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Alex Owens, VP, global head of data and analytics, Unilever

Path to power

 

I started in market research for Millward Brown where I quickly realised my passion for all things data and analytics. After this, I moved to the BBC where I had a couple of roles - one for the BBC World Service as a market analyst for Africa and the Middle East and then BBCi.  I had the pleasure of working on some great initiatives, like BBCi iPlayer back in 2000 and then the launch of Freeview. I then got a call from Sky to be head of insight where I worked for the next 3.5 years. I was starting to get bored of media, so I jumped ship to finance, firstly, working at Capital One, a highly-analytical organisation which furthered my passion in this space, before changing direction in to a more corporate strategy-based role for Lloyds Banking Group, where I was head of retail strategy. One of the key projects I led from a strategy perspective was a large transformation of the group’s CRM capability. But while I loved strategy, I wanted a faster-paced environment, so I moved to retail as head of customer insight at Sainsbury’s. This provided me with a great platform and opportunity to enhance my analytical capability further working across the Nectar data. I am now at Unilever having moved here in February 2016 where I look after what we call our people data centres - social and business analytics, consumer engagement centres (aka, call centres) and accountable with IT and marketing for building and deploying our CRM capability. I also look after consumer data governance, AI initiatives for marketing as well as our digital performance measurement and tracking. I am accountable for a team of c180 internal people (soon to increase by a further 130) as well as 140 from our external partners who form part of my broader team.

 

What has been the highlight of your career in the industry to date?

 

In my career I have been lucky enough to work for some brilliant companies and have many highlights to choose from, whether that be the BBCi player back in 2000 or being involved in Sky’s triple-play proposition development back in 2004. But if I had to choose one, it would be my current role at Unilever. My team are at the heart of the digital transformation of our organisation. My sole objective was to create 1 billion one-to-one relationships with our consumers. When we set off on this journey a couple of years back, we assumed this was a lofty target, but we have already achieved over 900 million connections – so it looks like we will now aim for 2 billion.

 

If you could give your younger self some advice about how to progress in this industry, what would it be?

 

I am a strong believer that you need to find your sweet spot where your strengths, passions and values align - at Unilever we call this your purpose. So, firstly, you need to understand what yours is. Alongside this, you should ideally learn how to code - sounds obvious, but important. That said, you don’t need to code to lead analytics, but you need good logic, an ability to know what questions to ask of the data and a curious mind. But the more senior you become, the more you need to have good commercial empathy, an ability to network and influence. And, finally, speak the business’s language otherwise people won’t listen!

 

Did 2018 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

 

Yes - and way more. When I had the end of year round-up in 2017 with my global team (across 30 markets), if felt like two years in one and I was wondering, “how can we top that?” But at the same event at the end of 2018, if felt like three in one. It was an awesome year: I have an amazing team and what we achieved in one year was outstanding; whether it be continuing to evolve the way we do insight through social and business analytics to evolving the way in which consumers can get in contact with us to changing the way Unilever does marketing through our CRM capability. We initially said we would transform five markets in 2018. In the end we did 11!

 

What do you expect 2019 to be like for the industry?

 

Another year where everyone wants a piece of you! The industry has gone through a tectonic shift in the last few years. Everyone wants to be data-driven, but few understand what this means or what it takes. Interestingly, at a point where data is king, tech firms are going through one of the hardest periods in their existence. So expect to see more consolidation and M&A in this space. Equally, companies like ours will start to look at M&A through a data and tech lens as well as brands, products and services.

 

Talent and skills are always a challenge to find - how are you tackling this in your organisation?

 

We go for a hybrid model of nurturing people internally with a passion for data and analytics as well as scouting externally. An organisation like Unilever is vast and complex, so having people who can navigate the business, but understand how to drive value out of data for our business is as important as having deep technical knowledge. To bring in skills that don’t exist, you do need to go external. But 60% of my team are Millennials or Gen Z - they are”kids” who have a belief they can do anything and, in most cases, can! I have people at the age of 25 or so in my team who have already sold one or two businesses. For me, it is just as important to have the right mindset than it is to have deep technical knowledge, given nowadays there are so many stats and software packages they can rely on.

 

What aspect of data, analytics or their use are you most optimistic about and why?

 

Data and analytics have been around for decades, if not well over a century. But so many people talk about it being a new thing! Big data - I hate the phrase, data has always been big. But processing power and our ability to utilise machine learning and other strands of AI at scale has made it quicker and easier to get information real-time to inform decisions. Real-time optimisation for our digital campaigns is what is personally exciting for me.
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