Agents of Change
The power of data
with Helen Hunter, Chief Technology Officer for Customer and Data at Sainsbury's
Our Agents of Change series with business leaders and pioneers talks of how to drive sustainable success in a changed world.
Agent3’s CEO, Clive Armitage, and Chief Technology Officer for Customer and Data at Sainsbury’s, Helen Hunter, discuss the importance and intersection of data in marketing, how the pandemic has shaped the current customer experience, and ponder what the future of data could look like for marketers.
Clive Armitage (00:07):
Hi I’m Clive Armitage, Agent3 CEO. I’m here today with Helen Hunter who is the Chief Technology Officer, Customer and Data at Sainsbury’s, and a Non-Executive Director at our parent company, Next 15. Welcome, Helen.
Helen Hunter (00:20):
It’s a thrill to be with you, Clive. Thanks for having me.
Clive Armitage (00:23):
Great to see you. You are part of our Agents of Change series, where we sit down and talk in this forum with senior executives who are either working in the technology industry or who have a role in making technology a competitive differentiator for the business they operate within. Given your background and your role today, it’s perfect for us to be talking about data. Before we jump into the questions I’ve got for you, if you could just tell me a bit more about yourself and let listeners and viewers know about your professional background, that’d be great.
Helen Hunter (00:54):
Thanks, Clive. Yes, I’m Chief Technology Officer for what we call our customer and data tech domain. What does that mean? In simple terms, it’s all the technology we’ve put in customer’s hands up and down the UK every day. That includes the Sainsbury’s food website, argos.co.uk, Nectar, Habitat, and our TU clothing brand. All the tech used by our marketeers and communicating with customers is the tech of contact centers used to communicate with customers. It’s also our corporate memory that we call Aspire. It’s the place where we co-mingle all of the data assets of our organization that are thrown off by our systems and processes every day.
Clive Armitage (01:37):
When we talk about data, really driving the competitive differentiation of a business, you’re at the heart of that with Sainsbury’s.
Helen Hunter (01:44):
That’s very kind of you to say so. I’m privileged to work with a team of phenomenal talent who’ve been at front and center of this mission for a good three or four years now.
Clive Armitage (01:54):
Perfect. Right. Look, before we get into the questions around data, we are starting these interviews with a similar question for most people and just exploring what’s changed for you professionally in the last a year or so, and how you cope with it on a personal and a professional basis.
Helen Hunter (02:11):
Yeah, so I think one of the reflections I’ve had about this fascinating period of time that we’ve navigated through as a business and me personally, is it’s called into question everything I believe to be true about leadership. It has challenged my old methodologies, my old beliefs, and my behaviors centered around how you show up as a leader at scale, but in this remote way, in which we lack that tangible intimacy with one another that we had before. I have a number of colleagues in my team now, into the hundreds, who I have never met and it really does cause you to question, I think, how you thoughtfully show up to best support that individual navigating an organization as large and complex as ours.
Helen Hunter (03:05):
I have always liked to think of myself as somebody who’s very on top of things, very much in control. Again, this has been a period of time in which we haven’t had that meta control of our destiny, have we? Again, at a very sort of deep and personal level, the acceptance to focus on the things that we can drive change within whilst not struggling to try and control the meta context of this issue we faced as a society has been really interesting to me.
Clive Armitage (03:39):
Yeah. I mean I think anyone who is used to being in rooms regularly with teams and working with those teams and then taken out of it over the last year or so, being removed from it and engaging in this way will absolutely empathize what you’ve said, it’s a really been a challenging shift. It’s going to be interesting to see how we shift back into what’s likely to come a hybrid world and then we’ll see where that leads us to in the future as we go back into offices. First question around data, you’ve talked about that intersection of data and using it for various functions within the business, including marketing. Do you think the importance of data has changed over the last year or has it been the case that data has been that lifeblood of businesses and it’s been getting more and more important and nothing has really changed in that regard. It’s just been part of the journey that getting more and more important, but COVID has accelerated it.
