The New York Times' Chanelle Kalfas on Brand Strategy, Agencies and Creativity.

Jason Papp

January 31, 2024

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NEW YORK - Three hundred metres off the Oda-Agona Swedru trunk road and nestled in the Birim River basin, lies the entrance to Esen Apam Forest Reserve, Ghana. 

Here, while sunbirds sing and violet turacos call, stands The Big Tree — known locally as Duabrantie. Towering 218 feet in height and 13 feet in breadth, Duabrantie is the largest tree in West Africa. This exquisite natural wonder, rooted in Ghanaian soil, reflects the force and soundness that can also be found in one of its own, Chanelle Kalfas.

In like manner, The New York Times has stood tall and resilient since 1851. A tutela of journalistic integrity as epitomised by its guiding principle, ‘We Follow The Truth Wherever It Leads.

And it's in the bustling hub of New York, far from the serene Ghanaian terrain, that we introduce Chanelle Kalfas. Executive Director and Head of Enterprise Brand Marketing at The New York Times. Kalfas is also a painter and design enthusiast, constantly applying her artistic sensibilities and strategic perceptiveness to her role at The Times

Michelle Leo, former boss and now Vice President of Marketing at Citizen Watch America and close friend of Chanelle, recalls their first meeting with vivid clarity, “Without question, the first time I met Chanelle I could see the fire she had inside her that I immediately knew would not only ignite big ideas but would have fun doing it. Her wit, snark and tenacity are some of her best qualities that have served her well in making her the fierce strategist that she is. Particularly when it comes to sparring over getting to the right insight to unlock the strategy.

The following conversation affords us a window into not only her professional evolution and approach to shaping brand strategy, but also how Kalfas balances the demands of a dynamic media environment and her creative instincts.

And, it’s during our conversation that we are presented with a glimpse into how she makes the art of branding nuzzle into the science of marketing. 

Welcome to a rare peek into the deeply strategic mind behind the brand of one of the world's most influential news organisations. A newspaper committed to 'seeking the truth and helping people understand the world' demands integrity from its representatives, a quality immediately evident in Kalfas. 

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Could you take us on a journey through the early days of your career? Who has been instrumental in keeping you grounded and focused along the way?

For sure. I joined The New York Times in 2018 but, up until then, most of my career had been spent agency side. I have led brand strategy across a bunch of different industries. 

I worked with clients like DIAGEO, Hasbro, Taco Bell and Viacom and even ventured into pharmaceuticals. At the core of it, my goal was always to dive deep into human insights and understand how they can inform strategy. I didn't have a preference for industry, I just wanted to get better at strategy. 

My first job out of college was account management on the Maybelline account. And, the longer I spent on that business I started to try to understand ‘where do I want to be, and what kind of work do I want to be doing?’, and I felt too far removed from the decision-making process.

I would see the ads we were doing and choices being made in client meetings, but I just felt like there's gotta be some rationale for why we're doing this the way that we're doing it. 

And so each move after that role was a strategic choice to get closer to the why. I shifted to an agency that actually had brand planning and strategy, then into a role where I was leading consumer insights and strategy. 

As I got more immersed and I got my feet wet, I realised that strategy was the perfect role for me. 

I am a very creative person by nature. I'm a painter. I love design and art. It’s very core to what fuels me. But I'm not a copywriter; I'm not an art director. And so in translating that to my career, I loved that strategy was a bridge that enabled me to use both sides of my brain at the same time. 

And, as I evolved and shifted gears in my career, looking at different agencies working on different pieces of business, I never really wanted to stay in one lane. I knew I liked strategy. I also realised strategy as a word is such a catch-all for so much. And I wanted to understand the different applications of it. 

I worked as a creative brand strategist at traditional ad agencies like Grey. I was involved with branding and design firms. Getting further up the funnel I began exploring: ‘How do you design a brand? How do you really articulate the core ethos of what it is and how does that manifest in physical ways and in visual ways?’

