Crunchyroll CMO Gita Rebbapragada Says ‘Being a Good Listener’ Is Key to Marketing and Managing

Office With a View: The same skill helps the Sony veteran bring the best out of her team and cater to the quirks of anime fans

Gita Rebbapragada (Photo credit: Crunchyroll, Christopher Smith/TheWrap)
Gita Rebbapragada (Photo credit: Crunchyroll, Christopher Smith/TheWrap)

Gita Rebbapragada grew up reading manga. Becoming the chief marketing officer of Crunchyroll, the world’s leading streamer of anime, was “like this kismet thing that happened,” she said.

Math was her favorite subject in school, she told TheWrap for this week’s Office With a View, but “I also loved art. To me, they’re like this perfect blend of the two things about design and stories.”

That led her to the burgeoning field of performance-based marketing, which she called “a marriage between art and science.”

That passion for math and a love for how entertainment connects people brought her to Sony as an SVP of marketing in 2018. She moved over to Funimation, which Sony combined with Crunchyroll in 2021.

Combining the marketing organizations and catering to the quirks of anime fans, she realized, required a common skill: listening.

“The better listener that you become, I think the better leader you are,” Rebbapragada said.

Under her leadership, Crunchyroll had three of the top five anime films of all time at the U.S. box office: “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba The Movie: Mugen Train,” “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” and “Jujutsu Kaisen 0.” She’s also been responsible for integrating the brand globally through a series of acquisitions.

Before her time at Crunchyroll, Rebbapragada worked at car-sharing company Zipcar and TechStyle Fashion Group, an online fashion incubator.

Rebbapragada shared insights into how a company can find its target audience, executing a successful marketing strategy by listening to fans and why managing requires deep empathy.

How did Crunchyroll capitalize on anime’s popularity?
Over the last four years, the growth of anime exploded. Now you’re seeing so many different types of fans. You’re seeing some of the shows open as No. 1 at the box office. It’s really become part of pop culture. So for us, it’s about how we serve them in many different ways, not just in streaming, but through games, through films, through collectibles, through merchandise. 

Marketing is the intersection of strategy, science and storytelling. The majority of our marketing organization is about speaking with fans in some degree or fashion. We are a very grassroots marketing team, and they have their ear to the ground in many regions around the world, [listening] to what people are talking about and who’s talking about it and what shows are bringing people in. That’s not going to change. Crunchyroll is always going to be very community-based.

How does a business find its target audience?
There are a lot of people who define their audience like we are this age or this region, in demographic terms. I think, especially in anime, you have to start with psychographics: What is the emotional connection that people have to this product? And base your audience around that, because I think that will lead you to a more authentic marketing program.

You’ve gotten to a C-suite position. What were your keys to success?
I think there are certain moments in your career where you recognize this is an accelerating moment, and you have to have the privilege to lean into those moments to win.

I also think knowledge is power. I think sometimes we work very quickly, especially when you start a job, you’re under a lot of pressure to perform, and you sort of want to get some points on the board early on. But take the moment to understand the business. I’m often surprised by how much I’m still learning about this business.

And take some time to talk to other leaders. You have one experience at your job, but the world is evolving around you and a lot of great ideas have come from peers that I have, and other companies and other industries that are unlike what I do.

I think that’s really important to find what I call your personal board of advisors, who can help you with your career, but also just help you think. I very often use this group of individuals when I am contemplating taking a new job opportunity. They helped me think through whether joining Sony would be the next best thing for my career — and it turns out they were right!

What’s your daily routine like?
I am early to bed and early to rise. At night, reading plays a lot into my night time routine. I read my own books, books with my daughters and then tell them stories with the lights off to put them to bed. I will go through leadership books and “Goodnight Moon” in one sitting!

I am a morning person, so I wake up early, usually between 4 and 5 a.m., just to enjoy the silence and solitude before the craziness of the day begins. Key to my mornings is listening — music, podcasts and audiobooks. I usually put my headphones in as soon as I wake up. Autobiography audiobooks narrated by the author are my favorite. 

What’s some advice you’d give other managers?
Never, ever get into that mentality of, “It’s so much better than it was five years ago.” When I entered the workforce, what was defined as normal is what I experienced at that time, and I wanted to make it better. I got very frustrated when I heard, “Well, it’s so much better than it used to be.” That is never an OK answer.

The second thing is to listen, listen, listen, constantly listen, because I think good listening is also highly correlated with so many other great attributes of people.

Many people live a delicate balancing act of different family and work obligations. A lot of people have special times — dinner with family, pickups and dropoffs — and I try to help them protect those special times to the extent I can. Key to helping them do that is listening to what is important to them after work, and equally key is them trusting you with that information.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.