Grammy Awards are this expat’s Super Bowl
BOSTON – This is Gogi Gupta’s Super Bowl. But he can’t win. Nor can he lose.
Gupta – and his team – will only watch, work, celebrate quietly, and move onto what’s next.
The Grammys are music’s grandest night, which makes Sunday the biggest evening of the year for Gupta Media. The 48-person advertising agency counts as clients every major record label, and many smaller indie labels, too. That means a striking number of the music stars who perform on the Grammy stage or win a Grammy were shepherded “into commerce” by Gupta, who grew up in Hamburg and graduated from Frontier High School before setting on a path that, at 38, has him at the apex of music marketing.
Here’s a partial list of artists whose record labels, long before this year’s Grammys, hired Gupta Media to run ad campaigns on platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: Atlantic Records country rocker Sturgill Simpson, who is performing and up for Album of the Year;
Columbia Nashville’s Maren Morris, who’s performing with Alicia Keys and nominated for Best New Artist; Republic Records’ Ariana Grande, whose song “Dangerous Woman” is a finalist for Best Pop Solo Performance; Warner Bros. Records band Lukas Graham, whose “7 Years” is nominated for Album of the Year.
Then there’s Interscope megastar Lady Gaga. Fresh off her Cirque-ish performance at the Super Bowl, she’s joining Metallica onstage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Eight years ago, Gupta Media helped build buzz around her then-nascent career.
“We have the ad campaigns for her that would only run around clubs in New York,” Gupta said, “because she was singing and performing at two clubs.”
In that case, Gupta’s team identified a core, influential audience for Gaga: “Gay men in New York who frequent dance clubs,” as he described it in a Boston Globe profile. Using digital tools that allow advertisers to target by factors such lifestyle, geography and musical taste, Gupta Media delivered Gaga advertising onto to computer screens and cellphones of those men. As the buzz around Gaga grew, so did the scope of the advertising.
This strategic and highly specific approach has been tailored for hundreds of artists, whether to build their careers or drive sales for a specific single, album or tour. Gupta won’t name too many, partly due to confidentiality concerns and partly because the list is too long. But chat with him for a while inside his trendy, open-air office in downtown Boston –and sneak a peek at the wall – and you can cobble together an impressive sampling: There’s a platinum record commemorating Hunter Hayes’ millionth album sold. There’s a framed Disney “Frozen” plaque celebrating 8 million sales of the movie soundtrack.
Gupta has also worked on behalf of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Dave Matthews Band, David Bowie, Shawn Mendes, Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line, The Weeknd, Bastille, Vampire Weekend, Sam Smith and – one of their biggest Grammy campaigns a year ago – James Bay.
“(The record labels) find that talent,” Gupta said. “They develop that talent. They create a passionate fan base for that talent. And, at the very, very, very end, we come in and make sure that passion turns into commerce.”
The agency also does extensive design work, including lyric videos for artists such as Kelly Clarkson and Luke Bryan, and branding for 40 music festivals last year.
Gupta’s work isn’t exclusive to music. Television networks Bravo and AXS, and the salad chain Sweetgreen, are also among the agency’s clients. But music is the core. Though Gupta won’t reveal revenues, his hold on the marketplace is evident in that every major label works with his agency. That presents the healthy challenge of making sure that different teams of designers are working in different spaces on different projects, so that no creative influences on one labels’ projects bleed over to another.
It also creates a challenging, fast-moving environment where Gupta’s staff of mostly millennial 20- and 30-something advertising executives need to be “analytical and creative” and “proactive and reactive,” said Jessica Dashner, an account director who’s worked for Gupta for nine years.
“Recruiting is always interesting,” she said. “You can’t just be well-organized and impeccably meticulous; you also need to be able to adapt to a change in plans at the drop of a hat. If you can handle media buying at Gupta Media, you can handle digital advertising anywhere.”
That atmosphere also makes Grammy night – when the entire Gupta staff gathers in the office, ready to launch ad campaigns that will land on your phone and browser – guaranteed to be both busy and celebratory.
“What’s done here is important,” said Mark Kates, a Boston-based music manager who represents multiple bands, including MGMT. “For the labels, it’s insurance that what they’re spending money on is going to reach as many people as possible ... I’ve got a lot of friends whose companies spend a lot of money here. It’s kind of an institution at this point.”
Kates, too, is an institution – a seminal figure in alternative music. Back in the early ’90s, when he was working with now-legendary bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana, Gupta was in junior high. While Kates was working for Geffen Records in Los Angeles and building grunge music into a bona fide radio format, Gupta was earning money delivering the Buffalo News and occasionally dealing sports cards in the Hamburg subdivision where he lived with his mother and father – both natives of India – and younger brother.
But last year, Kates popped into the Gupta Media offices on Grammy night to watch some of the ceremony. He hung out with the staff and chatted with Gupta, who’s become a friend. Kates believes that as a manager, he needs to become as tuned in as possible to how data is driving the music industry.
“To me, it’s really important to stay a step ahead,” he said last year in the Gupta offices. “To stay a step ahead, you’ve got to be talking to people who are a step ahead of you.”
Not a music fan
Gupta is one of the most influential figures in music marketing. But here’s the ironic point: “I’m not really a big music fan,” he said.
Nor did he dream of growing up to work in the music industry.
As a kid, Gupta liked music, but preferred sports to concerts. As a young man, shuttling back and forth between Hamburg and the fraternity house where he lived at Cornell University, he would listen in the car to music like the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly.” But he wasn’t singing along, nor was he caravanning to festivals. His passions were more techie and talkie: He liked computers. He liked problem-solving. He loved sitting with a group of people and stoking a debate.
