and another had cake, and some had a Pop-Tart decorating contest, where they tried to do the tagline. But all of it was a really fun, sort of festival environment. But what was most meaningful to me was the feedback that I got from employees, both new and long-standing. I got an email from a woman who had been at IDG many decades, and said, “Today, I’m proud to work at IDG.” And that’s very heartening because it really was that culture that we wanted to reveal. And then take that and continue to evolve our go to market and present that to our customers.
MJ: Well, it’s just interesting to me because the role of the CMO is typically understood and pictured in the context of outbound marketing, right?
JL: That’s correct.
MJ: So this story that you’re telling is the, if you like, the reinvention of a multinational brand. And the sort of activities that you’re involved in here are, obviously, internal and the sort of stuff you could actually expect to be coming from a people in culture of HR perspective. So how did you get your head around that and make sure that you’re not stepping on toes, that you’re keeping all stakeholders involved? And what were the lessons you learned?
JL: We work very collaboratively with lots of leaders, including HR, because what we heard through all of our brand research was fascinating. I’ve never heard this in my entire career. And we heard this around the world. So we were talking about the normal brand attributes and what makes IDG unique. And in country after country… and in fact, I just spoke at an event last night, and people came up to me and said the exact same thing, which is, “It’s Peter Smith who makes the difference here. It is Martha Wallace, who’s my rep and her understanding of the market is really why I buy from you.”
And you know, name after name across the country and then across the world that said, “Look, your products are innovative, but sometimes you fall down. But when you do, I know that Martha will pick them up and it’ll be all hands on deck to put it together.” And that trust as typified by individuals, was just an incredible revelation. You just don’t normally hear that amount of individual names in brand research. And so surfacing, the difference being our people, was really important. And the best way to do that was hearts and minds internally so that could take that excitement externally, right? And say, “This is what it means to be IDG. It’s all of you. It’s not an algorithm in a closet. Yes, we’ve got amazing data, and we’ve got amazing offerings, but it’s really the difference that each one of you is making.” And with that army of brand advocates, if you will, we then were able to take that message outside.
NM: Josh, how do you see the role of marketing in media companies and the survival of media companies?
JL: I see it in two ways. And this is really not only in media companies, I would say in companies, in general. Marketers must drive growth. If we’re not driving growth, then we’re not fulfilling the needs of what we were hired for. And in fact, growth is the only measure of a company’s long-term success. There was an interesting McKinsey Report that said, “More than M&A, more than R&D, more than cost-cutting, more than margin, more than innovation, it’s all growth as a predictor.”
And one of the ways that marketing can really play a role in that in addition to all of the traditional ways of building a strong brand and having a clear value proposition, is thinking of the customer experience as a whole. And that’s not owned by marketing, right? The customer owns the business. The business does not own the customer. But that, because of marketing’s central role as the nexus of voice of the customer, connecting with sales, connecting with operations, and finance, and HR, it’s a unique opportunity for marketers to really drive that customer experience. And so there are a lot of areas that we look at and my colleagues look at for using customer experience to drive growth. And that creates a very deep moat when it’s done well because it allows you to differentiate yourself in a way that, again, you’re really building a deep relationship with your customer.
MJ: So how are you tracking your marketing activities through the sales growth?
JL: Well, we have a martech stack, obviously. And so we look at that, both in terms of pipeline, and in terms of closed revenue. We drive that in a number of ways. One thing that I’m really excited about that we did was called IDG CMO Perspectives. And this was an outgrowth of key account meetings that I was having. And the fact that I kept hearing interesting tactics that I thought other marketers would want to hear. So we turned this into a video series. And what we’ve been able to do with that, is drive thought leadership for IDG, of course, and give our clients visibility. But also, it’s been a great source of in-bound leads that when the CMO of IBM is talking about her growth plans through demand gen, and we have that on our blog, well, that’s a very short walk to your demand gen offerings, as an example. And so we’ve had a lot of success with that, as well as all of our traditional lead gen efforts for sales.
MJ: And I guess one of the questions that Nicole’s kind of alluding to more broadly is the future of media and marketing, and the role of a publisher. I think…
NM: I’m not obsessed at all.
MJ: Well, I mean, this is where people are itchy, so we’re scratching right?
MJ: Content marketing, in-house branding efforts as it relates to what used to be called custom publishing or sponsored editorial, this animal has had many different names over the years. Back, actually, in fact, I’m going to date myself. But, back when I was on Computerworld, in Australia, we had sponsored features, right? So you got an ad, and then you got wrapped into this very clearly labelled advertorial, right? So this is a very old idea, but my question is, how strategically important do you think that will be to the future of publishers, and particularly trade publishers?
