Podcast Transcript – Amy Weisenbach from The New York Times

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Episode hosted by: Paul Frampton, Global President at CvE

Paul Frampton – 00:00:00: Welcome to the Time For A Reset podcast, the podcast where I, Paul Frampton, interview senior marketers on the big issues of the day and the thing that they want to see reset with an ever changing landscape. Welcome back to another episode of Time For A Reset. I’m Paul Frampton, your host, and today I am delighted to be joined by Amy Weisenbach. She’s the Senior VP and head of marketing for The New York Times. And she has 180-person marketing team. Has been named one of the top 50 CMOs in the US by campaign and she’s been a big part of The New York Times transition to a paid model and a very successful move towards kind of trying to get to a very bold goal of, I think, 15 million subscribers by 2027. Is that right, Amy?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:00:44: That is correct.

Paul Frampton – 00:00:45: Yeah, and I’m sure we’ll get into it, but The New York Times is pretty well along that route, I think adding a million subscribers digitally last year. Amy has also had a lustrous career, having worked at Unilever, Beam Suntory and also Wilson Sporting Goods and a bunch of other marketers. So she brings a deep understanding of the consumer from a media brand, news brand perspective, but also having worked in FMCG and other parts of the industry. So really excited to have you, Amy.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:01:11: Thanks, Paul. I’m thrilled to be here.

Paul Frampton – 00:01:12: So the first place that we always start is just to get a sense of if you could change something in the industry, given the world is constantly changing around us, what would that thing be that you change and then how does that relate to your job within The New York Times?

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Amy Weisenbach – 00:01:26: Yeah, I think we all know that it’s a really dynamic time in business right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty and I think every industry is facing a lot of headwinds and that of course, means a lot of change for organizations. I believe marketing can play a really big role in helping companies navigate that change in the evolution of their business strategy, and especially when it comes to translating that to the consumer experience. So I guess the thing I’d like to see change is have marketing have more of a seat at the table in helping to translate those changes to dynamic and compelling consumer experiences. We are definitely at the beginning of an exciting new chapter at The New York Times. The Times has been around a long time, over 170 years, and for most of that time we’ve been chiefly a news brand. And while we’re very much still a news brand, over the last few years we’ve acquired a handful of other content verticals, and we’ve built some things because we want to better serve the wide range of interests and passions of our readers. So that’s meant incubating our cooking product. New York Times Games, we acquired Wordle, which is part of Games and also Wirecutter and the Athletic. Fun fact: Wordle was the most searched term last year on Google. We could talk about Wordle all day. But also last year we announced a new vision for The Times. We call it our Essential Subscription Strategy and in it we really put like a stake in the ground that we want to become the essential subscription for curious English speaking people around the world who want to understand and engage with the world. So while news is always going to be at the core of what we do, our new strategy is about building a daily habit around the full breadth of our offering. And that’s meant a pretty big reset for our marketing. Where we previously would have said that our job was to get more people to pay for news, we’re now focused on getting people to believe that all of our quality journalism is worth paying for and attract many more subscribers. 

Paul Frampton – 00:03:27: Brilliant. Well, I guess The Times is like the poster child for having been on that journey that a lot of other, let’s call them news brands have wanted to go on and have maybe struggled to make the same shift at scale. When I think about the UK and the Guardian is pushing hard but still having some challenges there and has tried many different versions of shifting people to subscription. So what has been the thing that has been the kind of real driver behind the success? Is it the breadth of offering? Is it the digital nativeness of the business? I’m fascinated about what actually drove that success.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:04:00: Yeah, I mean, I think the breadth of the offering has definitely been part of it, the huge range of content that we have. And we’re increasingly serving more of the interests and passions of our readers so that there’s more reasons to come back on a daily basis. Most of our most engaged subscribers visit Time Surfaces and Products multiple times a day. So that’s been part of it, and I think it’s also been about really orienting our whole company around being subscription first.

