Monday, April 1, 2019

Sabena Gupta (CAS ’13), Director of Brand Strategy and Marketing at The New York Times, Shares How She Found Her Passion

When Sabena Gupta was a student at NYU, she decided to switch her major from dentistry to English literature. She wanted to explore a major that tapped into her creative side. Here she shares with us how that choice led her to her current role at The New York Times, a job both rewarding and fun.

What did you study at NYU?

I came to NYU as part of a seven-year dental program. But half way through my sophomore year, I felt like this wasn’t right. It’s not that I didn’t care to do it; it’s just that I didn’t have the drive to do that for seven years, which led me to think it wasn’t the career for me. That is when I pivoted to English literature. I wanted to study something I was passionate about and I tried to have the confidence that I would figure it out from there.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at NYU?

I did a Virginia Woolf symposium where we literally read every Virginia Woolf book. The class was a relatively small size, so we discussed it and wrote about it. I loved that. I love Virginia Woolf. I am a huge fan. I actually wrote a book while I was in school, Sunsets in Paradise, and published it a few years after. It is a 1920s kind of tragic romance based on Hemingway and Fitzgerald and that kind of writing. I wrote it and I self-published it. It was a really fun side project for me.

Sabena Gupta: her story continues

How did your education at NYU shape what you do now?

It was a little bit of a happy accident. I had a couple of older friends who were also English majors in school who had gone into advertising, and I had done a bunch of media internships and I wanted to stay in that creative space. I wasn’t sure how to break into that, but seeing friends in advertising really doing it and enjoying it, I thought I would give it a shot. The first role I got out of college was at a digital ad agency called AKQA. The cool thing about that opportunity was I was in a program that allowed me to test out a few different departments, and that was a really great introduction to the industry and to figuring out what I wanted to do in it. The department that really resonated with me was brand strategy because it required you to exercise the creative side of your brain as much as the functional business side of your brain.

Can you talk a bit about what brand strategy and marketing is?

The core competency of it is helping brands and clients deliver marketing for their products in a way that communicates the value they can add to their audience. Initially when I joined The New York Times, we were doing a lot of direct response advertising, getting people to subscribe, which had to be done to grow the business. But what I helped bring to this was asking how we could add value messaging to all of these offers to help people understand the value we can have in their lives. We got this opportunity around the 2016 election where journalism was being talked about in a way it hadn’t been talked about in a really long time. We saw an opportunity to have a larger scale brand campaign to show people what our values are and how they are actually the same values that potential readers have. This is when we first launched our brand campaign, “The Truth is Hard”. It launched at the Oscars in 2017. It was really all about the era of alternative facts and fake news and showing people the importance of the facts and getting to the truth and how The New York Times is a source to help you get to the truth. We are particularly proud of what we have done the last two years because we have been able to see our journalists sort of rally around our marketing in a way that they haven’t in the past.

What is a typical day like for you at The New York Times?

I am in a lot of meetings all the time working on our “Truth” campaigns, and working on brand strategy for different teams and departments. The greatest thing is I get to work with a range of people. One of the most rewarding parts is being able to talk to our journalists and understand how they do what they do so we can tell their story accurately out into the world. It stands out to me as one of my favorite things.

Can you share what campaign has been a favorite or memorable one to work on?

It’s hard to beat the original one, “The Truth is Hard,” because I think the sort of response we got from people and how much it tied into a need that people had in that time period was unbelievable. It’s your first campaign and it’s special. We have since done different spots in our “Truth Is Worth It” campaign for our immigration reporting, our ISIS reporting, our Mexico spyware reporting and more. Reporting from all over the world and being able to actually communicate to people what journalists do and how hard and rigorous that work is—it’s pretty powerful. We did one spot within that campaign about a “pie spectacular” that we plugged around Thanksgiving. We worked with the Cooking team to show the level of rigor that goes into these amazing pies that we provide recipes for. This was such a different take on what The New York Times does. We were able to communicate the same level of rigor to our Cooking and our Culture coverage. That is sort of the real value you get from The New York Times. That was a particularly fun one.

What challenges do you face in your work and how do you overcome them?

There are a lot of challenges with having a lot of smart people in a room. Everyone has really strong opinions, which can be frustrating, but is also a good problem to have. The one good thing about The New York Times in particular is that we are all there to support the mission. We can all ultimately align on that and do the best thing to deliver on that.

Do you have any advice for current students and alumni who would like to start a career in brand strategy and marketing?

I would say give yourself the space to explore the things you are passionate about without necessarily thinking you won’t be able to make a career out of it. I feel that if you are passionate about something, you’ll figure it out. If you are someone looking for a creative field, you don’t necessarily have to go into the “typical” creative field. I would encourage people to take a broad look at opportunities that are available out there, and not necessarily tie themselves into one area because it’s the obvious choice. I personally was so surprised by all the different things I could do with what I learned at NYU. I would encourage people to look outside of their traditional bias that they may have and explore more opportunities out there.

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