The voice of the audience

Sumi's journey to the top

Sumi Barry, Senior Vice-President of Consumer and Market Intelligence at NBC Entertainment talks to Keeli Cambourne about her not-so-fairy tale climb to the top.

In her last year as a Bachelor of Commerce undergraduate at the University of Wollongong, Sumi Barry saw a call out for extras on a film shoot and decided this was an opportunity she couldn’t miss.

“I never thought I would have anything to do with the media industry, and believed I wouldn’t have the chance to do something like this again,” Barry said. “It was the most gruelling, the most unglamorous thing I had ever done. After it was over I thought ‘been there, done that. It was interesting but that sort of opportunity will never come up again’.”

Two decades on, however, Barry is a senior executive at one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies, NBC Universal, helping to create television shows that have become part of our lives and ingrained in television history.

As the Senior Vice-President of Consumer and Market Intelligence at NBC Entertainment, it is Barry’s job to help decide which new shows will make it to air, how they should be marketed, produced, evolve and become part of the lexicon of everyday life.

“I am the voice of the audience. My job involves seeing the first episodes of new shows, testing them and getting feedback from audiences. I also help the marketing team with strategies to promote the shows, when to schedule them and I work loosely with the programming division to shape the shows based on feedback from the audience,” Barry said.

“One of the most successful shows I’ve worked on has been Blacklist with James Spader. I’ve also worked on The VoiceLaw and Order: Special Victims Unit, and the US version of The Office.”

Working in the entertainment industry was not a career that crossed Barry’s mind when she landed in Wollongong from Malaysia as a teenage undergraduate in 1989. She had gained entry into the Bachelor of Commerce, deciding to take up the offer at UOW rather than a Sydney-based institution.

“I had relatives in Kiama so that was the initial reason I looked at going to UOW, but when I did more research I knew the university had a great reputation and was in a beautiful city,” she said.

“I had been accepted into two Sydney universities but I knew UOW would provide me with more personal attention. I know people who went to bigger schools and got lost in the mix. My parents were a little concerned with me living in a big city and the relative quiet of Wollongong was an attraction as well.”

The plan was to finish her commerce degree and find a career in law, business or accounting and Barry admits she went into her studies assuming she would fall into those categories.

“The Bachelor of Commerce was a general degree that I knew would give me a foundation to the types of opportunities I wanted to pursue. I didn’t know what my career was going to be or the path I was going to take, I just wanted a firm foundation. But along the way I did a psychology unit and liked it so much that I picked up a lot of other psychology subjects so it became like a minor degree and it gave me structure that I could build on,” she said.

“At UOW the faculty was very approachable and made it easy for me to talk to them about different ideas. I arrived with no plan and was just going to continue with my studies and see what happened, but at UOW I could go to anyone in my faculty and talk to them about what careers I could pursue and it helped me build a lot more confidence. I did have to explain to my parents why I was taking these additional psychology subjects but after talking to my professors and seeing how much interest I had in the subject they believed I was making the right decision.”

After graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in 1993, Barry’s first job was at a law school in Kuala Lumpur doing market research. It was during her first year of work that an opportunity came up at Astro Television, a satellite broadcasting company, which set her on the path into the entertainment industry.

During the two years she was with Astro Television, Barry designed primary research to support program content and pricing and packaging of services.

She moved to LA in 1997 with her producer husband Jonathan, and through his links in the entertainment industry found out about a job as a junior analyst at Disney Channel.

“I was lucky enough to land it and it started my career,” she said.

“This industry is pretty competitive but what I think helped me the most was the psychology units I took at university. They taught me how to think and how to ask the right questions. I was very shy but I believed in myself enough to put myself out there and ask the right questions.

“At Disney I learned a lot in a short time. I was starting [in this career] later than my colleagues. I was already 27 and most people had moved up a little by then so I was determined to catch up and it all fell into place for me. A lot of the research, and the way the information was communicated made sense to me, and I believed this was where I was meant to be.

“The biggest lesson I learned at Disney was how to communicate. When I first started I barely spoke up at meetings but my boss and mentor pushed me out of my comfort zone and that was one 
of the most important skill sets 
I developed.”

In 2000, Barry was offered a position at NBC Entertainment, and has steadily moved up the career ladder.

“When I came over [to NBC] I started at the bottom again. I was under-qualified for the position but they recognised my enthusiasm and told me they were going to lower the title so they could bring me in,” she said.

In a cutthroat industry where companies live and die by their ratings, Barry had to quickly learn to hold her own in male-dominated boardrooms, part of adapting to a new culture.

“I have to admit that coming from an Asian culture [the US] felt very different but in a good way. Where I grew up [women] were told that [they] should be seen and not heard and that extends a bit into the corporate culture, but it is changing now,” she said.

“Coming here, the women have much more of a voice. There is still some dissatisfaction with equality but this in an industry where women do well. When I got here I saw women in leadership positions which led me to believe that there are opportunities open 
for everyone.

“I was also lucky enough that the first person I worked for in the US was a woman and when I came to NBC there were heads of departments who are women, and even more now.”

Barry’s position at the global entertainment giant is so influential that when she took on her current role, her appointment was written up in the industry bible, Variety Magazine.

“It was lovely being mentioned in Variety and I think it made my mother realise that I have a real job,” she said.

Barry said it’s important that graduates—and undergraduates—don’t limit themselves when they’re choosing their career paths.

“Don’t fall back on tradition. Take advantage of any opportunities you are exposed to,” she said.

“Pursue your passion and don’t just chase the title and salary as much early in your career when you can explore a little bit more. Give yourself that opportunity because it pays off so much in the future. I took pay cuts to work at Disney and NBC because it was a path I wanted to pursue and I have the satisfaction of wanting to go into work every day.

“I get paid to watch TV and who doesn’t love doing that.”

UOW Bachelor of Commerce (Marketing) 1993