Paul Frampton – 00:04:29: Great. You talked about the importance that marketing plays in difficult times with difficult headwinds, and we all know it’s a challenging environment for all companies, but obviously the kind of publishing advertising business has been very much at the heart of that. How does your business think about the importance of marketing when it comes to the top table, I suppose? And would you say that the role of marketing has become more important within the business as you follow this strategy, or has it always been kind of core to everything The New York Times does?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:04:59: Yeah, I think it depends on how you define marketing. I think of marketing in the widest sense and believe that marketers play an important role not only in driving short term growth and business outcomes, but also in driving the total brand experience. It’s like every single touch point, every single experience is an opportunity to either build or erode your brand. And in that context, marketing is as important as ever. At The Times, I’m really proud that we’ve built a culture in our marketing team of believing that performance and brand don’t have to be trade offs. We measure the brand impact of our brand campaigns, of course, but we also measure the brand impact of our acquisition work, and we’ve proven that smart, high quality, creative that really tells your brand proposition as well, wven at the bottom of the funnel, can also perform on brand lift, but also drive ROI.

Paul Frampton – 00:05:53: That’s great to hear. We’ve had many guests on here talking about that balance, and I think the vast majority of businesses still struggle with the right mix. Is it 60/40, 40/60? And it sounds like you put a real emphasis on the fact that any touch point has some impact and therefore you should almost measure all impacts, whether they are bottom funnel or top funnel, irrespective of the touch point. Is that a fair conclusion from what I heard you say?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:06:19: Yeah, definitely. We try to look at our top of funnel work and it’s of course, its impact on brand, but also we know that it does drive short term results and we look at that and vice versa. Everything we do at the bottom of the funnel, we try to make sure that it also builds the brand. And when we first set out to do that, that was a shift for us at The Times from kind of what was happening before that shift. We weren’t sure that we could do that. We wanted to believe that it didn’t have to be a trade off, but that was definitely something we had to test and learn into, and it’s great to find out that we could do both. It’s interesting if you think about the history of The New York Times, we’ve only been a paid digital product for just over ten years, and when the paywall originally launched, it was widely panned by prognosticators as likely to fail. And so for the first five years or so of the paywall, marketing was really focused on just proving we could make a pay model work and getting people to believe that it was a viable business model. And so around, I would say around 2015, once we proved product market fit and that we could sufficiently scale our subscription business, we committed to being subscription first. And that really changed things. The challenge at the time was that our digital products were built to serve the journalism, not to drive subscriptions. And so in those early days of the pay model, marketing was important because we were the primary driver of subscriber growth. And luckily, as we’ve matured our digital products, we’ve evolved them to better serve the relationship we have with readers and subscribers. And as a result, products become a much bigger driver of growth. And given that we’ve been able to pull back dollar-wise on what we spend in marketing and still meet our business goals.

Paul Frampton – 00:08:01: Very impressive. And I guess for such a traditional business that’s been around for 140, 150 years—170. So there must have been some cultural challenges in shifting to that subscription first digital mindset. I guess more of a test and learn type approach. How did that happen? Was that driven by marketing or driven by the board?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:08:23: Yeah, I mean, our whole subscription business, which I would include our product development and also our marketing org, are incredibly experimentation oriented. And so we do a lot of prototyping, a lot of A/B testing. Some of it, I think, probably comes out of the roots of our marketing org originally really just being a performance marketing org. And so as we’ve evolved it, we’ve tried to make sure that as we’ve added brand and product marketing that we don’t lose that performance mindset.