Most recently, before I joined The New York Times in 2018, I worked at a brand consultancy that was focused on establishing a structured process around ensuring brand consistency. So, I think that, in addition to my earlier experience, has given me a wealth of understanding and knowledge and practice for how to approach all sorts of different strategic problems at all different altitudes. 

And that is where I was before coming to The Times. 

[On first joining The New York Times] I helped drive strategy in the advertising group at T Brand [T Brand Studio is a custom content studio that is a unit of The New York Times and produces paid native advertising for brands and advertisers]. This led me to transition into my role as Executive Director of Brand Marketing and now Enterprise Brand Marketing at The Times. So that's kind of the quick hit, high-level trajectory of my career. 

What essential advice would you offer to an aspiring brand strategist? 

It's interesting – self-awareness plays a big role. I understand my strengths and also where I need improvement. It’s crucial not to shy away from areas that challenge you; they often foster growth. My path to becoming a strategist wasn’t a direct one. I found my way to it, working in areas that didn't initially resonate with me. 

I have this ethos of, ‘moving towards what feels warm’. Which is the way I've tried to move through my career. Which is - it feels right, this feels good. It’s about balancing instinct with logic. I constantly evaluate opportunities based on their long-term value to my career, asking, 'Will this help me grow? Is it a stepping stone to where I want to be?' That’s the mindset I recommend for anyone embarking on a career in brand strategy."

What qualities are needed for a strategist in 2024? 

Being open-minded and extremely curious. Someone once described me as having strong opinions, loosely held, which I love. I told my husband this the other day: I'm very indecisive, but I'm extremely decisive once I know what I want. 

I keep myself open to possibility and learning. I think as a strategist and as a marketer, it's incredibly important to soak up as much information as you can. I have an old boss who said, ‘Strategy is sacrifice.’ And it’s drilling in and knowing, what do I want to say? And having that clarity and conviction to be able to say, this is what it is

At the same time, having a point of view and being able to say this is what it is, you learn very quickly, especially as you become more senior, that you can't just say, this is a strategy, this is what it is, this is what we do as a brand. You're gonna encounter people who are going to push and challenge. They’ll sometimes disagree with you. And you're gonna learn to defend your work and your perspective and your point of view and how to do that effectively. And then you're also going to sometimes be confronted with ideas that are better than your own, and that's where the ‘loosely held’ comes in. 

Any good marketing strategist should do the work to lead into a really strong, clear perspective and point of view, but then also be willing to let go. 

Let go of what you think is right if you see something that might be better. No ego, right? The core of it is openness and ensuring you remain receptive to anything that will ultimately improve the work.

Tell us about a particularly memorable moment that challenged your perspective. How did you navigate the complex dynamics between client expectations, creative team sentiments, and your own professional beliefs?

I remember when I first started working at Grey. I had had a good deal of experience before that, but I remember writing a brief and being like, this brief is so great. It was my first month or first couple of weeks there. And I went in, and the account people were like, well, why did you use that word? And why did you do that? The client's not gonna like this. 

And I remember going into the briefing being so confident. And not necessarily understanding the context that I was operating within. The client was a challenging one who often dropped ambitious ideas and had reasons for doing so. But I was contending with a creative team that was a little bit jaded and disillusioned. 

So I think recognising here’s what I want to say and do and what I believe, and also, there are a whole other set of considerations that I need to be mindful of. Confronting people's motivations and inputs and really recognising, like, okay, my job is to take these, this is data, and take this as an input. And go off to determine what of this is going to go into the work. Not to say this is pure and can't change, but really working with the team, finding compromise, and collaborating. 

Once I realised that, the process and the work were able to get so much stronger we created a vibe, a system that ended up working for us and worked with the client as well.

Along the journey up until now, what and who grounds you? Who are your people?

I live with my husband and my three-year-old son. And in the last three-plus years, my son has been a huge anchor for me. He humbles me on a regular basis. 

He's incredibly curious and smart. He makes me a more patient, present person, which I appreciate. Especially as you become so entrenched in the nitty-gritty of a big job. I think having that balance to offset some of that dynamic is important. 

