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Ruth Spencer, vice-president global insights, Walgreens Boots Alliance

Ruth Spencer

Path to power

I spent my first three years after university teaching physics in a comprehensive school and then joined Shell as an IT graduate trainee. After a few years learning my way round data and coding, I moved into database marketing – as insights was known way back then. I quickly realised this was the field in which I wanted to build my career.

 

I moved to NatWest for a couple of years and then took the leap to join Accenture, where I was fortunate to work on a fascinating array of projects across lots of industries. After six years, I left to join the Co-operative Group to lead customer strategy.

 

Then I got the call about the best job in UK loyalty - running Boots Advantage Card. The reason that I’m still at Walgreens Boots Alliance 12 years later is that I’ve had the opportunity to undertake some brilliant roles, from running boots.com and living in Chicago to lead the Walgreens insight team to my current role, where I lead the insights teams that support the entire WBA business worldwide.

 

What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

My proudest moments have been when I’ve seen people I’ve worked with develop and grow. I always love it when someone tells me that they have passed on to someone else, advice or guidance that I had given to them. I may have stopped working in a school a long time ago, but I don’t think I have ever managed to completely shake off being a teacher.

 

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

My grandmothers, who both had to leave school and start work in Lancashire cotton mills aged 12. They encouraged all of their grandchildren to seize the opportunities we had, but that hadn’t been open to them.

 

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

No, but to be honest I long since gave up thinking that any year would turn out how I expected. It’s a healthy reminder that much as we all love to build predictive analytics, we need to remember they have their limits.

 

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

As ever, I think it will be a year of change. One particular area of focus for us in WBA is the introduction of the California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA), as this is the first major legislation in the consumer field in the US. In amongst all the change, I think there will be one constant; over the past 20 years, it’s always been a challenge to recruit and retain the best talent and I don’t see that situation altering any time soon.

 

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

The biggest opportunities have always been those that genuinely answer a customer need and make lives better or easier. Historically we have only been able to do this at a macro level.

 

Right now, people’s lives are taking much more interesting and divergent paths, just as there are massive advances in data and analytics. This provides us an enormous and exciting opportunity to develop solutions and offers which are personalised to the nuances in every individual’s life.

 

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

We are really fortunate in WBA to have amazing first party data assets across our pharmacy and retail businesses around the world. However, some of this data has been stored in legacy systems which were, for very good reasons, designed for operational efficiency rather than analysis.

 

We’re investing a significant amount of time and energy to make these data assets more accessible through our strategic partnership with Microsoft.

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