Episode 20: Inside Story on Marketing the New York Times

Guest: Meredith Kopit Levien CRO, The New York Times

The Q&A below is simply the amuse-bouche of one of the most delicious podcasts I’ve recorded to date.  Please note that it was an honor just to get the interview with Meredith Kopit Levien, the Chief Revenue Officer of The New York Times. (Kind of like getting a table at Sylvia’s.)  Meredith is responsible for both marketing and sales AND has been a driving force behind The New York Times digital transformation and their stunningly timely “The Truth is Hard” campaign. For the main course, chomp into this podcast!

Drew: Looking back at the last four years at the New York Times what would you say is the most innovative thing you’ve hatched?

Meredith: I think the most innovative thing we’ve had to do fundamentally change our ad business. We really had to change what business we’re in, or expand the idea of what business we could be in. In the past, marketers have bought audience and adjacency from us. They wanted to reach our audience or or be next to our content because of what that content does for their brand. So much of our work now is also driven by what goes into the space that they buy from us. We launched T-Brand Studio initially to be really effective at making branded content, and it has morphed into a whole enterprise that can serve any need a marketer has around strategizing for making, distributing, or measuring content. We believed and continue to see whitespace in the market here. Who should help a marketer decide what are the stories that are going to engage people best? Surprise or interest people most? Know the right formats to really make people interested? That’s what the New York Times as a brand does for a living every day. So who better than us as an organization and a brand to help marketers do that.

Drew: Take us behind the scenes in the development of “the Truth is Hard” campaign and what inspired you to really to launch it.

Meredith: Thanks for that question; it’s my favorite one to answer of late. I’m going to go all the way back to a year ago, maybe more than a year ago. We made a decision probably 18 months ago that we needed to start thinking about The New York Times as a consumer brand and take its power as a brand much more seriously. The staffing decision we made around that was to bring somebody in to run brand. We hired a guy a year ago named David Rubin who is the Head of Brand. He works as a peer to our brilliant Head of Consumer Marketing, Clay Fisher. So it started with bringing in talent with deep, deep, deep brand thinking, brand planning, brand execution, experience.  So for the last year there was a budding intent to face the world more as brands do. And behind that intent was a sense that we are a world-class news brand, which to me means we define the category that we’re in and we deliver the work that we do and its products very very well. But we also had this opportunity to also to begin to become and behave like a world-class consumer brand.

Drew: Can you talk about the strategy development?

Meredith: We spent quite a bit of time on core brand principle definition, with deep, deep involvement from the newsroom at The Times. We arrived at a very simple brand statement, which is essentially that The New York Times helps people understand the world, and we arrived at a set of principles around which we would operate. Then as we’re doing that and as we’re beginning to really think like a brand thinks (what is our narrative, what are the messages, how do those messages look, where’s the consistency?), this stunning thing happened in the world: We had a presidential election. We had an extraordinary moment in terms of news cycle. We saw our traffic and engagement go to a place beyond anybody’s expectation. And then the news became the news. And so you asked why did the Truth Campaign happen?I imagine we would have done a brand campaign had the news not become the news. But I think what that brand campaign was, which was really about the process by which the world arrives at truth and the role that journalism plays in that, I’m not sure that that would have happened had the news not become the news. We did that with Droga, which we feel very proud of the work that they’ve done and very lucky to work with them. We broke the campaign the weekend of the Oscars. The first phase of the campaign essentially was meant to remind the world of the role that journalism plays in speaking truth to power, holding power to account, and how important it is to have journalism and high quality journalism as a partner on any individual’s path to finding truth. The second phase of the campaign, which we’ve launched just a few weeks ago, is a short film series that we’ve done with Darren Aronofsky, the incredible filmmaker, which is more about the craft of journalism at the New York Times. It’s about the commitment, the resources, and the expertise that it takes to cover the world and to find the truth, and to do so in a way that people can believe in and trust; in a way that gives people a tool to help make sense of what’s going on around them. And you can expect that we’ll continue the campaign on the other phases.

Here are a couple examples of The Times’ latest ads:

Meet the Guest

Meredith Kopit Levien was named executive vice president and chief revenue officer of The New York Times Company in April 2015. Ms. Kopit Levien is responsible for the generation of all advertising and subscription revenue from The Times’s multiplatform products and services and for leadership of the global advertising, marketing, video, and live event teams.

Ms. Kopit Levien joined The Times Company in August 2013 as executive vice president of advertising.

She previously served as chief revenue officer at Forbes Media, where she led the North American and European revenue operations for Forbes.com, the Forbes Magazine Group and Forbes Conferences since 2011.

Ms. Kopit Levien began her professional career in 1993 at the Advisory Board Company in Washington, DC. From 1999 to 2001, she served as an account manager and director of new business for the digital advertising agency and website development firm, I33 Communications. Before joining Forbes in 2010 as vice president and publisher of ForbesLife and ForbesWoman.com, she held various senior and strategic advertising sales positions at The Atlantic Media Company from 2001 to 2008.

Ms. Kopit Levien serves on the boards of The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Ad Council. She is also a Henry Crown Fellow and co-chair of the Media and Entertainment Council at Lincoln Center.

She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia in 1993.

What You'll Learn

  • How The New York Times is transforming from a print publication to a omni-channel media brand.
  • How to evolve a legacy brand without losing sight of its core mission.
  • Why you may want to consider building a service practice to support your "software" offering
  • The importance of bringing in powerhouse talent.

Quotes from Meredith Kopit Levien

  • I say all the time of our work in journalism that comes from our newsroom [that] it takes an extraordinary amount of commitment, expertise, and resources. I would say the same thing about making great content for marketers.
  • One of the early things we used to say to marketers often: "You're not the plot. You're the subplot."
  • We're living in a moment where our content is so ubiquitous, and it's so everywhere and ambient in every moment of our lives. To break through, it's not that you have to do more, it's that you have to do something really, really great.
  • I will say, both in the consumer business and in the ad business, we're going to keep changing that [business] model. We're going to be ruthless about it, but we're going to do it without tinkering with the core mission of The New York Times.

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