Paul Frampton – 00:08:53: Yeah. Now it’s interesting, that insight that you just shared about, if you start with a performance, almost growth marketing type mindset, then it makes it much easier for you to step into the world of being agile or kind of test and learn, which a lot of businesses all around the world are trying to shift into. And I think if you have dealt with data and testing and A/B test, as you said, it’s a much easier move into, well, why don’t we work in a more cross-functional, kind of collaborative way? So I think that’s a really nice observation. And what lessons would you say have been learned through this process? I mean, The New York Times is kind of fairly unique in being so subscription orientated versus others in what would consider to be your competitive set. So what lessons do you think there are just for other brand marketeers in some of the journey that you’ve been on?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:09:40: We’ve learned a ton, that is for sure. Learning has definitely been the name of the game because no one had ever built a scaled digital subscription business for news before. We really were pioneering a paid subscription model for the industry. So learning along the way has been the name of the game. One of the things we’ve learned as we’ve gotten closer to our product org and we really have become more of a digital tech company, we’ve adopted a lot of the practices that are common in the product world. We plan more often probably, than back in my Unilever days. We pivot a lot more often. We’re willing to, I think, throw more things away and react to the data that we’re seeing and evolve. So if you look at the marketing five years ago, three years ago, a year ago, even a few months ago, you can see the evolution. You can kind of follow along with some of the things that we’re learning about how to best, in our case, get people to believe that they should pay, which is a unique challenge to the media industry, right? Like the substitute for our product isn’t likely another news subscription. It’s typically the belief that you can get enough news for free and so convincing people that it’s worth paying for and then getting them to subscribe and engage and stay subscribed. And that’s become really important as we’ve grown our subscription business. Because the bigger your base of subscribers are, even with a pretty low churn rate, which we have, we are happy that we enjoy a pretty low churn rate. You still every year, to even just keep the same number of subscribers, you have to acquire more. And to grow your business, it means you have to acquire many more.

Paul Frampton – 00:11:24: Right. What you talked about earlier, like the adaptability and the willingness to fail and throw things that don’t work to one side, that kind of culture is one that you can only build if you’ve got the right mindset to actually kind of keep you. And probably setting that big hairy goal for 2027 keeps everyone focused on well, it’s a big goal, so therefore doing little things probably doesn’t get you all the way. So you need to take a bit of risk, be bold. I’m sure that’s been part of the plan, right?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:11:53: Yeah, totally. It’s interesting. I’m convinced that there are few businesses that move faster than ours. At The Times we’re a digital subscription business, which, as I mentioned, drives this inherently relentless pace. We’re in a stage of high growth. We have this 15 million subscribers goal that we have to hit by the end of ’27. We move at the speed of the news cycle, which is 24/7. And we have this much more complex business with a lot of products that are at various life stages that we want to grow as fast as possible. And so it really adds up to the fact that we have this relatively small marketing team churning out an incredibly high volume of work. And we find that it’s easy to just chug along, producing, producing and not being able to make time for the more strategic, the harder, the longer term work of building new capabilities or interrogating our strategy and taking a step back to look at the big picture. Our big goal has always been the same, which is getting people to pay for quality journalism. But on the margins, there’s a lot of things we’ve had to change. So just for example, we’re facing this in our email practice right now, where the team is shipping really good stuff that’s driving the business. But we are struggling to find time to develop new capabilities that would ultimately make us more efficient. They just seem so hard to get to. And that’s been a big focus for us this year. I was just in a meeting yesterday with a team, took me through the results of some focused efforts where we prototyped using automation to speed up some of our more complex email deployments. And it was so great to see the results, of course, the numbers, but to see the excitement in the team and the enthusiasm that they can use the time that they’ve created from this one efficiency gain to invest in other capabilities and efficiency gains. It’s like a great case of success begets success, and I hope we can keep that momentum up across other parts of our practice.

Paul Frampton – 00:13:49: No, I love that. I think as a marketing leader, that is the thing that fires you up, isn’t it? To see others doing what you want them to do and to bring back test results to you and to know what they want to do next. You know you’re doing something right when that happens.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:14:00: Yes.

