KCCrain

Crain Communications Emerges from the Pandemic Focused on Subscriptions and On the Hunt for M&A

KC Crain

Last November, KC Crain became president and CEO of Crain Communications, representing the third generation of leadership at the 105-year-old, family-owned publisher, whose brands include Advertising Age, Crain’s Chicago Business and Modern Healthcare.

AMPLIFY caught up with KC to talk about his vision for the company, such as changing revenue streams (including digital and print subscriptions, which for the first time will exceed print advertising revenue for Crain this year) and a desire to expand into new markets through acquisition.

AMPLIFY: KC, how has Crain responded to the crisis over the past year and how has that positioned the company as we start to come out of the pandemic?

KC Crain: Like everybody else, the biggest fire was our events business. In a typical year we do about 200 events across all our brands and as it became a reality that we would be canceling all our events for the year, we made a massive pivot. We did over 900 virtual events over the last year and kept about half of our overall events revenue but the margins increased significantly. On the digital side, we had to get smarter about the analytics around our audiences and we paid a lot of attention to our audience strategy. We saw some nice increases in paid digital audience.

AMPLIFY: You’ve mentioned that audience strategy is the key to Crain’s future—can you expand?

KC: When we look at this business, it’s always been based on audience—your events audience, your digital audience, your print audience. We’re trying to get as smart as we can about who is engaging with our brands and on what platforms. We doubled down on our journalism. After 105 years, journalism is integral to our strategy, but now more than ever, it’s fundamental. If you have good journalism that people can’t get anywhere else, then they’re going to have to subscribe.  We’ve put in place a great team, we got smart about the analytics around our audience and their consumption habits and we’ve seen a huge lift.

AMPLIFY: As part of Crain’s prioritization on audience, you made a major hire in Veebha Mehta, who ran audience and marketing at Financial Times, Pearson and Cengage. What is her role with Crain?

KC: We had to look at how we were marketing to consumers and for the first time we have a global CMO in Veebha, whose main focus is our audiences. She’s a great hire and put together job functions we haven’t had in the company before.

AMPLIFY: What’s the revenue mix today for Crain?

KC: For the first time, our audience revenue—print and digital subscriptions—in 2021 will be greater than our print advertising revenue. Our revenue mix really changed from trade print advertising and event revenue to digital and audience revenue and the margins were significantly better. We saw a huge improvement in our first quarter numbers and I think we’ll see that trend continue. We’re up 50 percent year-over-year in our digital business coming out of the pandemic. As we’re focused on audience, digital, data, and custom, those business lines will continue to grow.

AMPLIFY: How does Crain look at the relationship between media and events as events start to come back?

KC: If people didn’t figure out a way to enhance their digital business during the pandemic, then shame on them. The pandemic 100 percent accelerated our digital strategy, namely in the data and analytics around our audiences, which we will continue to push in 2021. Coming out of 2020, nobody knew what 2021 would be like. We originally budgeted for zero in-person events but we will have our first in-person event in July and this fall we will have in-person events all over the world. There will be different aspects to our events such as live streaming and I think we will see a hybrid model for a while yet. We have no interest in running 900 virtual events again; it’s not sustainable. But as we move forward, we will continue to see virtual events where the topic and the market make sense.

AMPLIFY: KC, you are the third generation of leadership for Crain. What’s your vision for the company?

KC: We’ve got the business to where we are 100 percent focused on growth and we’re looking at verticals outside our traditional businesses. When you think about Crain, you might think about healthcare, automotive, marketing and manufacturing, our city brands. We made an acquisition in 2019 in the genomics space—life sciences are a new market for us. You’re going to see us make acquisitions that are adjacencies to our current business but then we will also get pretty focused on growth markets as well. We are in the market and looking at deals weekly. This is an exciting time; there’s a ton of opportunity in our space.

AMPLIFY: What are you excited about?

KC: Our audience strategy. I’m so fired up. We’re a 105-year-old company and we’ve never been so analytical. We’ve got great team members doing things to grow the business and for the first time in a while, we’re having fun. We’ve put ourselves in position to take advantage of these market opportunities out there. We’ve got wonderful traditional brands, great legacy markets and we’re looking to grow into new markets.