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Richard Lees, EVP solutions EMEA, Merkle

Richard Lees

Path to power

My career started at Siemens in 1986, developing pattern recognition and image processing applications. I then went on to lead the introduction and expansion of the Unix capability, moving into GIS software development and implementation. All this experience provided excellent technical grounding.

 

Following Siemens, my next move was into retail banking, joining South Africa’s largest bank, Standard Bank, to lead a team of analysts. In this role, I was responsible for developing South Africa’s first spatial site location and planning capability, underpinning all physical branch and ATM planning functions. In 1993, I first specialised in incorporating customer data to create the first truly customer focused planning framework for customer targets, risk, budgets and all long-term capital and maintenance planning.

 

I ended up outsourcing this entire team from Standard Bank to create my first company, Intact Solutions. A fully integrated data, analytics and spatial planning company, Intact Solutions was sold to Primedia (South Africa’s largest listed media business) soon after its inception. I continued to grow that business for five years until 2000.

 

From there, I started working for Primedia in the UK, running the Database Group for several years, before acquiring it with two partners. This led to us forming DBG, a full-service marketing service provider. Together, we expanded and grew DBG until its sale to Merkle in 2015.

 

I now lead the strategic business solutions group across EMEA for Merkle. My responsibility lies in complex, technology, data, insight and solution development across the entire capability stack. In addition to we define customer strategies with our clients, develop and deploy cross-market strategic CRM programmes, deliver agile led marketing transformations, and finally develop solutions with Dentsu (Merkle’s parent company).

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

Since joining Merkle in 2015, the business has grown from around 3,500 people to well over 9,000 globally. Being an integral part of a business scaling at that pace has been both a privilege and a thrill, and the ride is far from over.

 

Merkle is expanding markets, capabilities, local and global clients and the scale of a totally connected offering, but, most importantly, we are developing people. Knowing I have been able to help to grow and expand the knowledge and experience of so many people, as they evolve to meet the rapid demands this expansion has placed on all of us, is a joy.

 

Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

I have two: Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett, both for the same reasons. First, each has achieved an admirably bold ambition and vision that has endured for decades. And they’re still evolving and leading at the front of their respective packs. What I most take inspiration from is the wisdom to balance success with respect for family and being decent human beings at the same time.

 

I greatly admire a hero who hasn’t lost touch with what it takes to be human, and they both happen to be some of the world’s most generous philanthropists.

 

Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

Pretty much, yes, but there was one core topic that the market has been slower to respond to than we had expected. Given the almost universal strategic focus by businesses on putting customers first, and the desire to create personalised customer experiences for these customers, the drive towards building an identity framework to connect cross-channel customer events, and accelerating the collection of data around this connected ecosystem, has been slow. In the absence of that, it’s difficult to truly know the customer, and so valuable behavioural data remains uncollected and unconnected – sacrificing invaluable customer insights as a result.

 

What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

The shift towards customer centricity is already changing the role of marketing. It’s now about the total value of customers across their interactions, with sales, service and marketing. This shift needs cross silo thinking for businesses to reap the real value of the customer centric promise.

 

At the centre of making this real is data-fuelled insight, and how businesses foster the ability to make data actionable. Taking data from being just a resource, to a strategic asset, and finally to a competitive advantage requires business wide collaboration.

 

Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

All the digital economies are focused on the customer, and this focus is enabled through technology and data. The umbrella benefit for society and its members is that, through this focus, competition is now extremely fast, varied and widespread. And the benefit of this competition (driven by the digitally native behemoths like Amazon and Alibaba, as well as digitally native direct to consumer vertical businesses) to the average consumer is more choice, better convenience, better prices, faster service and value for money. With my consumer hat on, that’s a good thing.

 

What is the biggest tech challenge your clients face in ensuring data is at the heart of their digital transformation strategy?

Businesses need to stop viewing data and technology as separate entities; instead they should be seen as connected components of a far greater ecosystem. I believe the fastest way to change behaviour is to change what you measure. If a business measures customer metrics - which require data and tech to deliver - this will happen. Yet, if they measure data and tech integration alone, which aren’t linked to clear and specific outcomes, this can often become a rocking horse - you can move all day but end up going nowhere. Motion doesn’t always mean progress.

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