Marriage of minds

Harvesting intelligent data about customers has increasingly become vital to the marketing function. Here, three CMOs and their information technology and data counterparts reveal how they have made dynamic partnerships.


keith weed

Keith Weed joined Unilever in 1983 and, after a variety of global and regional management and marketing roles, has been the company’s chief marketing and communications officer since March 2010.

“Before being appointed CMO, I ran some large businesses within Unilever, so I was aware of IT and the chief information officer. What has changed over the last 10 years is that we now see IT more as a source of competitive advantage, rather than a cost.

I was clear from the start that I needed IT at the table to achieve our vision. I could see straight away that the growth of digital and social media offered incredibly exciting opportunities to foster dialogue and generate brand advocacy. But while we already had pockets of great success, there was an opportunity to do more – and Mark McClennon understood this. It was a realisation that if we wanted to fulfil our ambition of being one of the best marketing companies in the world, we needed to reposition IT from necessary evil to true competitive advantage. We knew that building a stronger information capability was going to be pivotal for us.

Up close and personal: Members of the technology and marketing teams at Unilever often sit together

One of my secrets is that I’m an engineer by training so the world of technology isn’t that foreign to me. Also, from the start we had a shared vision for what we wanted to achieve, so communication was fairly straightforward. Mark is an integral part of my team; his insight is always welcome and expected.

One of the big differences is around speed. We have a great IT team but they were often used to working to the beat of an internal drum – in marketing, we have to move at the pace of our consumers, which is much more real time. We are now finding new ways of working that enable us to turn around activities in days and weeks, rather than months and years, which is exactly what we need.

I think of Mark as part of my core team so we’ll speak often. I can’t really see how any business hoping to be successful these days can do it without IT at its side.”

mark mclennon

Mark McClennon has been chief information officer at Unilever since January 2011. He was previously vice-president, head of IT for Unilever in North America.

“The day that Keith was announced as CMO he called me and said he had the greatest role ever for me: to help him take marketing in Unilever to the next level, with technology at the heart of many of the changes. At the time I was CIO of our North American business and fairly settled in the US, but the role was too good to turn down.

To work successfully, we had to make it a true partnership. From day one, the whole of the senior marketing leadership embraced the idea of working closely.

This ensured that IT had a seat at the table for all the core business debates and that we were not an afterthought. Wherever possible we sit in the marketing team rather than separately, and I probably speak to Keith or someone in his marketing leadership team on a daily basis.

There is this fallacy of IT people sitting in basements surrounded by dismantled PCs. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career mostly in IT – the last four on the board in a $10bn organisation – mainly working on real business issues. Most of my peers in Unilever IT have similar backgrounds and all my team members move easily between IT and marketing.

One of the biggest cultural differences between the functions is the approach to experimentation. In a digital world, you have to be able to experiment. Many of us in IT had lost the ability to do this as the core of our agenda had been largely around large-scale internal programmes. Working closely with the marketing team has helped us to rediscover a passion for the art of the possible within IT and push back the boundaries.”

Virgin Media


Nigel Gilbert, CMO, was appointed in January 2011 to set up Virgin Media’s new customer marketing organisation. Nigel was previously marketing director at Lloyds Banking Group, where he worked with Michael Payne, who now reports to him as director of customer insight.

“When I was group marketing director at Lloyds TSB working with Michael, we were developing some of the things that we’ve now put into practice here at Virgin Media. To be a customer-centric organisation is undoubtedly predicated by having the best possible intelligence about the customer – in other words, great data. It was with the idea of building better relationships with customers that we structured the customer marketing organisation as it is now.

You can imagine at somewhere like Lloyds I did have to change quite a lot to achieve what we achieved, whereas here the door was open and I didn’t have the same problems. What I did have to do was give [the organisation] shape and a clear sense of purpose.

There are four very senior executives running the customer marketing organisation. The element concerned with developing strategic customer insights and foresight is run by Michael. He also manages the practical side of that, which is developing one-to-one marketing.

The CMO team works pretty tightly together. There isn’t someone who does data and someone who does marketing – they are inextricably linked. One of the reasons we structured it as we did is that not only does Michael have access to and is marshalling all key customer data, he is also putting it into practice through one-to-one marketing.

virgin media
Not on remote control: Marketers at Virgin Media meet with the IT team weekly to review plans

We spend a considerable amount of money on direct marketing and direct response activity so, with Michael, it’s not a back-room move – [the data] is practically utilised and driven into the sort of direct marketing you might receive yourself.

I joined Virgin Media early in 2011 and the first thing I was asked to look at was the customer strategy. A customer strategy is, at its simplest, driving sustainable growth through customer advocacy, which requires you to analyse your data and understand your customers in a way that perhaps hadn’t been done in-depth before. In so doing, you actually give reason and purpose to the whole of customer marketing – and hopefully to the organisation as a whole.”

michael payne

Michael Payne is director of customer insight at Virgin Media, and heads up the company’s marketing data team, which sits within the customer marketing organisation. Michael was previously one-to-one marketing director in the retail division at Lloyds Banking Group.

“The traditional model is that IT and the CMO rarely talk, but our view at Virgin Media is that they are natural bedfellows. The more enlightened CMOs view data as a strategic marketing advantage and, if you take that view, how we organise our data for marketing and for strategic purposes becomes fundamental.

A key difference from other organisations I have worked with in the past is that, for example, we meet with our IT counterparts on a weekly basis to review our plans and adjustments to make sure we are continually aligned. But we also talk at the highest level at Nigel’s CMO leadership meetings about the role that data plays strategically.

