Leading the way for data at the blue box

Stuart Lewis has seen high volume direct mail usage by a credit card and is now seeing how the emotional dimension needs to come into play. He explains why life at American Express requires a balance of leadership and data principles.

There is part of string theory in physics which suggests particles have a superpartner – another particle to which they are connected, even if it is on the other side of the universe. If you are reasonably literate in science, you might see this as an interesting aspect of attempts to explain why particles have mass and what happens in black holes.

If you are Stuart Lewis, director, online and cross channel acquisition for American Express Consumer Cards, the theory might explain something more personal – having met his wife while both on a graduate training scheme in Nottingham, why they have ended up working for companies that share the same office building in London.

In her case, that company is Google, while his is one of the most globally recognised brands, the “Blue Box”. Telling the two sets of staff apart in the lifts is not difficult, however. “The digital lot all look ’just that little bit cooler!’,” says Lewis.

During his own education, Lewis’s interests were more around music and sport – he still plays guitar and enjoys running and golf – than career ambitions. Having graduated from University of Nottingham in 2003 with an honours degree in computer science and management, he was looking for job options that had a “black and white, single state” aspect to them.

That led him to Capital One, working as a business analyst in the marketing and analysis department. “I started work in a direct mail targeting role when Capital One was still riding the glory days of mass market direct mail,” he recalls.

Although data turned out to be less binary the further he got into it, the job itself provided a wide variety of valuable experiences. “It was an amazing chance to apply my skills and learn about the principles of targeting, analytics, new product development, credit risk,” says Lewis.

He adds: “There was a fantastic discipline and structure around the use of data to drive decisions in different functions. As a graduate, I was given broad exposure to many of these different areas which, in hindsight, was what first got me interested in the world of data-driven marketing.”

Capital One may have been one of the largest direct mailers of the time, but it was run by a team numbering in the hundreds. When Lewis made a move across to Barclays, where he managed the profit and loss of personal loans on Barclaycard, he was joining a much larger organisation with staff in the thousands.

“The leadership was still data-driven, but it was also more sales focused,” he recalls. With a change in scale also came a change in emphasis on how data gets put to work driving a business. “It was better to get twice as much out at 70 per cent than pressing on to get one thing to 90 per cent,” he says.

Lewis moved to his current position in May 2008, “just before the world came to a stop.” But American Express had been evolving in such a way that it has been better able to ride out the storm. ITs vision was of becoming the world leader at service.

That has important implications for his role at the company. “I am lucky to have a role that requires both breadth and depth. The depth is in channel ownership, for example direct mail, inserts and face-to-face, which I have direct accountability for. The breadth is that I look across all channels. That is one of the reasons I was hired, because of my the breadth of my previous experience,” he says.

One of the key differences in his current job is the non-data aspects it involves. “Leadership is a subject that is taken very seriously at American Express and I have to say that the main aspect of my role is in providing leadership to both my immediate team and the broader business,” he says.

Although declaring himself no expert at leadership, Lewis argues that it is a skill that can be learned like any other. “The more you work at it, the better you get,” he argues. Having the classic traits of the charismatic leader “is not the be-all and end-all” and may get in the way of the bigger picture.

There is a certain symmetry in having started out at a big direct marketing company at the height of the consumer boom, only to move to a big brand at the start of the crunch. There is even more in how the company views its members, says Lewis: “AmEx is one of the few marketing organisations that I think gets the appropriate blend between the emotional brand building side of marketing and the rational data-driven side of marketing.”

Stuart Lewis is a keynote speaker at the Data Summit 2010 www.thedatasummit.co.uk

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