Ask The CMO: David Rubin On Marketing As Critical Player in Helping Define An Industry’s Disruption

Marketing is being asked to reimagine itself daily as the world continues to go through a period of transformation perhaps not seen since the days of the Industrial Revolution. As entire industries continue to be upended, change emerges less as an activity and more as a necessary course of action in today’s business environment. As a result, agility, disruption and vision in the world of marketing, has never been more vital, nor has the need for the marketing function to emerge as a powerful driver of increased revenue.

Ask The CMO David RubinBillee Howard

A Conversation with David Rubin Head of Brand at the New York Times: Marketing as Critical Player in Helping Define an Industry’s Disruption

In a year defined by “fake news,” the media sector has emerged as among the most embattled. With that in mind, I felt that speaking to a visionary marketer within the media sector would be a great way to end my column for the year, as well as provide some behind-the-scenes insights for leveraging marketing as a catalyst of disruption, growth and competitive edge.

For my most recent piece, I had the pleasure of speaking with David Rubin, formerly in charge of brand at Pinterest and currently in charge of shepherding The New York Times into our new age of engagement-driven experiences. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee: A lot of what I have been focusing on lately is the changing face of the marketing function inside of the world’s leading organizations. There used to be a tremendous amount of uniformity across the discipline, and now, there is a lot more nuance and customization by company. I know you’re the Chief Brand Officer and that you work closely with your Chief Revenue Officer, so this paradigm has apparently played out at The Times. Can you discuss how these two disciplines now comprise the marketing function at the company and what your specific role is?

David: I’m the Head of Brand and then we’ve got a Head of Consumer Revenue. The two of us collaborate closely and our teams work together very closely. We both need each other and our teams need each other in order to be effective. Our team on the brand side is really responsible for all of our messaging up and down the funnel and the revenue team is responsible for delivering those messages in a way that impacts the business. What we get out of that synergy is really powerful. We get a consistent message and a healthy tension that pushes us to optimize the reader experience through both performance and delivery. We are constantly challenging ourselves to make sure that we’re really driving our business success and getting people to subscribe in ever-increasing numbers. We also want to make sure that we’re building the right brand connection at the same time, so we’re constantly trying to do our best at both.

If you go back two or so years ago, before my arrival, the marketing function was very much performative coming out of a of a classic subscription, circulation, direct mail kind of approach. What we’ve done is really tried to make sure that even when we’re doing subscription-driven work, that we’re leading with the brand and the quality of journalism that happens here.

Billee: Super interesting. Thanks for that overview. What I’m trying to get at in these conversations in my column is how increasingly important a marketing, branding, or revenue officer has become to the overall future growth of the business overall. To me, that’s what you’re describing, much more of a focus on creating revenue driving brand experience that people can buy into as opposed to just selling subscriptions? 

David: The thing that’s really changed for The Timessince 2013, but really has been a slow process over the digital era, is moving from a business being an ad model to being a subscription model. We always had subscriptions, but historically we’re talking sixty percent plus of the revenue coming in from advertising. Now it’s flipped and this is what really led to rethinking a decision about building the reader and customer experience as we go to market. We want to think with the subscriber first mindset and what the big difference is in a media company is you must shift your mindset from total audience to one of engagement. You’re not going to pay for a subscription for something you use only occasionally. You’re going to pay for subscription if it’s really a part of your life, and if you feel a real connection to it. So it’s really shifted our mindset and as a result of that shift, we have built our largest audience ever.

In some ways, it’s pushed us further in creating quality journalism that allows people to understand the world in its full context. Our customer’s demand for quality news and quality reporting has led us to make more investments in the quality of our reporting and the breadth of formats we use to deliver it, which I think is healthier for our business.

Billee: A new critical mandate is to make storytelling more effective and a part of business strategy, regardless of what type of business you lead. So, how does a storytelling company, if not one of the top media brands in the world, approach storytelling and content on behalf of itself?

David: We certainly keep the creation of journalism in the journalism side of the house. The journalistic editorial decision-making is entirely separate from the business side. However, what we’ve learned is people appreciate the difference in the process you’ve gone through to do the work. That’s where marketing comes in. In essence, it’s the story behind the story. Not so much about an individual story, but as it rolls up into a philosophy or a commitment that might be interesting to the reader.

If you look at the advertising work we did with (ad agency) Droga5 and Director Darren Aranofsky last Spring, we did a series of videos that looked at some of our journalists and some of the big stories we had told. All that was driven by marketing. For us it’s about the thing that matters to making you want to subscribe, which is, you’ve got to believe that you’re getting a quality of understanding at TheTimes that you can’t get somewhere else; that it’s worth paying for and is so vital. Particularly because I think one thing that is unique to our industry, is that the lion’s share of our competitors are not charging. So, the question becomes how do you address that? I used to work in traditional personal care consumer products and you had to make everyone understand your point of difference. We need to do that here too, but we need to do that against someone who’s not even charging a dime. That’s really the core of both our challenge and opportunity.