Paul Frampton – 00:14:01: As you touched on earlier, Amy, the value proposition is constantly evolving. You mentioned you acquired different businesses. Your content proposition has changed. I believe, obviously, you’ve got some new work in the market, and a lot of your work in the past has been award winning. So can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re messaging to potential new subscribers about what The New York Times is today?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:14:21: Yeah, we’re so happy to finally have this new campaign out in the world. We just launched our first brand campaign that we developed under this new essential subscription strategy. And as I mentioned, we started with this goal of growing the number of readers who believe that journalism is worth paying for. You’re tired of hearing me say that yet? It’s like all we talk about. But we’re also always looking for ways to connect what’s happening in culture to the role that journalism can play in our readers lives. And our new campaign—I love this tagline—It’s more of life brought to life, and it showcases how New York Times journalism provides readers with a bigger, more connected understanding of the world around them. So each of the executions starts with a really seemingly simple topic like sneakers or gravity or time, but traverses a range of interconnected topics, letting our curiosity kind of pull us from one of those topics to the next. And we think it really reflects the way that our most engaged readers engage with Times journalism every day. It also allowed us to leverage the reporting across that full breadth of The Times, and even dimensionalize in ways we haven’t been able to in the past. Our news report, we were able to feature podcasts like the Daily and some of our data reporting from the Upshot. The other thing we did for the first time in this campaign is we actually labeled where each of the pieces of journalism came from so you could get a sense of the journey that readers go on when they read The Times.

Paul Frampton – 00:15:54: Interesting. I’ve always loved the data vis stuff that you guys do, and it sounds like the source and the interconnectivity of things is both put at the heart of your kind of communication. But also it sounds like you think about marketing like that as well, that people interact with one thing and then another piece of content or opening up another new experience or education is only one step away by touching another part of content that you have, which I like.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:16:18: Yeah, it was really fun to build this creative because it really came out of the journalism. We did start with Sneakers and looked at everything we had written that The Times had written about sneakers and found like, where are the interesting connections to things that are surprising or things that maybe you didn’t know. In fact, one of the things we saw as we were mining the journalism for this campaign was that this phrase was repeated kind of all over the report, this idea of like, if you want to understand X, first you have to understand Y. And so that was a big inspiration for us as we created this work to really try to show people how you get from sneakers to spiny lobsters.

Paul Frampton – 00:17:00: As you’re talking, it feels very human kind of understanding led, which I think is where all the best marketing comes from. So thank you for sharing that. So, Amy, it sounds like your business is doing so many things right and you’ve got a very clear strategy, very clear belief of what it is you’re doing. But I’m sure there are things that you’re working at and still need to be improved. So would you mind sharing some of the harder nuts that you’re trying to crack within the marketing team at the moment?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:17:28: Yeah. Marketing is a function that looks pretty different at every company and can vary really wildly across industries. As you mentioned, I started my career at Unilever and their marketing is general management. And when I was the brand manager of AXE body spray—Lynx, as it’s called in the UK—I was essentially the brand CEO. Of course I did marketing, but I also had responsibility for product innovation and some supply chain decisions and forecasting business results. And there was no doubt at Unilever that marketing is at the heart of driving the business. Conversely, when I worked in spirits for Beam Suntory, the sales team had all the power. The organization really revolved around sales. At The New York Times, as you’d imagine, journalism is undoubtedly the most important thing we do, and the newsroom is the heart of the company. And because we’re a digital subscription business, our product and our engineers are also at the heart of the company because they’re the ones bringing the experience of our journalism to our readers and helping us monetize the relationship. So it’s really easy for my team and sometimes even me, to feel like our work is less important. And so one of my goals for this year that I set out at the beginning of the year is to really help more people around the company understand the value of what we do in marketing and see how our work contributes far beyond the most visible proof, like the media campaigns, which they see on our site and out in the world. And in particular, one of the sort of newer and most nascent parts of our practice is our product marketing practice. And one of the things I really want to tackle this year is to elevate the understanding of the value that marketing can add to our product development work, helping shape the products that we build and the features we build, and bringing those products and features to market. And that’s probably something that I could have taken as a lesson at any place I work, is to help our cross functional partners really understand how to get the most out of the marketing skill set and what we bring to the table.