One of my early bosses, who is now one of my best friends, Michelle Leo, spoke at my wedding. She hired me when I just had mostly account desk experience. She was the first person to hire me to do consumer insights and strategy at this PR agency that she was leading strategy for. And she just gave me so many opportunities to grow and learn. 

I think she sparked a lot of my confidence and, like, ‘oh, I have good ideas.’ She helped me figure out how to hone them. And when she left she went to Grey and that's how I ended up there. She is someone who I always look to.

I also count Oliver Gibson, my first boss at Grey. He has since moved back to London where he's from. He's a brilliant strategist who also created so much space for me to lead. And so those are two people who are very top of mind career-wise. But there have been so many colleagues that I've been inspired by and excited to work with.

Reflecting on the iconic New York Times motto, 'We follow the truth wherever it leads,' how does this principle shape your daily responsibilities, and what does it truly mean in the context of your role?

That’s a great question. And I would say it impacts my job, but maybe not in the direct way that it impacts people in the newsroom. Following the truth wherever it leads - that's what our journalism is focused on, and it informs our mission. Our mission is to seek the truth and help people understand the world. That mission is the North Star, not just for the newsroom but also for the whole company.

It was one of the first things I grew to understand when I started working at The Times. Everything we do across the business is an effort to empower our journalists to realise that mission. 

Everyone is emboldened to work towards that mission. 

And so in marketing, our role is really to relay the value of The Times so that people understand that quality journalism - The New York Times journalism is worth paying for. 

And when people subscribe to The Times, they're helping to support the endeavours of each journalist in our newsroom so that they can continue to inform and inspire and follow the truth wherever it leads—day-in-day-out. 

Much of the work that we do on the business side and in marketing in particular, in developing the creative campaigns is working with our agencies to ensure that we're elevating the journalism that reflects the current moment. 

We want to make sure that we're connecting what's happening in the world and culture to journalism's role in people's lives. So, I think making sure that that's what we're communicating from a brand perspective is really important. 

You see that focus in each of our campaigns. We are elevating the journalism that's right for the time and right for the place to make sure that people see the indelible role that The New York Times’ journalism plays in culture and to them. 

So, ultimately, when everyone who works on the brand has a clear understanding that the journalism is what must remain front and centre in the storytelling, then I feel like that's how we best contribute to our mission. 

What’s contributed to the success of the client-agency relationship and what do you think is the secret to that longevity? 

It's a good question. I, of course, have only been on the brand team for three years, so I wasn't involved in the inception. However, I think it's about transparency, openness, and working with a team you can trust. There's a real understanding of the brand and what we're trying to achieve. 

We've been in a really fortunate position to continually be able to develop fresh, thoughtful, well-executed creative that elevates the value of journalism, and the work is working. 

What’s your take on AI?

At the risk of sounding rote, it's more than clear we’re on the cusp of a new era with AI. It's funny to me because I feel like we've been hearing or talking about AI and AR and other emerging technologies for such a long time. I remember when the Google Glass came out. 

Anyway, we've been talking about it for such a long time that now that it's here in a very real way and gaining substantial levels of adoption, it's almost hard to believe. But I think that said, it's clearly something with huge potential that is driving change in business, in technology, in society. And it still remains to be seen what that change looks like.

I do think in the industry, there's a lot of movement to see something new and immediately jump to, let's do this to show how cool we are, or how can this become part of our brand storytelling? And not always the foresight or thought, like, should this become part of our brand storytelling? 

I've always been pretty measured when thinking about brands and the role that new technology or trends can play in their bigger story. When it comes to The Times, our newsroom has been at the forefront of covering and understanding generative AI and its impact on the world.

And I think we intend to stay at the forefront of really rigorously exploring and testing the potential use of these tools in our business. We're excited about the moment but intend to be deliberate as we move forward. 

As I said, it kind of mirrors my approach, of innovating strategically rather than chasing the trend of the moment. And that is something like the newsroom, which our company is generally very, very thoughtful about and it has served us well. 