He also learned, after graduating from Cornell in 2000 with a degree in public policy analysis, that he wasn’t good at working for other people. He had three consulting jobs in three years, first in New York City, then in Boston. He was laid off from two, and fired from one.
Before leaving his third job, as a business analyst at Akamai in Boston, he realized, “I don’t think I’m the work-for-somebody type.” So Gupta decided to start answering to himself.
“I wish there was a grand vision that I had and I executed, but I started this company when I was unemployed,” he said. “I was looking at the intersection of technology and media and thinking it was a fascinating place, and a place I wanted to be involved in.”
He was a fan of the site FARK. com, which collected links to weird and satirical stories, and emailed the founder, Drew Curtis, offering to sell advertising. He did that for a brief time and parlayed the experience into selling advertising for other sites. The turning point came when a Disney music executive asked Gupta to do his ad buying. In that role, Gupta, working on behalf of Disney, bought advertising on various sites. His job was to spend Disney advertising dollars in the most effective way, and for his efforts, he received a percentage-based fee.
Gupta calls this his epiphany: Spending money on behalf of advertisers gave him the power to choose where to spend his budget. That, in turn, allowed him to negotiate better prices and yield more impressive results. “It was so much easier to go spend money and have the bargaining power and be able to dictate the terms than be on the other side of the equation,” said Gupta, who formally founded his company in 2005 in a Cambridge, Mass., business incubator and hired his first employee, Jason Carrasco, that same year.
“I found the ad on Craiglist, of all places,” said Carrasco, who had graduated two years earlier with an advertising degree from Syracuse University. “A digital marketing agency specializing in music and video games. For a 23-year-old kid, that seemed like a pretty awesome opportunity.
“I didn’t realize till I sat down with Gogi that he was Gupta Media in its entirety.”
Still, Gupta sold Carrasco on the agency and his vision for it. Their first big victory was launching a Disney advertising campaign aimed at pushing the sister pop duo Aly & AJ to the top of MTV’s “Total Request Live” charts. When it happened, Aly & AJ passed both Eminem and Britney Spears. Carrasco remembers turning to Gupta in their then-office, the size of a modest walk-in closet, and saying, “This is amazing.”
Today, Carrasco is Gupta’s vice president of digital media, overseeing a team of 27 staffers who create and launch those digital campaigns that pop up as banner ads and in your social media feeds.
Gupta is not an artist, but genuine persuasion – the type that convinced Carrasco to join him 12 years ago – is his brush. He doesn’t cut an intimidating presence; he’s short in stature, with a round face, saucer eyes and rubber-ball bouncy voice. He’s relatable and friendly, the fun-dad type. (Gupta and his wife, Seana, have three young daughters.) He’s strategic, too. In the subtlest of ways, he uses conversation as a canvas to draw you into his vision, stroke by stroke.
“Gogi is a big visionary type of guy,” said Jason Frank, his second employee and now chief architect, responsible for all things technology at the agency. “He’s an optimist. He’s certain everything is going to be great all the time. He’s often right about that. I don’t know how he does it.”
Pressure of big ideas
Today, Gupta’s staff is large enough that he doesn’t handle any single project. To point: Last year on Grammy night, while his team was busy launching and monitoring ad campaigns, he was working a slideshow for a presentation to Sweetgreen executives the next day in New York City.
His self-imposed expectation is larger than any single project, or even client. “Once a year I have to have a paradigmshifting, earth-shattering big idea,” he said. “That is what I’m judged by. What keeps me up at night is, ‘Can I deliver on that?’ ”
Not every idea works. A decade ago, for example, Gupta tried to create an online marketplace where musicians could sell their music to record labels. It never got the critical mass – imagine “Facebook, but only three people using it – it’s not very compelling,” Frank said.
But Gupta’s biggest “big idea” has become huge. It’s ubiquitous in the music industry – and beyond. About a halfdozen years ago, Gupta was talking to a record-label executive who was frustrated that when artists posted a link to a new single or album, it typically directed people to the U.S. iTunes store. While that works fine for anyone in America, it cuts out most of the global audience, which in most places, need to purchase online from a country-specific store.
Gupta went to Frank and said, “Hey, I have an idea.” He asked Frank if it would be possible to develop a URL that would send people to different links based on their geographic location.
Frank thought it about it and, as Gupta recalls, said, “We’d have to map the IP address to a country, and once we have the country, we’d have to do a database lookup to see where we’re going to send it ... “But that shouldn’t be too hard.”
It was quite doable, actually. Within a day, Frank constructed the URL that Gupta envisioned. They began testing it with clients, and it was working well enough to where, in 2011, they built an automated, publicly available product called smartURL.
Today, you’ll find smartURL links in tweets and online bios of celebrities, charitable foundations and businesses. It’s been used by Rob Gronkowski, Taco Bell, the video-game company EA, dozens of music stars and – notably to Gupta – before the 2014 Super Bowl by a trio of celebrities who were promoting a charitable endeavor.
“Within a few minutes, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Bono tweeted a SmartURL,” Gupta said. “I was thinking back, and there was a time in 1999, 2000 when those were the three biggest names in all of (culture). Within five minutes they had shared something that I had built.”
Gupta could dig deeper into that moment. The fact that Clinton, Oprah and Bono send him back to ’99 and 2000 is significant. That’s when he was leaving Cornell, embarking on what he thought would be a corporate life, but instead became an entrepreneurial one. He could reflect, reminisce, self-analyze.
But he doesn’t. He’s tuned into today’s data and tomorrow’s possibilities, not yesterday’s coolness. So he wraps it up this way: “You couldn’t help but swell with pride.” And then he’s done talking about history. There’s a whole future ahead, and it’s waiting for his next big idea.