The New York Times CMO David Rubin on Human Truths And Emotional Connection

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David Rubin, Head of Audience and Brand at The New York Times (NYT), spends a lot of time thinking about human truths and emotional connections, not just at the NYT, but throughout his whole career.  David started his career in politics before commencing his marketing journey at Unilever, where he focused on “turning the mundane into magical”.  Leading a number of personal care brands into market leading positions, David says the key was to “focus on an authentic, differentiated story that connected with people more deeply” around what they want, what they need.

Take something as standard as deodorant. Not something you would typically walk around talking about, but David led the revolutionary brand Axe at Unilever, turning deodorant from something you hide in your closet to something you display on your counter and that created such a buzz that it even became a topic of discussion on Saturday Night Live.  How did he do it? “I’m a believer in looking outside your category for models because I feel like once you look inside your category, you’re going to look like everyone else. We actually modeled a lot of the launch after the Blair Witch Project, which was a really innovative movie at the time. We looked at how they did their marketing. They made the whole thing feel real at the time.”  And David did it again with Hair Care at Unilever, by creating emotional connections around what the consumer needed and how he could help her, turning the business around into the largest hair care division in the United States.

From Unilever, David took on Pinterest as Head of Brand.  A direct-to-consumer, high-growth start-up where he further developed his digital and product marketing chops.  Combined with the experience of Unilever, this set him up perfectly to take on his role as Head of Audience and Brand at The New York Times which has become a consumer-driven, digital business. With 120 million plus people reading the NYT every month and only 3.7 million paying subscribers, the question isn’t if consumers enjoy the NYT, but do they feel it is worth paying for over and above what they can get for free?

David’s challenge, along with his counterpart, Head of Consumer Revenue, is to help people recognize that quality journalism is worth paying for, especially with the preponderance of fake news. His team, Audience and Brand, is responsible for the messaging and the long-term relationships. The Consumer Revenue team is responsible for short-term growth. The combination of the two make for healthy tension and collaboration to ensure the both the short and long-term objectives are being met as they communicate the value proposition of their journalism.

With so many eyeballs (and ears, as NYT also has a successful podcast called The Daily with over a million downloads a day), there is no shortage of pressure.  As David says “when we make a mistake the whole world is kind enough to let us know and that’s just as true in the marketing as it is on the journalism. So that pressure can make you not want to innovate and move quickly, but you just can’t. You have to move fast and don’t be afraid to break stuff.

Join us in this fascinating conversation about breaking the rules and how to pull inspiration from outside your purview to make real advances. And find out who is inspiring David now at the NYT as he thinks about creating those emotional and human connections.  Hint…it all comes back to my very first podcast. Nadine Dietz is chief community officer at Adweek and host of the CMO Moves podcast.