In recent years investing in apprenticeships has emerged as a key priority for Marks & Spencer. To fulfil its ambition of becoming a “digital-first” brand, the high street retailer has created three programmes spanning Level 3 data technician and Level 4 data analyst apprenticeships, all the way up to a newly minted Level 7 apprenticeship in data science and AI.
Marketer Imogen Reid first heard about the Level 4 data analyst apprenticeship after a senior member of staff passed on an internal communication from M&S head of enterprise data, Suzanne Howse. Reid’s colleague suggested it could be a good fit given her interest in using data and digital to enhance decision making.
Then an assistant campaign manager in the CRM team, Reid explains it was crucial to have the support of her colleagues and line manager when she considered embarking on the apprenticeship.
“I was very lucky to be in a role where they supported that and could see the benefit,” she says. “It was like the whole of our team was applying through me, because they saw the benefit in using data. Especially in our role because it is in marketing, but it is predominantly for online marketing and obviously there’s so much data out there.”
The most appealing aspect to Reid was that everything learnt during the apprenticeship would apply to her role. Therefore, while it would mean 20% of her time was spent away from her day job, all the information would be used in a practical way to help her team.
Having been at M&S for just a year, Reid understood this meant an 18-month commitment, not just to the apprenticeship but to the brand.
It was like the whole of our team was applying through me, because they saw the benefit in using data.
Imogen Reid, M&S
To gain more information, she attended an open day with her line manager where the internal team, alongside apprenticeship provider Decoded, presented examples of what previous apprentices had learnt. A case study of applying customer insight convinced Reid the apprenticeship would be an interesting prospect.
“Men go into supermarkets and the data shows they were buying beer and nappies in the same purchase. So, the team put beer and nappies near each other and it was obviously dads going in at the end of the working day and picking up what they needed,” says Reid.
“I thought that was so interesting as I’d never thought of grouping items in a store. That was quite exciting for me.”
She joined the fourth Level 4 cohort at M&S, meaning the first cohort were already six months in. Reid was able to join forums on Teams to ask questions and she was also able to attend sessions pre-Covid to meet her fellow apprentices in person.
“Meeting all the other apprentices in M&S was one of the biggest benefits for me. It was a networking opportunity, speaking to people all over the business who I would never interact with otherwise,” she explains.
“We bounced off each other, so you could come up with new ideas you wouldn’t have thought of before.”
Prior to lockdown, half day or full day in-person sessions where held with mentors from Decoded, coupled with online projects. There were regular catch-ups with mentors to discuss the projects, as well as full day hackathons where the apprentices teamed up to answer a question using data and modelling.
Then when the pandemic hit in March 2020, Reid’s cohort was the first to start learning online via Teams, which meant ironing out a few teething problems.
“I remember our first hackathon on Teams was so difficult, because obviously you’re having to work in a team and then come back to a group of maybe 30 or 40 people,” she recalls.
“There were some kinks to work out, but by the end of the apprenticeship we’d done maybe four or five hackathons in that way and they were smooth and everything worked really well. The functions on Teams were amazing. You could break off into separate groups and come back to the main Teams chat.”
Reid regularly updated her team in CRM on the apprenticeship programme, asking them whether they had any burning questions they thought could be answered using data. Reid also consulted the other cohorts – past and present – on Teams for ideas and insight.
Each apprentice worked on individual projects relevant to their area of the business. Reid worked on eight during the course, mainly in data modelling. She pulled data from the retailer’s internal Sequel software and used it to cluster groups together, which Reid explains was relevant for her team as they were looking to cluster groups of customers to communicate with via email.
She also undertook regression modelling and time series analysis, which were used to help forecast future sales driven through email campaigns.
“If we send something to 5 million people with X beauty product in it, you can predict how many orders should come from that activity and that’s useful information for the distribution centre so they know roughly how much capacity they need, especially if we’re doing something big like an offer,” Reid explains.
Her favourite project, however, was sentiment analysis on email subject lines. She investigated how consumers react to certain language in order to predict how many will open an email, driving traffic to the website.
While having studied a degree in maths helped Reid on the statistical elements of the apprenticeship, many others in her cohort had never studied statistics or data analysis. For this reason, she believes marketers are well suited to a data science apprenticeship, a message she shares with the wider organisation.
“I continue to push colleagues to take part in the apprenticeship and if not Level 4 then the Level 3. I know someone in a wider team in customer channels who’s gone to join the Level 3 programme, because the Level 4 was a little bit intimidating. She’s really enjoying it. It’s also shorter, so a bit more manageable,” says Reid.
“She’s already saying that she’d love to do the Level 4 afterwards. For L4 I found every single learning session I went into you needed no previous knowledge on data, modelling, even programming languages. It was all from a zero experience base point.”
Room to grow
Not only did the apprenticeship help Reid feed data insight into the CRM team, it has also fuelled her career progression at M&S. She moved into a CRM analyst role prior to graduating from the apprenticeship in May 2021.
Describing the apprenticeship as a “stepping-stone” into the role, Reid explains the projects that most interested her were better suited to an analyst position. It helped that Reid had ready-made examples of work she’d completed during the apprenticeship and future work she would conduct in the data analyst role.
Then in December she moved into a newly-created role of data analyst in the online commercial team. She describes the role as a “deep dive” into customer data and the forefront of data in online at M&S. Reid will be tasked with finding opportunities in the commercial strategy for the team to pursue.
“It’s an example of the more data-led decisions that are being made around the business. They’re seeing a need for analysts everywhere, rather than just a group of analysts for the whole business,” she explains. “It’s an exciting role and something I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with if I hadn’t got all the experience I did from the apprenticeships.”
Ecommerce is becoming an increasing focus for M&S, which saw online clothing and home sales hit £361m over the festive period, up 50.8% compared to 2019/2020. Internationally, sales increased 5.1% to £272m on a two-year basis, with online sales more than doubling.
The accelerated shift to online during the pandemic means the retailer now expects ecommerce to represent 40%, or perhaps even 50%, of business in the coming years, according to CEO Steve Rowe.
For Reid, while the plan is to focus on her current role she is considering taking the Level 7 apprenticeship in data science and AI – equivalent to a Master’s degree – in the future. Upon joining M&S she was unsure what she wanted to do with her career but the apprenticeship, coupled with the exposure it offers to other parts of the business, has inspired Reid to progress in data science.
She welcomes what she sees as M&S pushing for data-led decisions at all levels of the business. From a talent retention perspective, the fact the retailer has invested in these data science apprenticeships has helped Reid see a long-term future with the company.
“Data and analytics is something I want to do with my career, and move on to data science, and for there to be a vehicle for me to learn in M&S is great, because I don’t want to leave M&S and now I don’t have to,” Reid adds.
“There are our grad schemes and then after you could join an apprenticeship, it’s continued learning. Development at M&S is such a core goal for the company and it’s very encouraging there are so many colleagues who have been taking part in the apprenticeships.”