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Richard Lees, EVP strategic business solutions, Merkle EMEA

Path to power

 

I started at Siemens in 1986, developing pattern recognition/image processing applications, then leading the introduction and expansion of the Unix capability, moving into GIS software development and implementation, all of which provided an excellent technical grounding. Then I moved into retail banking, joining South Africa’s largest bank to lead a team of analysts developing South Africa’s first spatial site location and planning capability, underpinning all physical branch and ATM planning functions. In 1993, another first, I was 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 outsourced this entire team from Standard Bank to create my first company, Intact Solutions, a fully integrated data, analytics and spatial planning company, which 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. Working for PRIMEDIA in the UK, I ran the Database Group for several years, before acquiring it with two partners from its South African parent to form dbg, a full-service marketing service provider. Together, we expanded and grew this business until its eventual sale to Merkle in 2015. I now lead the strategic business solutions group across EMEA for Merkle, responsible for complex technology, data, insight and WOW solution development across the entire capability stack, defining customer strategies with our clients, developing and deploying cross-market strategic CRM programs, delivering agile-led marketing transformations, plus synergistic solution development with Dentsu (Merkle’s parent holding company).

 

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

 

Looking back over my career, I have had the privilege of working with many great people - clients, colleagues (and even frenemies!) - and the benefit of the agnostic nature of the businesses I have worked in has given me an opportunity to experience business across almost every sector and every stage of maturity. Across all of that, the highlight has been the past three years with Merkle, because it has been validation that our decision to sell dbg to Merkle was absolutely the right one, evidenced by the pace of change and expansion of our capabilities into a fully-fledged, people-based marketing business. With over 2,200 people across EMEA now, we are on an adrenaline-fuelled ride!

 

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

 

If there is one lesson I could have learned early in my career, it’s the realisation (logically, you may think!) that businesses don’t always buy what they need, but almost certainly always what they want. To be successful in this industry, it’s important to have a clear view on where the market is evolving and how client needs are changing. But it’s a delicate balance between being ahead of the curve, which is expensive and hard work, and being in the right place at the right time with what businesses are prepared to invest in. In most ways, yes. The trends that we saw coming, all materialised - a few faster than I would have expected and some are taking longer to take hold than I would have thought. The shift towards in-housing is happening as we expected it would, but in a few cases, at a faster pace than feels practical in terms of businesses developing processes and skill with sufficient pace to make this successful. On the flip side, the intention around true cross-channel integration to create the seamless (elusive) customer experience - and the shift towards customer-centricity versus product focus that needs - is still outpacing the reality of making it happen.

 

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

 

I think we will start to see movement in 2019 from the endless desire to buy new shiny things to better use of the assets businesses already have in abundance. There will still be those organisations that continue to place their bets in new technologies as being the Holy Grail, but a focus on using data - really using data - to develop and execute against informed customer strategies, learning from what worked and didn’t work, is gaining pace. For businesses awash with data, this will focus the collection and exploiting of meaningful data and I believe we will see real cross-channel customer experience improve for consumers in small incremental steps, rather than through enterprise-wide transformation endeavours (under the watchful eye of GDPR and what is realistically possible, of course!).

 

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

 

We are in one of the most exciting businesses to be right now, being a people-based marketing business, building strategies, harnessing the power of data and analytics, developing fluid content and providing the technology backbone to enable our clients to deliver amazing customer experiences for the stakeholders. We have a truly integrated offering, which we constantly innovate, making it a fluid environment in which we develop creative ways to solve new and existing challenges for our clients. People want to work here! We invest in attracting the best talent, providing good growth opportunities with good teamwork, recognition and reward frameworks and, through this, building and developing what are unicorns in the market today.

 

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

 

In the constant jockeying we have seen over a few decades between the capabilities of software, hardware and physical data storage, we are in a perfect place now where all three are in (almost) synch. The last frontier has been the amalgamation of data across business silos, the unification of customer data and the quality of that data to drive real value. I feel that, for the first time ever, we are on the verge of being able to really use data to make the type of informed observations and decisions that to this point have been ideas and aspirations. Now we can genuinely make good on those and the gap between the leaders and followers will start to widen fast! Agency

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