Indispensable Interview: Rahul Sabnis
“Create the unexpected where it’s least expected.” This has been the philosophy of iHeart Radio CCO Rahul Sabnis throughout his career in advertising and media. The Cornell University graduate originally tried to please his parents by studying engineering, but his heart was never in it. He switched to communications and from there focused on design and art direction. His journey took him through several of NYC’s top ad shops along the way before he chose a new path: radio. Indispensable Music asked Rahul to tell us more about his evolution from ad man to radio executive.
How did you transition from advertising to media?
The transition was easier than I expected because of how far the two areas have collapsed and have integrated over the last decade. In the case of iHeart, one of the biggest reasons clients come to us is for our creative-led ideas that take advantage of our massive reach in Broadcast Radio and leadership in podcasting. For me personally, it was an instance of perfect timing and opportunity where iHeart needed my creative spark as much as I needed the next home for my passion for creativity.
What does your team at iHeartMedia look like? (types of roles/functions)
As the CCO of iHeartMedia, my responsibilities extend to all aspects of the marketing of our brands and the creation of campaigns for our clients. To accommodate those needs I oversee multiple creative departments from the TheStudio to Hubs that are centers of excellence, based on verticals like design or audio. Project managers, Art Directors, Creative Directors, Copywriters -- every role that a creative shop has we have as well because of the vast needs of our clients, both internally and externally. Simply put, we have creators that harness the power of iHeart -- whatever form that takes.
What types of projects do you and your team work on for iHeartMedia, and how does that shape the audience experience?
To understand the types of work TheStudio produces, you have to appreciate the many ways iHeart reaches its listeners. From hundreds of broadcast radio shows and stations to the events we produce both virtually and in real life, every touchpoint is an opportunity for a brand to place its message or prove its worth unexpectedly.
In the context of audio, we produce thousands of audio spots that air on broadcast, digital, and podcasts formats. Each is unique because of the nature of the listening experience. Podcasts are personal and intimate, while broadcast listening is more mass and connected. And we innovate in the space as well with platforms like iHeart3D -- our experiential audio technology -- giving listeners a chance to experience audio, not just listen to it.
How has the explosion in popularity of podcasts affected the work you do?
We are now the #1 podcaster in the world. That started with our acquisition of How Stuff Media a few years ago but has accelerated as we’ve made our podcast practice a growth engine for our company.
Specifically, we see podcasts as an extension of our broadcast radio footprint, allowing our creators a longer format to tell more in-depth stories, but we also see the importance of radio’s mass reach to help those stories mainstream popularity.
Is there a specific project or circumstance you’ve experienced that tested your abilities in a way you weren’t expecting?
On a macro level, this past year has tested all of us.
For me, it has redefined how to lead a creative organization remotely and maintain our high standards without many of the benefits of being in the same office. It has forced me to reinvent what it takes to lead in the modern world.
I am proud of every member of my team. Had I said to them two years ago that we would all have to sit at our dining tables for a year and a half and continue to produce the levels of work iHeart expects, without any in-person collaboration, they would have thought I was crazy. But here we are, building on many of the lessons learned in the past year, ready for what the future holds for all of us.
What is the most inspiring aspect of the work for you and your team?
When you work at iHeart, you wake up writing and producing an audio spot for a household brand, help position a new network we’re launching to represent an underserved audience, create a complete brand package for a new podcast we're launching, and then create social posts with famous artists seen by 10,000’s of fans all before the end of the day.
You moved from advertising to radio. How has that affected the way you work and how you lead?
My shift from advertising to Radio was a very humbling one. Advertising is all about creating that singular big idea that the agency thinks consumers want to hear. Radio is a completely different thing in that it is conversational. It's real, unscripted, messy. In short, it's real life, not a construct that advertising wants you to believe.
That has changed the way I think about ideas and the speed at which I expect them to be delivered. When you're a company that speaks to America all the time every day, delivering what they want to hear before they even know it, you value the privilege of their attention. Advertising could learn from that. Not to try to be clever for clever’s sake, but to be native and real in the language that their audiences speak.
What would you say are your strongest leadership qualities? Did you learn these from managers of your own or are they based on your instincts?
To be an effective creative leader you have to be good at two things: First, you have to be good at the creative itself. The second is to create a culture that allows others to find that creative spark in themselves and be fearless in bringing their ideas to the world.
When I first joined, the head of our East Coast sales sat down with me and asked me what my role at iHeart was. I had been here for three weeks and really didn't know how to answer, but after a beat, I responded with what I felt was my purpose: “I'm not here to be the most creative person at iHeart. I'm here to help 10,000 be the most creative versions of themselves.”
All this comes from experience and instinct and to approach each day humbly, willing to learn the lessons as they appear. It’s my aspiration to have a positive effect on everyone who’s in my orbit because creativity gives me permission to do that.
Your current position doesn’t afford as much of an opportunity for accolades in the way that advertising can with its myriad of awards. What motivates you? The ability to do great work, inspire the team?
While we consistently win awards for creativity in audio, that's not what motivates us. A great idea is a great idea. It needs no explanation. It simply works on its own merit. We hold ourselves to a very high standard. And that standard is what motivates us. Awards or recognition are from our peers, but they don't necessarily recognize the standards we aspire to and maintain at the pace we operate at iHeart.
Have you been exposed to new music at iHeartRadio that you never thought you’d like but can’t stop listening to?
The two biggest genres of music that iHeart exposed me to that I had never really appreciated were pop and country. Pop music was always “just music on the radio.” However, listening to the radio every day, I've come to appreciate how hard it is to make a hit, how hard it is for music to chart, and how hard it is for it to reach mass scale popularity. Tom Poleman, our head of programming, often says “a good song is a good song regardless of the format.” I've come to really appreciate that. Which led me to a better understanding and recognition of Country music. If there's one format that perfectly represents the best in singer-songwriters, it's Country. And once you start listening to the music for that, listening to how personal the music is, it takes on a whole different level of artistry.
Did you have any key mentors in your past that shaped the work you do or your general outlook about creativity?
I’ve never had a mentor. Everything I am has come from a constant influence of amazing partners and teams who I’ve grown from at every step. However, at iHeart, I’m exposed to a whole new dimension of leadership that has augmented my past creativity. Whether it’s Bob Pittman (CEO) reminding us how to embrace the chaos of creativity and yet remain singularly focused on the future, or Gayle Troberman (CMO) willing to break rules to innovate for our clients. Every day I find myself learning from leaders who have both “done it,” and have a relentless desire to “keep doing it” tomorrow.
What’s the best thing about your job?
In a word…scale. For most of my career, even the most important and effective work I did never reached a mass audience due to budgets or the specificity of the service or product. But everyone knows iHeart from a show that they listen to, an event they plan to attend, or a podcast that we produce. iHeart is unique in that we reach 9 out of 10 Americans. That means our creativity reaches America, not just a few “marketing targets.” For me, that matters.