Considering your strategic foresight, how would you react if an agency proposed a campaign created entirely with AI? Is this a path you're already exploring or would consider embracing?

If the idea is great, but it misrepresents the journalism or the journalism itself is not core and central to what we're trying to relay and show our consumers, then it's not a great idea for us. This might be a little bit of a singular vision, but a marketer's job at The Times is to mirror and reflect the amazing work in journalism that's being created in the newsroom.

So the way we do that, I think, can be innovative and push boundaries. But, at the end of the day, it still goes back to if we are elevating our journalism.

The New York Times is no stranger to winning awards. In terms of your marketing campaigns, how do you balance a need for creativity and innovation with the responsibility to maintain that reputation?

I love this question. I think this is the part that's the most fun and the most exciting – how do you balance innovation and trust and legacy and all of those things? 

First and foremost, we are a journalistic institution that is charged with helping people understand what's going on in the world. And so trust is everything, right? The core tenets of our journalistic process, for example, our independence, which is our lead value. Those things don't change. They're just as true to our legacy as they are to how the newsroom develops journalism today. 

So this unflinching, unchanging commitment to journalistic independence sits at the very core and is the anchor for everything that The New York Times does. 

Given that The Times’ journalism is always the anchor you have to look at how that journalism has evolved and changed over time. 

We have Games. We have Cooking. We've got so many different facets to our offering now. As we become more innovative, that inherently is going to manifest in the creative work that we do and get mirrored in our storytelling. 

We have this incredible wealth of content and journalism to play with and it's an unbelievable toolkit for storytelling. So when I think more tangibly about how we experiment and take risks in brand marketing, we always want to stay true to our brand cues. 

Our brand has been around for a long time. We want people to recognise us to some extent, but we also want to ensure that we're pushing the way we tell The New York Times story in marketing to keep things fresh. 

With our agency and internally, we've always looked at the ways that we can keep our brand equity while experimenting with how we leverage the elements of it to convey the idea that we're trying to get across campaign over campaign. 

An example of that might be type. Type has been a core element that we leverage within all of our ads. And we've maintained that since the inception of our work in 2017, but the way we've experimented with how it shows up is very different every time. And we're always looking to push the bounds in that way across different elements of our creative toolkit.

Reflecting on our conversation about competition and relevance, what are the thoughts that keep you awake at night?

I certainly have things that I hone in on and worry about in terms of what's the future of how we show this brand to the world. So I guess I would say making sure that we're able to relay the value in a way that feels relevant. 

Like, the shifting landscape. The role that news plays for different people. And the role that our other offerings have in the lives of our curious audience, making sure that we're honing in on it. Especially as today, there's such a proliferation of issues and topics and figuring out how you hone in the most salient to drive and motivate people to see us in a different light. That's the work of planning for the brand, which is exciting. 

In this particular time, we're at an inflection point. Our brand means so much more. So, how do we mean more to more people is what I think I'm grappling with the most.

How is it going with the subscription model?

It's going well. In our 2023 Q1 earnings, we were at about 9.7 million subscriptions [which increased to the 10 million mark in Q3 2023]. We are very fortunate to lead in this media business model, with  our business united towards a common mission and goal, which has been very effective. 

In addition to exceptional journalism, and loyal subscribers what do you think is key for The New York Times to continue to grow? 

I think it's also the continuing to think about our utility and the role that our journalism plays in people's lives in different ways. Ensuring it is essential that people see us and don't have the preconceived associations they might have with us and start to see us as being more meaningful. 

It's the way we've innovated, extending our reach past traditional news. We apply the same level of thought, detail, and independent storytelling, whether it's our news coverage, cooking content, recipes, or product reviews.

We've intentionally diversified our content. We're not just a news source; we're adding value to people's lives in various, meaningful ways.

Considering your insights on brand identity and values, especially from your agency experience, what do you believe is the cornerstone of a successful client-agency relationship?

Transparency is the number one thing. 

What I try to do  (because I do come from the agency side), is recognise the things that I wish I had had more of from clients at certain touch points that I think could have made us more successful or helped us embed ourselves in the business a little bit better, and apply those learnings to the way I work with agency partners.

