It is said that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, England will fall. There are probably people working at the Automobile Association (AA) who thought much the same thing about Graeme McDermott. Yet after 17 years, most recently as insight and data director in which role he made the DataIQ Big Data 100 2016, he has finally flown for a new home as chief data officer at Addison Lee.
So what did it take to prise an apparent “lifer” away from the business whose data and analytics operations he was so closely identified with? For McDermott, the apparent continuity of his career with the AA is misleading. “It is not simply 17 years - the ownership of the business changed five times during that period. With each new owner, the company and financial strategy as well as the management approach changed, too,” he told DataIQ in the weeks running up to his job switch in early May.
While the AA was going through an IPO in 2014, Addison Lee was making a number of key strategic hires one year on from its acquisition by private equity firm Carlyle Group, sharpening its focus on customers and data. “It is in transition from being a 38-year-old family business to running for two years under private equity ownership, bringing in a chief technology officer, chief marketing officer, chief financial officer,” he says. “Over those 38 years as a family business, the use of data and insights was mainly for reporting to support the owners’ gut feel.”
Addison Lee had also identified the need for a chief data officer, specifically to mirror the standards and control which that position represents in the financial services sector. “They had started building or rebuilding a lot of things, so it was not a case of me coming in and starting from scratch. It was not a greenfield,” he says. But the job was very nearly not offered to McDermott on the assumption that he was wedded to the AA.
One factor in deciding to move on was his experience of the AA when it was under private equity ownership and the clear objectives and decision making which are typical of PE drivers of a business. Another was the opportunity to work again with Andy Boland, now CEO of Addison Lee, but formerly CFO at the AA.
The new approach to data adopted two years ago by Addison Lee had included the hiring of a data scientist to lead the team of marketing analysts, although this proved to be something of a false start since the team was still responsible for basic reporting and MI tasks. Without addressing the fundamentals of data as it enters business systems, those reports risked being wrong and insights skewed. Eventually, the data scientist quit in 2015, followed shortly after by several junior analysts.
Making data suitable for its purpose is a task to which McDermott is well fitted, having built five single customer views for the AA during his tenure, creating well-defined databases and practices. Addison Lee is in the first stages of building its first SCV and is looking to him to bring key data governance principles to bear.
Joining at the formative stages of this kind of data adoption is appealling and also sensitive. “It is like a Formula One car - you can’t achieve very much if you have never done it before. Data science will eventually be the right thing to do, but we need to automate reporting and make the numbers robust first,” he says.
Ahead of his job switch and working out a six-month notice period, McDermott was much occupied with handing over to his team at the AA, especially in the context of other departures. “They have recognised the risks from senior people leaving during a major CRM transformation they are currently undertaking,” he says, noting this as one of the reasons for the company’s insistence on such a long goodbye.
At his new berth, the technology focus so far has been on creating a data warehouse, rather than a SCV, to drive accurate business reports. “MI is based around transactions, but Addison Lee is a business based around customer service. The company does spend a lot on technology - it has just bought in Salesforce, but the weakest part of Salesforce is the data. So they plugged in their old data and found lots of duplicates and poor data quality. Fixing that is part of my remit, as well as MI, insight and anaytics, and making sure any data in the business - customer, transaction, product - is right, wherever it goes,” he says.
Much of that task will look familiar to McDermott from his previous experience at the AA, but what won’t be the same is having to cover six different locations or (hopefully) having 11 bosses in 17 years. At Addison Lee, he is based in London, reporting to the CEO, giving “data visibility at the top table”, he notes.
Addison Lee is also confronting a major challenge to its market in the rise of Uber, which has made the need to find an edge through its use of data and analytics even more focused. “The PE owners get the value of data and have been looking at what Uber does with it and what Addison Lee can start to do.,” says McDermott. That includes using big data to profile drivers before they are hired and tracking their performance afterwards using social media.
“The owners are hungry for ideas,” he says. With his in-depth knowledge and highly-respected status in the data industry, McDermott is sure to give them plenty to feed on - hopefully for many years to come.