Helen Hunter (04:36):
Yeah. I think if you look at industry at large and you look at markets outside the UK, one of the things that you can say is a truism, and I don’t think I’m unique in this perspective, is that it is palpable that the businesses that are winning are those who are already on an agenda of digitization and driving fluidity and accessibility of data in the day-to-day operations of the organization and those organizations, frankly, that haven’t done that are now scrambling to, to accelerate their efforts in this area. One of the nuances that I stand behind and I think is deeply important is the difference between data and decisioning. And I think one of the things that has been fascinating through COVID, and we’ll probably come back to this theme, but the clarity of purpose and outcome that any individual team or enterprise has been driving for, driven by COVID, has really refined the decisions and organization the organization has been trying to make at any single point in time.
Helen Hunter (05:45):
And that has resulted in much clearer questions and really thrown into sharp relief the data there is required to answer the question at hand at that moment in time. So I observe a lot in industry, a lot of conversation about data and therefore the infrastructure said data should sit in and the importance of data quality, and I’m not being dismissive of any of those things. I believe passionately that data is an asset in and of itself, but it is to no use if there isn’t clarity of the decision that you are seeking to inflect as a result of having that information at your fingertips.
Clive Armitage (06:25):
I absolutely agree. And it calls to mind a quote that I heard from a CEO, a CIO, a few years back, that person said, “I don’t have a data problem, I’ve got a data management problem”, because what she was talking about was the ability to drive the insights she required to support the business processes from the data. Given the vast amounts of data that is proliferating, how do enterprises look at it and say, these are the data sets that we’ve got at our disposal, but what we need, to your point, is to get clarity from them. What’s the best way to manage that proliferation of data and get to the point where you’ve got the insights you need.
Helen Hunter (07:07):
Yeah, my eight year old has a comforter she’s had since a tiny baby, that’s a muslin cloth and she calls it Mimi. And she spells Mimi in the way that you spell M-I. There is a proliferation in any large organization of management information, and to my mind, it serves a similar purpose to Alice and her Mimi. It’s very comforting to have it at her disposal. It makes her feel better. Mimi offers no discernible value or purpose. It just makes her feel better having Mimi. So, not uncommon to many businesses I talk to.
Helen Hunter (07:48):
At the place I work today, we produce a lot of reportage and management information about what has happened, and that’s important if you’re really going to see with clarity, which data assets need to be pursued with vigor, you have to have line of sight to the commercial value you’re trying to realize. Which goes back to my previous point about what decision you’re trying to make. And look, human beings find this really difficult to do. So, a lot of investment I perceive in industry goes into understanding the tech stack needed to house the data and the importance of tracing data lineage back to source, and having discipline around data entities and their boundaries and their scope. This is all extremely important, but it isn’t an outcome, and an end in and of itself. It is absolutely critical to understand the value you’re trying to achieve and the decisions that you would need to improve in order to realize that value at greater scale or with greater frequency or with greater veracity.
Helen Hunter (09:06):
So, super important I think this idea of what commercial value…industry research, the Cagle annual survey will tell you that one of the reasons that professionals in this space leave their place of employment is because they feel they don’t get asked good questions. And this art of asking a good question is really hard to do. It takes really thoughtful, insightful, framing of the business question. So not why do customers lapse, but I’m seeking to optimize marketing campaigning to achieve the balance between profitability and retention. Yeah, real fine graining of business problem. And it also requires I think, a preparedness to operate in the granular. So you, like me, Clive will oftentimes think about things in aggregate, in average. And the point of the technology that we have at our disposal today is that we don’t need to labor under the tyranny of the average. We have the capacity and the computational power to see things at the most microscopic of level. And that’s really where a lot of data value resides, it’s in leveraging, as I say, an increase in frequency or granularity of choice. Now to do that, that’s not an IT problem per se, that starts to speak to the desire to sponsor a change in your processes or in what your people do. I often perceive now attention in what the tech is capable of executing, versus the business’s appetite to consume that capability.
Clive Armitage (11:01):
Yeah, that triumvirate of people, processes, and technology. What do you think for enterprises to get that balance right and not let one lead the other two too much? What are the characteristics of the businesses that get that approach right in your mind?
