Radha Subramanyam, President and Chief Research and Analytics Officer at CBS Corporation, tells the story of how she became a C-Suite executive at America’s biggest network and highlights two post-pandemic consumer trends every corporation should know.
Zeo Solomon: Today I’m honored to interview Radha Subramanyam, President and Chief Research and Analytics Officer at CBS Corporation. In addition to her prestigious position, Radha has received multiple awards and been named one of the Most Influential Women in Radio. Radha, how did you get to where you are today?
Radha Subramanyam: I wanted to work in the media and entertainment industry ever since I was twelve years old. Of course, at that age, I had no idea what that actually meant. I envisioned being a reporter in a war-torn country, but then I grew up and realized that’s for people of much steelier material than myself. But I have always loved this business: I love being surrounded by creatives, and I’m also highly analytical and data-driven. Ultimately, I ended up at the juncture of these core competencies. But that’s oversimplifying the journey, so let me take a step back.
I’m from New Delhi, and I moved to the U.S. to attend Northwestern University’s media school, where I tried my hand at different areas of the media and entertainment industry. I obtained a PhD from Northwestern and was an academic for my first couple of years. But I realized that my passions, energy, and interests lay in being part of the creative process.
So I moved to the media sector, where I got great advice from a man named John Spade, who at the time was at MSNBC; he told me that research would be an obvious fit for me, but why not try other things? So I started off in a management consulting role, where I got to do everything from research to marketing and HR to finance, which gave me a very broad sense of the industry’s potential and opportunities.
At the end of eighteen months, I knew that research and analytics were the right fit for me, and that’s where I’ve been ever since. But just because you choose a path, it doesn’t mean that path is static or looks the same twenty years later as it did on day one. What has made my twenty-five-year career fun – and perhaps also distinguished me from many others – is that I’ve done many different things within the field. At various times I’ve been involved in analytics, hard-core consumer research, television, digital, social media, and audio, and I also jumped into AI, ML, and big data long before it was fashionable.
The diversity of these experiences and my ability and willingness to fuse together all of these disparate disciplines is what has prepared me for the role I’m in today. I’m at America’s biggest network, and I pull on all of the different threads of experience to lead my team and to do the job well.
ZS: How did you transition from academia to the corporate world, and what did you learn from academia that prepared you for commercial success?
RS: The journey begins with knowing what energizes you and where you want to go, but from there you start by talking with people to understand your potential career options. I was very lucky that so many people were willing to have this conversation with me and guide me along the path, but ultimately, it’s about networking and getting to know people and the sector, as well as being very open to change. To a certain extent, I knew that even if I held a PhD, I’d still need to work my way up the company. That humility really helped me in the early years.
ZS: How did teaching in a classroom translate to presenting in front of executives?
RS: When you have to teach a classroom of 400 students, which I did at NYU, and you are either their age or just a year or two older, you learn a lot. Of course, I learned confidence and public speaking skills, but the other thing I learned was to have a degree of comfort with not knowing everything. When I was new to teaching, someone told me, “You only have to be one lesson ahead of the students.” That was very empowering, because it gave me room to figure things out along the way. That confidence has allowed me to step into so many different facets of media, entertainment, and analytics, because I know I don’t need to know everything, and I also know I will figure it out.
ZS: As a woman of color in the C-suite, what would you like to make your peers aware of?
RS: I want to start more broadly with something that applies to all of us: we all need to be aware that we come with unconscious bias. This is true of my peers, it’s true of myself, and it’s true of any of the eight billion people on this planet. We are all products of cultures, legacies, and histories, and we all have biases of some kind.
The key is to get educated, to be open to change and perspective. I would encourage anyone who is managing a group of people who are not from the same cultural background as themselves to be open to their own biases and to figure out things together along the way.
ZS: In your opinion, how has this conversation changed over the last few decades?
RS: Conversations around what is called DE&I have come to the forefront over the last few years. The death of George Floyd and the tragedy surrounding it opened a lot of people’s eyes to structural inequities. While there has always been some awareness of this, it has greatly increased, along with the ability to have conversations about difficult issues. It’s a process, and there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but we’re all on this journey together and need to figure it out.
ZS: Thank you. I want to transition to your technological speciality: what is the role of data in decision making, and how do you continue to make strategic decisions when data is ambiguous or not available?
RS: It’s a great question, because data is often ambiguous or unavailable, but let me take a step back again. In the business world, all decisions of meaning are data-driven. Whenever a company makes a decision, it’s based on numbers, be it sales numbers, revenue numbers, stock prices, or something else. So ultimately, we’re all accountable to data.
My field is one of the most creative, and it is also heavily data-driven. We test everything: concepts, art, promos, pilots, shows, existing series, and new series. We could talk a long time about this process, but my advice is to bring data in early so that as you narrow your choices, you’re as data-led as possible.
But you’re right – there are plenty of cases where data is murky, and that’s where deep relationships with your peers and CEO really come into play, because you have to candidly explain that data is not clearly indicating which option is best and work collaboratively as a C-suite to make a bet. It’s important to do this together so that any victory is a team victory and any consequences are also embraced as a team. The role of the data leader is to have the maturity and confidence to either say, “X is the clear choice” or “We’ve done all of this work, but the best decision is unclear, so let’s figure out a solution together.”
ZS: There are several segments we can think of as your consumers, but overall, what is your take on the evolution of consumers over the last decade or so, particularly post-pandemic?
RS: I’ll start with the consumer that matters most: the actual viewers of our shows. They are ultimately our bosses, and we always have to keep them in mind above any other agenda. As we know, consumers have evolved to want more choice, more control, and more competition.
There are so many interesting things that have come out of the pandemic, and I’m sure we’ll spend decades analyzing behavioral changes through history books and discussions. In my world, one thing we’ve noticed is that there’s a ton of choice, but consumers want help navigating it. They don’t want to pick from thousands of programs every time they turn on the television, so we find that curated channels have a lot of power because the consumer is tired, working hard, and worried about a million things from gas prices to war. They simply need us to aid them on their journey toward choice.
The other trend I want to flag is around consumer experience, which applies across industries. The consumer has been incredibly patient with American corporations through the pandemic, and they were very sympathetic about supply chain woes. But the sense we’re getting now is that we may be wearing thin on their patience. Many consumers are thinking: “It’s been two years, and we as consumers have had to learn to adjust and learn to make choices and deliver for our families and our employers despite all these challenges, and you as big American corporations need to learn to do the same.”
ZS: Very interesting. What keeps you up at night, whether it’s a problem you want to solve or something you’re excited to try?
RS: We’ve all been through a lot in the last couple of years, and we continue to go through a lot. You can talk about the pandemic, global warming, war, inflation, and so on. That’s offered me a lot of perspective. While the work that I and many others do in corporate America is incredibly important, it doesn’t have the same life and death stakes that many other things in this world do. I’ve come out of this experience a little bit wiser and with better perspective.
On the other hand, there are tons of things to be excited about! In my world, we really are in a golden age with an incredible number of shows telling diverse stories. Storytelling continues to thrive in this environment. There’s so much to be excited about, even from the technology side: AI and machine learning are great, and we’re all stepping more into the world of augmented reality, or the metaverse, as some people call it. I think it’s important to embrace these technologies while not assuming a certain outcome, rather being open to technology and to change, crafting it along the way to be ethical and moral.
It’s a terrifying and great time to be a human, so let’s figure it out together!
ZS: Thank you so much for joining us, Radha. It’s been a fascinating conversation!
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Zeo Solomon is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Avenue Code.