As a client now, that's the thing that I'm really keen on. 

To equip my agency to be as effective and helpful to us as they want to be. People can't help you if they don't understand the true challenges you're grappling with, and if you only give them a partial picture of the context you're operating in, you're only gonna get a partial answer. 

So I tend to be really transparent, maybe to a fault, but I know what it's like being on the other side and having to make something out of sometimes what feels like not much. So transparency, real talk, like “this is why we're doing this”, or “this is why we're giving you this kind of feedback.” 

I always want to ensure that my agency team has full business context. I am probably a little bit anal-retentive about how I structure my feedback, how I make sure I'm accounting for feedback from all different perspectives and lenses on my own team and making sure that I'm delivering it in a way that is explicitly clear and includes not just like, ‘we don't wanna move this direction, we prefer this direction,’ which is valid. But you can't do that without putting the why behind those preferences, challenges, or decisions. 

I view every interaction between my team and my agency team as an opportunity for learning and collaboration. So it's not just like, ‘hey, let's make this transactional, here's the feedback, please give it back to us,’ but like, ‘let's have a dialogue, let's discuss, let's disagree, let's debate.’ But I want you to know, ultimately, where we're coming from and why the choices are what they are so that next time around, next time you come to us, you have all of those things in mind, and you're able to come with a point of view on the recommendations that you're making. And let's move along with it. 

The last piece of this that I would say is core to a good relationship with an agency is, again, this is gonna sound like ‘duh’, but kindness, appreciation, empathy. 

It's very much the way that I try to live my life and run my team, but even if you're at a challenging point in creative development or disagree on certain points, it's important to see the forest for the trees and recognise these are people who have invested time, energy, and their talent to, at the end of the day, help our business grow, right? And to make great work. 

So, a base-level foundation of this is appreciation and recognising that we all share the same goal; that goes a really long way.

How do you evaluate potential agency partners? What do you look for in terms of their capabilities, approach, and cultural fit?

Any partner we work with, whether it's our existing agencies or any agencies we might work with in the future - what I always am interested in is strategic clarity, and rigour.

Strong opinions, loosely held. And high levels of not just creative thinking but also for a brand like The Times, excellence in execution and craft. This is so core to our internal team; we have an amazing design department and brand identity department. 

And so we want to ensure that we can entrust our brand in the hands of any partner that we bring on board. 

About cultural fit, too, I have a thought on that. I don't think we necessarily look for cultural fit, which I think sometimes can be a bit of a misnomer and something that leads people to only work with those who are most like them. This, I think inherently, challenges the DEI values that I hold so dear and I know our team holds so dear, too. 

I think it's important to work with a partner who understands our company and ways of working, sure. But more importantly, aligns with our values and mission. 

I guess that's the required cultural fit. Beyond that, we wanna be pushed. We want people with different world views and opinions and ideas for how we might, you know, evolve and develop our business and work. So, if you're coming to us with a different perspective, I see that as a positive. 

And I think it's good for business too because it ensures that we're always pushing ourselves to take ideas as far as we can go. And we're getting people thinking outside of the bounds of what we, as the arbiters of the brand, maybe might have thought of.

How critical do you believe an agency's content and brand messaging are for decision-makers in your position in 2024?

I think we want to understand more of an agency's values and approach and work style and if they feel in line with our own. 

If an agency has done incredible work and has great content, that's always a bonus and something that is like a pro in their favour. 

But I think it's less about their own content, it's more about what we think they'll be able to do to help our brand and convey our brand message. So if they've displayed or demonstrated a propensity to be able to adapt and lean into different brand voices and different brand expressions; I think if that, and all the things that I mentioned before, like clarity, rigour, creative thinking, execution, are there, then that's what is important. 

Given our current swift-shifting marketing habitat, do you believe specialised content such as white papers or webinars still engages brand marketers, or are they losing relevance amid increasing time constraints?