Helen Hunter (11:18):
I think it starts with a unifying purpose and outcome. And again, we’ve seen this in spades, in leading organizations through COVID haven’t we? The intimacy with purpose. So when, when the pandemic first started to emerge, we swarmed 6,000 analytical hours in my team in about 48 hours. And what we started to do was co-mingle information about colleague absence rates, the trading intensity of our stores, store opening hours, their catchment, what was being purchased with what frequency. And we were serving that up in pretty much real time to stakeholders of our business, to help them understand what could be done to support customers and colleagues through the emerging crisis. That’s the power of data that our galvanizing purpose has been throughout the pandemic to feed the nation, that has such clarity of purpose and outcome. It makes it simple to see the data attributes you need in pursuit of that purpose. That clearly isn’t always the case.
Clive Armitage (12:38):
No, I think we’re hearing you loud and clear. You start with the purpose you want and work back from there into the strategy. So looking a little bit further ahead, into the future and the way that the data available to us is going to change. One thing that marketers are thinking about is the death of the cookie and third-party data getting really hard to get hold of. What do you think that means for brands and how they’re going to adapt?
Yeah. Great. It’s a great question isn’t it? And it’s an ever shifting landscape as we see the regulatory environment shift and also what is palatable to customers shift. One of the things that I would reflect on is it surprises me how much information an organization has that can serve the organization better, that isn’t customer PII data per se. So I think too often we can frame the data opportunity as being the data used by marketers and campaigning. But there are so many more ways of serving customer outcomes more effectively, which speaks to enhancements to the back end operation of the organization, not just the front end marketing experience. And I think there’s something powerful for marketers because I am one by background, I’m not a tech person by background, in feeling permission to move upstream to understand how other information can be used to inflect the customer experience and the way the brand shows up for customers that doesn’t just rely on customer PII.
Permission I think is a really interesting one because I think for me, the future of permission-based data has got to be huge for us as marketers, where there’s some form of value exchange between the brand and the individual passing over their data. And I think for too long as marketers, we’ve taken it for granted that we’ll find data somehow. But we’ve got to think in a different way and say, “Actually, the people that we’re engaging with, they have to have a reason to help us market back to them more effectively.”
Yeah. So what is the value exchange? What is the utility? Because oftentimes we can frame value exchange in monetary terms, but I think Google Search is a great example of exemplary utility offering a value exchange for the customer, which means we all were willing to share very openly information about ourselves.
But yes, as marketers and often guardians of the customer experience and what is appropriate reputation in the eyes of the customer, I think really honing in on, “Am I offering fair value in return for this information?” You’ve seen us do it, a lot of it, things like the current fruit and veg challenge we’re running on Nectar is a great example of playing back to customers with value some of the information that we are very lucky to hold. And some of the banks have done equally admirable work in that space as well.
Well, we’re going to run out of time, so I’m going to ask you just to quickly look into Helen’s crystal ball and look into the future. And tell me what you think the most lasting impact will be of COVID as we hopefully come out of it and start to get into some kind of normality again? What kind of impact are we going to see being kept with us going forward?
I am very, very hopeful that what we have learned in industry at large is the power of unlocking the fully diverse talent at our disposal when we offer a different work paradigm. So if you take my community, which is made up of a lot of engineers, working in tech as I do, this way of working has really suited many of them. Writing high quality code at pace, this way of working suits that, that necessity of focus. It’s been very positive for colleagues with disability. It’s been very positive for colleagues with neurodiversity. It’s been very positive for me as a working mom with two young kids. I’m hoping that we can lock into this idea that what matters is the outcome, not the output or the throughput in pursuit of the outcome. And so that’s my wish, whether it will come through or not, I don’t know, Clive, but that’s what I’m rooting for.
Yeah. Well, amen to that. I think that sounds like something that’s worth rooting for. So with that, I’m going to say we’re out of time. So Helen, thanks for that. That’s been a great few minutes talking to you about your experience and your views on the questions I’ve asked you. So thanks for your time, and thanks to everyone who’s watched this. Hopefully you found it useful, and we’ll see you again next time. Thank you.