JL: Well, I think it’s very important if it’s done well. we have half a century of writing to these audiences. And these purchase processes, particularly on the enterprise side, are very complex, right? There’s an average of 16 people involved in a given enterprise purchase project. It can take 12 to 18 months. There are various stakeholders from across the organisation from IT, the line of business, that are coming in at different points, each one of them with a different point of view and a different perspective on what they need to answer for their job.
So, you know, an ERP solution or a CRM solution is a very complex purchasing process. We know how to write to these solutions on the editorial side. So leveraging that expertise for our clients and being able to advance that thought leadership at the right time to the right person, is really critical, whether that’s through video, or infographics, or podcast ourselves, or through written work. And I think it’s a great compliment when it’s done well. We’ve all seen it go wrong. And we’ve seen those examples where we recoil. When it goes well, it’s the best of contextual media because it offers a value ad to the audience that they’re receptive to.
MJ: So how do you think you’ll get it right in terms of the balance internally at IDG between various forms of digital and display advertising and sponsored content? And how do you see that changing?
JL: When you look at traditional digital display, that is not an area of rapid growth globally, right? And we’ve seen a lot of this pullback because the industry had a lot of bad practises. There were transparency issues. They were cramming an old model around a lot of content and it was disruptive to the entire user experience, right? We’ve all looked for that close button. Where we see the growth there, is data-driven and cognitive advertising and so that’s not your traditional banner ad. That’s really informed by first-party data so that when that digital body language is showing, “I’m ready to raise my hand,” that intent signal, that we’re presenting the right offer then.
NM: Josh, what’s next for IDG given that you’ve all grown up, where you’ve solved a few problems, you’ve got your new identity, you’ve got your audience engagement going, and what’s next?
JL: Well, we’re really excited about some of our global opportunities. So I’ll talk about two of them really quickly. Because scale has changed, we talk a lot about scale, especially in the age of Facebook and Google. But the notion of scale has changed from planting a flag and having bare metal, and physical offices, and a number of employees, instead to virtual scale and data scale. And what that’s allowed us to do is, it allowed us to enter markets very quickly. So we launched a product called Pipeline Activator, which is a predictive intelligence product that shows purchase intent. On a given account list, which of these accounts are more likely to buy and why? And it’s easy to say quickly, but it’s actually a very complex and wonderful product. We were able to launch that in 147 markets overnight. If you think about the physical world, there would be no way to do that and so that’s one of the things that we’re most excited about.
Another that we did, which is in the physical world was something called IDG Security Day. And that, we launched in 10 countries on a single day on a theme that affects all of us, which is security, but is very different in Australia than it is in Washington, DC, than it is in Munich. But we were able to leverage the commonalities across the IDG brand and properties, and then localise that for individual markets and so those types of products and platforms are really exciting for us.
NM: They’re two very different propositions.
JL: That’s right.
NM: But there’s some key features of them that are very similar, wrapping up these ideas into single ideas that transport into different markets no matter what.
NM: I find that interesting and clever.
MJ: Well, Josh, it’s been fantastic to get to know you. And thank you for your time. Just before we go, one of our wonderful traditions is the rapid-fire round. And you get to answer a mixture of serious and possibly not quite so serious questions. Are you up for it?
JL: I’m up for it.
MJ: All right.
NM: He’s ready.
MJ: What are you grateful for?
JL: I’m grateful for my family.
NM: Do you like rain?
MJ: In the movie of your life, who would play you?
JL: Yul Brynner.
NM: Nice. What’s your greatest career fail?
JL: How much time do we have? Let’s see. I think my greatest career fail came early, when I didn’t realise that individuals needed to be managed as individuals. I was lucky enough to learn that hard lesson very early and never make that mistake again.
MJ: If you weren’t a marketer, you’d be a…?
NM: Who’s your hero?
JL: My father.
MJ: What’s the last show you binge-watched on Netflix?
MJ: What’s your greatest frustration?
JL: The inability to change.
NM: Josh, if you could change your first name, what would you change it to?
MJ: Very nice. And just last question. What’s your favourite book?
JL: Oh, boy. Here’s the problem with this one. I’m a former literature major. And so this is always the one that vexes me. There have been so many influential books in my life. It’s really hard to pick one. I’ll pick one. The Wine of Youth by John Fante was a wonderfully written book.
MJ: And what did you like about that?
JL: You know, he writes with an emotionality and just a vulnerability that is… and a level of sentimentality that it’s heart-warming and heartbreaking at the same time.
MJ: Fantastic. Well, Josh London, CMO of IDG, it’s been fantastic talking with you. Thank you very much for your time. I’ve enjoyed hearing the honking sounds of New York in the background there. And we wish you all the best with brand transformation that you’ve set in train at IDG.
NM: And we wish that you have more time to do some more reading because I’m sure you really want some more of that.
JL: I do. Thank you. It’s been my great pleasure. I really appreciate the opportunity.
MJ: Excellent. Thank you, Josh.
NM: Bye now.
JL: Okay. Bye-bye.