I started life as an economist working for the Irish government - mostly focused on education policy and forecasting future skills needs - before joining the strategy function at Freeserve (the UK’s first mass-market ISP).
It was in Freeserve’s data-rich environment that I dived deeply into the world of consumer data and where I learnt my trade as an analytics and decisioning professional. My proving ground was a fantastic five years as a consultant at Experian ClarityBlue, working across many sectors and around the world, helping companies build and exploit their data and insight capability.
In 2010, I joined Sky, where I have worked in pretty much every part of the company, including marketing, product, customer service and content as well as in all parts of the insight value chain, including capability development, analytics, decisioning, business intelligence, research and knowledge management and running a series of ambitious change programmes building some ground-breaking new insight capabilities.
After eight years at Sky, I joined Burberry in October 2018. Building on an existing strong foundation in digital analytics and personalisation, I have a mandate to accelerate the exploitation of data and insight across the whole business.
It’s been an amazing first year, where we’ve extended the footprint of advanced analytics into new areas of the business, including demand forecasting, pricing optimisation and customer experience analytics. Burberry is investing heavily in becoming a creatively-driven but data-inspired business and I’m finding the synergy between art and science hugely stimulating and fulfilling.
I always like to think in terms of legacy, and I think my greatest long-term impact will be the work I did for the Irish government right at the start of my career. The work we did resulted in a huge increase in STEM students in Irish universities and in the retraining of thousands of long-term unemployed for careers in software and computer engineering. I was a very small cog in a very large bureaucratic machine, but I like to think I played my part well.
I owe almost everything I’ve achieved to Tony Mooney, who recruited me as a (very) raw consultant way back in 2005 to join his nascent customer intelligence consultancy at ClarityBlue. His combination of intellectual curiosity, restless innovation, personal loyalty, ethical dealing, boldness and iconoclasm – alongside an ability to spot talent and to build great teams – remains the standard by which I judge myself.
The pace of delivery on explainable AI has surprised me to be honest – we’re not there yet but we saw enough breakthroughs in 2019 at a conceptual, toolset and delivery level that I’m more optimistic than I was that we will crack this as an industry. I’m less convinced that we’ve done the work required to re-establish trust in data and analytics following some of the horror stories of the last few years. I had expected a combination of press, regulatory and consumer pressure to have had a greater effect by now but looking at the press it seems the big social and adtech platforms still haven’t made the shifts required.
Another big year ahead, I think. Huge investments are being made across pretty much every industry and, following a few breakneck years of recruitment and investment, I think the onus is now on us as a profession to repay this confidence and trust by delivering material returns. We’ll continue to see a huge focus on business transformation and on building new data-enabled operating models across a range of sectors and on a continued shake-out and consolidation in the vendor landscape.
I think the ability of data and analytics to make life better, safer, more convenient, more fun and more interesting is pretty much boundless. But it does depress me a little that so many of the world’s smartest people are devoting their entire careers to making digital advertising just ever so slightly more personalised.
Leaving aside the power of analytics to help us to cure diseases, to protect the environment and to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos, I’d like to see companies use data much more to make their staff happier and more productive, to make their products better, to unlock efficiencies and to improve their customer service and experience.
In my opinion, the accelerated expansion of data-driven approaches and consumer-centric thinking into the back office, into supply chains, into HR and into product development is the next frontier for our profession and the development I’m most excited about.
Back to the future on this one. The challenges haven’t materially changed in a decade or so in my view. Data collection and instrumenting our business and customer processes so we actually have quality data remains the unfinished foundation on which everything else is built. For all the talk about personalisation, most companies still have only a very narrow aperture into their consumers’ behaviours, attitudes and characteristics, with large parts of the map remaining blank.
I think the big change has been that the barriers to data integration and data management at scale have largely been solved from a technology perspective. However, in terms of driving value from this data, most companies are still stuck in a high-skill, high-effort, artisanal equilibrium in the world of data science and analytics. The technology landscape is evolving rapidly on this front and I think analytics and machine learning democratisation, alongside the business unit operating model changes, is a big focus for 2020.