Billee: It sounds like, if I’m hearing you correctly, that the ‘story behind the story’ process kind of gets to the issue of what real journalism is and is not and a focus on delivering the truth. Did that grander purpose play a role in how you’ve worked to reposition yourself?

David: We titled the Oscars ad and the related campaign that’s pretty much permeated the whole year, “The Truth Is Hard.” And the reason that we think it’s important to say that, is that there are lots of sources of the truth and The Times doesn’t profess to be the only source or even the source that always get it right. What we strive to do is go to greater lengths to help you determine the truth and know what is true. “The Truth Is Hard” campaign is not about what is true and what isn’t. It’s about the process to get there. We believe that journalism plays a big role in that process for people and we think it plays a big enough role that everybody should be subscribing to a quality publication. We hope it’s ours, but we actually believe more strongly in the idea that people believe journalism plays a role in their understanding of the world.

Billee: The campaign seems to be part of a larger rebranding effort. Do you want to talk about the overall brand pivot and the before, during and after of that process?

David: Yes, absolutely it’s been a big part of how we set our thoughts for ourselves and the continued stories that we were trying to tell people. We found that just having the campaign has been really helpful for trying to be a part of the conversation about the role of the independent press today and why it is so important. Obviously, we think it is, so we needed to figure out how that matters to the reader. I think a large question we ask ourselves is, there are probably 15 million people paying for a digital news source in the United States, while there are 175 million people reading news online. So, why is that gap so large and why are other industries like digital music and digital entertainment not feeling that gap as acutely? As a market leader, we see it as our responsibility to define the essence of paid news as a category; one that we have helped create and build.

We are very happy with the way we’ve been able to get our story out there. I think there was the thesis going into the end of last year, that not only were we on this long journey to try to get people to understand they need to pay for the news, but that something had changed around the time of the election both with the change in administration, as well as the prevalence of the conversation about fake news. Public consciousness around the issue has really helped change the dialogue. The question became what is an independent free press? How can we be a part of that conversation and can we start to say what we think our role in that is? So that’s what we did, and “The Truth Is Hard” is our way of talking about the importance of journalism to an individual’s quest to understand the world.

Billee:  I’ve looked a lot recently at the increasing need for marketers to create some type of an emotional connection beyond just a rational one. With that said, I would assume emotional intelligence played a significant role in your campaign as the subject matter is so visceral?

David: Totally, totally. Certainly, there’s a rational side of helping people understand the work we’re doing, but a large part that we know from our research is that people want to know that this type of stuff matters in the world. However, recently the idea of an independent free press has become more than just a concept for some people. It’s an important idea that goes back hundreds of years in our country — free speech and freedom of the press. There’s nothing more emotional than that. Today we are in a place where that emotional connection is not as widely understood, so I think part of our campaign was aimed at working to help people understand that emotional connection and what we think we stand for, which is helping people understand the world.

Billee: Right. A lot of people don’t realize that for a brand pivot to play out well externally and connect emotionally, it has to first start at home. Can you talk to me about that and perhaps some of the challenges of marketing internally, or selling a narrative inside a media company?

David: Sure. We’ve got a reasonably large team. A few thousand people work at The Times. Many of them have pretty big personal presences, with large social media followings. We wanted to engage our employees in our mission as they are our greatest brand ambassadors and can vouch for the brand and its authenticity in ways that advertising alone just can’t.

A great example I can share with you is a story about Jodi Kantor, who, as you likely know, did some of the incredible reporting about Harvey Weinstein and other stories in our sexual harassment coverage. Jodi decided to put a picture out on social media of the moment right before the Weinstein article was released. In the foreground fastened to the desk is a button with our “The Truth Is Hard”slogan. Someone had actually amended the button to read “The truth is really hard.” My guess is that years from now that photo will be among the legends of The New York Times, and on it will be that button from the campaign, capturing our purpose and all we stand for. I think there’s perhaps no better statement to the impact the campaign’s had internally for energizing and uniting everyone who works here.

Billee: Something else that seems to be a common thread with folks that I talk to is that while a lot of people say it’s one of the most challenging times to be a marketer, those who are doing it well, are really having a lot of fun and enjoying themselves. So, just curious as to what you enjoy most about your job right now?

David: The New York Times is one of the best journalistic enterprises in the world. The people who are doing our reporting are unparalleled in their skills, their strength, and their commitment. The output that they give people, I think, really makes a difference to the world. The marketer’s job here is to get people to subscribe so that we can continue to produce the type of world-changing work that we do. To be able to help do that is really rewarding and there’s nothing more fun than that. The small part I have in it all is really, really rewarding.

Connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn and BRANDthropologie media blog. Also you can read my book dedicated to the study of the collaborative economy called We-Commerce.