Grammy Awards are this ex­pat’s Su­per Bowl

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tim O’Shei

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.

Justin Saglio/Spe­cial to The News

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