When I was on the agency side, I used to lead trend newsletters and things like that, which I think are still really valuable. I don't think marketers, especially in today's world, always have the time to delve deeply into those things, if I'm being totally honest. I don't have time for a lot of it. But, it doesn’t mean that I don't value it. 

I think if an agency can distill points of view, and push our thinking (I just love partners who push our thinking,) I wouldn't say to stop doing that. I would just say, I think being intentional with how much to lean into that when interacting with your client and just surfacing the essential stuff that you know is pertinent to the business challenges they're dealing with today is probably the best bet.

I’d love to shift to a more personal note. Where is your go-to spot for breakfast in New York, and where would you recommend we go when we are visiting next?

This is going to be such a disappointing answer for you because I eat breakfast at home 99% of the time, especially now that I have a toddler. But, I live in Harlem and there's an incredible Senegalese bakery on like 119, I think, on Frederick Douglass Blvd, Patisserie des Ambassades and they have the best pastries and croissants, so that's probably where I would send you.

How do you usually enjoy your coffee?

It's just a lot of beans and with a splash of whole milk. I keep it pretty simple. I'm like a straight-up coffee person. I probably drink a jug of it every morning. Love it. But yeah, I'm not brand-specific, although I do like Cafe Du Monde's chicory coffee from New Orleans. So anytime we go to New Orleans, I buy a couple of cans of that.

What’s usually on the menu, or where do we go for dinner?

Dinner, oh, I love it, so we eat out a lot. Less so now, again, with the toddler, but if we can go out, there are a couple of places that we've been going to more. There's a place called Café Altro Paradiso. And in Harlem, there's a really great restaurant called Claythat we go to sometimes and sit outside. And then I used to live in Brooklyn and still have a lot of heart for my old neighbourhood in Fort Greene. And there's a great restaurant called Colonia Verde with a delicious burger. So yeah, I'd say those are my top spots.

Interior Design by Chanelle Kalfas

Do you have time for podcasts? Are they important to you?

When I was commuting more frequently, I would listen to podcasts a lot. I listen to music a lot, too. But now I go to the office just a couple of days a week, so not as much. But I would be remiss not to mention The New York Times slate of podcasts (and Audio app!) that we have. There's such a wonderful slate of our existing podcasts plus audio app-specific podcast content. 

I'm partial to Modern Love and Still Processing from The New York Times side, but otherwise, I'm a big interiors and design enthusiast, so I like listening to the Business-of-Home podcast.

In three words, how would you define your approach to interior design?

I love interior design so much. It's really hard to choose three words. I don't know how to describe it. I like a lot of different modes of design. I love Italian and I love Japanese. 

I would say evolving. But I tend to think of myself as a minimal maximalist. I love colour texture and pattern, but I don't love clutter. 

So an Evolving, Minimal Maximalist.

Original Painting by Chanelle Kalfas

What was your last non-fiction read?

Most of the books that I read are coffee table books about interior design. I have this Billy Cotton: Interiors and Design book. It's beautiful. I just love pouring through design stuff. 

But I did start trying non-fiction. I don't have a lot of time for like reading these days outside of reading The Times. And you know, just general news and content. I did buy and start trying to read Being and Nothingness by Sartre which is on existentialism.

It’s a bold choice. It's very dense. I have not gotten very far, but I'm like, maybe I'll be able to read it in the summer.

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Duabrantie, towering in Ghana's Esen Apam Forest Reserve, magnetises admirers from every corner of the globe. Its presence mirrors the international influence and reach of The New York Times. 

Kalfas's journey at The Times powerfully exemplifies her capacity to interlace creativity with intentionality. 

Her future career trajectory? There's an undeniable certainty: Anchored by her curious, smart son, and the import she places on family, Kalfas’ future work will resonate with a force and permanence that echo the timeless legacy of Duabrantie and The New York Times. 

As she continues to embed an indelible mark on strategy, storytelling and brand legacy, Kalfas will undoubtedly be inspiring the next generation of the industry’s greatest brand strategists.  

And I cannot wait to see what that looks like.

Brand Marketing. Executive-level.