We don’t just talk about how the brand is doing – it is how the role of our data and our science is driving our performance. It is a much broader level of discussion than I’ve seen in more traditional organisations and that is the fundamental difference – it is part of our strategic DNA rather than an afterthought.

Nigel and I meet daily to check how things are, both in terms of performance of our data-driven part of the operations right down to more strategically. He and I have just attended one of our big internal executive committees to talk about how we drive growth. We work daily but also strategically together.

The language of the organisation has changed from a few years ago. The organisation will talk within the marketing department about outcomes and hard data points, and most of marketing will understand how to write a data brief as well as a creative brief. We are seeing a lot more [marketers] understanding both the power of the data strategically and being able to talk in terms of data-driven outcomes.

The more organisations want to do this and talk about it in terms of hard outcomes and the data underpinning that, the more an organisation embraces it. It’s about changing their language as well as changing their behaviour.”


todd barr

Todd Barr joined open source enterprise content management company Alfresco as CMO in September 2010, leading the company’s global marketing operations.

“While it is a blessing to have data, I am now worried about systems integration. I never had to worry about that before. Data is good and, theoretically, we can make better decisions because of it, but you have to get the systems integrated correctly and that is a big issue. I have had to learn a lot more about data analytics, integration and models, and I have got myself educated about APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), so I can at least be smart when I talk to my colleague Feidhlim O’Neill and the IT folks.

Misunderstanding between marketing and IT comes about on really simple things like how we measure a particular metric. For example, we have a regular marketing report that I have been reading for months and I suddenly realised the way IT was thinking of a metric was different to the way I was thinking of that metric. Part of that is because marketing isn’t able to articulate to IT exactly what we are looking for – we have never had data before now to really understand how to do that. You have to get to a point of common understanding of what questions you are trying to answer.

Seamless: System integration at Alfresco is so vital that CMO Todd Barr has recruited a developer for his team

The other big change is that developers have a skill set that I have to have on the marketing team now because integrating systems with our website is so important. I actually have a developer on our marketing staff now and that is a big change – we are not just relying on Feidhlim and the IT team for all our technical resources. I also have a guy on my team who manages our marketing technologies – his job is to work with IT on a day-to-day basis. Effectively I have my own ‘chief executive officer of marketing’.

To make the relationship between IT and marketing work well, marketing needs to understand that things can’t happen overnight. Marketers are used to going online and working with Google analytics and getting data when they want, but that isn’t always the case when you’re integrating CRM systems and marketing automation systems. Equally, IT needs to understand that marketers are relatively new to that level of reporting and metrics, so they need to help us through that process.”


Feidhlim O’Neill, vice-president of operations at Alfresco, joined the company in June 2011 and is responsible for all operational functions within technology.

“In the last three to six months, we have been working a lot more closely with Todd’s team. The key thing from a processing and integration perspective is data flow and we have been able to work with those guys to completely automate it.

There has been a kind of a stepping up [of skills] on both sides. We are basically saying we are not going to dictate to marketing what solutions they have to use, but that means they have to be confident and develop those technical skills, so Todd himself hires people with technical skills and embeds those skills within the marketing team.

Part of the problem previously was IT dictating back to marketing saying ‘here’s your metrics, here’s your reports’, because that meant we were making a judgement call. Some of the metrics we were delivering were not actually interesting to Todd and didn’t help him make any better investment decisions. It has worked a lot better in the last few months because the marketing guys set up and create manual reports and say ‘this is what we want to see, this is what it means to us and this is what we define as a lead’ rather than how we were defining it. That has created a two-way street – some of these reports and the analysis and nomenclature has changed and their understanding of it has changed as we have gone through the process.

Most of our work is done with the technologists on Todd’s team but they are embedded in my team, and the people on my team who are focused on marketing are embedded within the marketing team, so there is a lot of cross-over. Todd and I don’t have a huge amount of interaction but we catch up and meet every couple of months.”

Sponsored viewpoint

william mellis

sky iq

William Mellis
Managing director
Sky IQ

The consumer has changed and interacts more frequently now through technological means, leaving a digital footprint wherever they go. Coupled with this, the growth of social media means that consumers are expressing their preferences about what they like and don’t like.

With more ways to communicate with consumers and more ways to listen to consumer opinion, brands are presented with deeper, more agile means of understanding consumer behaviours cross-platform. There is a whole load of data out there on consumers, and an opportunity for marketers to get closer to the consumer than ever before.

The role of data and IT in marketing is certainly growing quickly. We tend to work with brands’ sales and marketing functions and we are seeing an increasing number of people in the marketing function with a responsibility for data. Marketers are changing and there is definitely a growing desire for measurement.

We will continue to see IT and marketing working more closely together and start to see IT become embedded in the marketing function. There is also a growing role for agencies – they are being called on to help marketers understand what is happening in the social media space.

Of course there are also challenges. One is managing the sheer volume of available data. Sifting through that to get intelligence and insight is key but how do you drive value from that and interpret it? Another challenge lies in bringing all the data together. We spend quite a lot of our time helping brands which use multiple data sources to work out which data belongs to the same consumer. Joining this data up is essential to drive one-to-one marketing.

Another big opportunity lies in real time, and particularly in real-time learning, allowing brands to live test what works and what doesn’t before rolling out larger campaigns.

There is significantly more data now for marketers to get their arms around, and the key question is how do they drive insight out of it? Brands that don’t start to embrace this, and which fail to bring in or partner with the necessary expertise to understand this, are putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage.


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