Paul Frampton – 00:19:31: Yeah, you make some really great points. I remember talking to Pete Markey, who runs Boots in the UK, the CMO there, and he talked a lot about a big job of the CMO, the head of marketing, is to market the value of marketing both to the board, but then to the overall organization. Because as you’ve unpacked today, quite often marketing is seen as a piece of advertising or content that somebody picks up. But obviously, when done best, it’s interweaved into understanding the value proposition and pulling insights through and then obviously driving growth, as you’ve shown. I mean, it sounds like the marketing department is known and acknowledged for being a key driver of the subscription growth, because I saw in the notes that during your tenure, and I’m sure you would say it’s your whole team, but during your tenure, the subscriptions have gone up fourfold. So marketing must have been doing something right.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:20:23: Yeah, certainly marketing can’t take all the credit for that because we’ve got another few thousand employees who brought a lot to the table there too. And the news cycle also plays a big role in driving our business. But, yeah, it’s been a wild ride and it’s been so fun to see our work pay off in the business results.

Paul Frampton – 00:20:44: Going back to that point about the things that you’re looking to kind of evolve, like the product marketing piece, I think one of the other things that I heard you say was the piece around marketing technology and privacy and identity is getting ever more challenging and you never quite know. You think you’ve got a date when the cookies are going away and then it’s gone back again. It’s like, will it ever happen or will it come forward? So it’s a pretty ambiguous landscape, but obviously one, I guess, for you, is quite fundamental to your business model to have that right. So could you share how you think about that?

Amy Weisenbach – 00:21:16: What’s happening in industry is incredibly important and we’re all sort of watching closely, especially if a big part of your marketing practice is focused at capturing demand and leveraging performance and growth marketing levers. And for us it indeed is. And so those changes are really important. They’ve actually been great in some ways for our advertising business because we have such a strong base of subscribers, we have a lot of privacy-friendly first-party data on a very high quality, scaled audience. And so it’s actually been a great backdrop for us to really get marketers outside of The Times to look at The Times as a really viable place to put their messages and reach their consumers. So that’s been great. On my team side, on the marketing side, it’s been kind of this funny game of for the last couple of years, we put in our top priorities to test into cookie list solutions and then the date gets moved. And so it’s a little bit like the boy who cried wolf, like, I’ve lost credibility with trying to secure the resources to do that testing because people don’t quite believe it’s going to happen. And so we know we need to test in to privacy friendly solutions. We know we’re going to need those in our bag of tricks to maintain the scale of spend on acquisition marketing that we want to do and to continue to acquire new subscribers profitably. But it’s kind of anyone’s guess on what’s going to happen. So I know others probably can really relate to that feeling of when do we need to be ready? No one knows.

Paul Frampton – 00:22:57: And there’s some spectrum between we need to start preparing, but it’s not tomorrow, so we don’t need to throw everything at it just yet. And of course, human bias is to focus on recency and the close things to us. So unless it feels like an impending disaster, the bias will be, well, let’s not worry about it. So I like the fact that you continue to keep putting the hand up and going. This isn’t going away and we need to think about it because I think how you articulated it is a really good thing for other marketers to hear and listen to in that the impact I mean, even today, right? With the iOS signals going away and the ID going away, it means that reaching Apple users is significantly harder. And they happen to have a much higher propensity to spend money than most other consumers.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:23:45: Yeah, I should acknowledge that for people whose business growth really depends on that data, they’re already very much in the middle of having to reckon with these changes. That was a less impactful change for us because most of our subscribers come in through first party channels. But obviously for businesses that depend on third party growth, that’s been very painful.

Paul Frampton – 00:24:07: Very painful. No, I agree. Okay, so we’ll take a little bit of a segue to a slightly more personal question for you, Amy. In what either you’ve talked about today or in what you’ve experienced in The New York Times or your career as a whole, what would be the single piece of advice that you’d give to other marketeers, particularly young marketeers listening? Because I feel like when people hear senior, very articulate marketeers on the podcast, they often think, how could I ever be as together and as smart as Amy or another guest? Whereas we’re all vulnerable and we’re all working on ourselves. Right. So, yeah, I’d love to hear kind of what your advice would be.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:24:44: Yeah. So when I was in high school, I volunteered for a youth news organization and I got to interview a lot of really interesting people: Magic Johnson, kids who had developed cancer as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, young people who were incarcerated. And I actually went to college thinking I was going to be a journalist. So it’s definitely not lost on me, the irony of now working at The New York Times and how full circle and exciting that is. Interestingly, though, the same drive and interest that made me love journalism that drives me as a marketer. I’m extremely curious about the choices people make. I want to know what drives them, how they live their lives. I just have insatiable curiosity for those kinds of things. And it’s one of those essential traits that I believe you need in marketing to do great work. I really believe that our work comes out of curiosity. And so finding what drives you, what sparks your curiosity, is just an incredibly helpful way to approach your career and your work. It’s why I’ve worked in so many different industries, because the process of learning something new for me is part of how I ideate, it’s part of how I learn, and it’s where—those new dots I’m able to connect—are where I think the good ideas and the great work comes out of. So I’ve just really tried to approach every opportunity or project that comes my way, even something that sometimes I don’t want to do or seems mundane as a learning experience and a way to leverage that curiosity. This is a funny reference. I don’t know if you remember those Dos Equis Most Interesting Man commercials where at the end he says, stay thirsty, my friend. Yeah, but it is Cinco de Mayo here today in the US as we’re recording this. And so my advice is “stay curious, my friend,” but said in a lot less cool voice. So maybe you can hire that voice or artist to dub over me.

Paul Frampton – 00:26:42: No, I think you did it exceptionally well. We’ll go with your voice. Your voice was better. I love that advice. Something I often say to people, and when you’re trying to talk to people about what skills they need to onboard when they’re studying at school or university, curiosity is not one of those things that ever gets mentioned.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:26:58: Yeah. I also never really studied marketing.

Paul Frampton – 00:27:02: This is also true.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:27:03: Yeah, it’s interesting. I find a lot of people who work in marketing didn’t study marketing, certainly not an undergrad. A lot of people come out of I mean, I have an MBA, so a lot of people come out of business schools, but a lot of successful marketers I know didn’t start their careers thinking they were going to be in the place they are today.

Paul Frampton – 00:27:20: I agree. And I think those that really have flourished all have insatiable curiosity and also a passion for customer experience or consumer experience, whatever you want to call it. They have a passion for those things. And I was smiling while you were talking because while I was at school, I also wrote for my local newspaper and signed up to an NUJ, the union of journalists in the UK, to train to be a journalist. And then something happened and I went off and didn’t do that. So my passion was always wanted to also become a journalist. So it made me smile when you said that.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:27:51: There’s still time, Paul, there’s still time. I mean, you are a journalist. Here we are on a podcast, you’re interviewing me.

Paul Frampton – 00:27:56: You’re very kind. Yeah, this is my attempt at journalism. But, yeah, I mean, journalism and human insight and editorial and content, all of those things, right? I mean, ultimately journalism is kind of editorial writing, but it’s also kind of lives and breathes in marketing, doesn’t it? So it’s no wonder you ended up where you did from those early experiences. Well, look, you’ve taken us on a whistle stop tour from the challenges that businesses are facing in with the current headwinds. Unpacked for us, really, how The New York Times thinks about achieving that subscription-first goal and getting to that scale, and then taken us through some learnings and thoughts about how to prepare and build the right culture of testing and product marketing and then obviously come back to give that great advice about curiosity. So all that really remains is me to thank you for your time, Amy.

Amy Weisenbach – 00:28:45: Thank you, Paul. It’s been a delight.

Paul Frampton – 00:28:49: Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Time For A Reset. I hope you enjoyed this one as much as I did. We’ll be back talking to a senior marketeer very soon. Make sure you don’t miss out on any new episodes by subscribing on Apple, Spotify, and leave us a review at timeforareset.co.uk.

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