Data leaders’ insights: Julian Elliott
The first person to take part in our thought leadership series is Julian Elliott. Julian is a Chief Data Officer with a demonstrable track record of delivering data-driven transformation projects across a range of industries, while working for the likes of British Gas, Direct Line Group, Dentsu Aegis Network and Lloyds Bank. Julian has a strong background in consulting within the areas of Data Strategy, Advanced Analytics, Data Governance, Innovation and Marketing Effectiveness.
Julian cites David Attenborough as a big influence on him from a very early age – and was always very curious about the physical world and how things worked; BBC natural history programmes showed there was a big world outside to explore and understand. This progressed to a passion for technology and he found the Victorian era in particular as a fascinating period, particularly how they leveraged technology and maximised the use of what was available to them, much of which is used in different forms and iterations today. An example of this would be with train travel; many train journeys today in the UK are still a similar duration to those in Victorian railway timetables. Another example of the Victorians utilising advanced technology for its time, can be seen with the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol.
Julian graduated with a degree in Computer Systems Engineering at the University of Warwick in 1991. He started his career working at Schlumberger initially working in Oil & Gas Exploration and moved via product development to become a Marketing and Business Development specialist. Schlumberger culture believed in empowering people and giving them true responsibility – right from the start of their careers – thus allowing Julian to make mistakes and learn valuable lessons.
Following this he worked as a strategy consultant for LEK where he had exposure to several different companies and sectors, spotting the commonalities between many of the challenges they face. He also learnt that many companies struggle to solve their problems by themselves due to the fact they are emotionally attached and involved in the day-to-day and that by taking a logical, impartial and analytical view, major strategy issues are far more likely to be resolved.
Julian’s career really took off when he joined Lloyds Bank first as the Head of Strategy for Retail Banking, during his time in this role he realised they had very little true understanding of how marketing was performing and saw an opportunity to build a group-wide ‘marketing effectiveness’ function which he ran as the Head of Marketing Effectiveness. This was a four-year role where he implemented a set of marketing “power tools”, many were analytics tools; embedded them across the business and allowed them to answer questions many organisation failed to answer; how much should be spent on marketing and how it should be spilt across brands, products, channels, marketing activities etc. This also meant addressing customer experience issues which could undermine the brand and drive up operational costs, whilst reducing sales opportunities.
Next, Julian worked as Insights Director at British Gas. He quickly realised upon arrival the company was taking a product-centric approach and treating all customers in the same way. By splitting their customer base into segments and taking senior stakeholders on a journey, he showed them the differences in each of the segments’ behaviour, and their relative financial value to the business. Following this, British Gas started to take a more customer-centric, value-based approach, where they started to realise far more about their customers thus allowing them to offer new propositions and create new revenue streams. This was underpinned by increasingly sophisticated and more granular analytics tools, which combined to produce real-time personalised recommendations for customers (across touch points).
Julian arrived at Direct Line Group during a period of ‘cutting the umbilical’ from RBS and floating independently on the London Stock Exchange. This meant that the business was forced to make mission critical decisions on a regular basis. This obligation to make decisions, newfound ability to set strategy and direction, coupled with the confidence Julian had gained from his previous roles, allowed him to build a strong relationship with the executive board and facilitate their move into becoming more of a data-driven business… in key areas like marketing effectiveness and multi-channel customer experience, whilst the sector was rapidly being disrupted by price comparison websites.
Similarly, when Julian joined Dentsu Aegis Network, a global leader within the marketing and advertising agency, they had recently endured a period of uncertainty, having lost a few big pitches they had expected to win. This led to an awareness across the senior board that they needed to make different and better decisions and change the way they were doing some things otherwise, without a strong data capability, over time, they risked losing even more market share to competitors. Julian’s role included creating their first viable Data Strategy and turning Data from being an under-utilised ‘extra’ into a critical aspect of their decision making process – an indication of this commitment was the fact the CEO of the group did not miss a single data strategy meeting during Julian’s 3-year tenure. The Data Strategy gave the company the confidence to create a ‘first mover’ advantage and led to a brand-new CRM line of business which is now one of Dentsu’s three major global revenue streams.
Since leaving Dentsu, Julian has been consulting with several businesses and has realised that many organisations do not have a data strategy, or even a strategy that is ‘fit for purpose’. During these engagements he always tries to answer two key questions; in the future, where the business will compete and how they will compete? Once this is established, he identifies the key data capabilities will make a genuine difference and move them forward. Julian noted that most businesses are innovating the technological world, with data but often in silos. Unless these pockets of good work are unified across the whole business, under a viable data strategy, organisations risk missing out on huge opportunities, or becoming vulnerable to disruption.
Regarding the wider market, there are several things that really excite Julian, such as the democratisation of data. The advancement of many data visualisation tools such as Tableau, Looker and PowerBI have made data far more easily visible and digestible. Which leads to a change in culture, increasingly being far more data-driven and made closer to the point of action / implementation. Prior to this, many businesses were making decisions remotely based on what they thought was reality, based on simple reports (often with time lag and small data sets). Big data allows anyone in a business to know the world as it really is, in near real-time, thus reducing risk and making far more informed decisions.
There are many things that Julian has learnt during his career. One key piece of advice he would give to people at any stage of their career would be the power of a good mentor. Advice from someone not personally or emotionally invested in the daily tasks leads to a far clearer perspective, thus leading to better advice and increased access to accumulated wisdom.
Lastly, Julian communicated the importance and requirement for people to strike a balance between delivery of short- and medium-term value, whilst also ensuring foundations are being built for long term success. In data, for many organisations, having solid foundations can be the difference between success and failure – just think about cyber-security and data privacy. Without these foundations in place, organisations are constantly exposed to risk and unable to move on and deliver an advanced analytical agenda as part of the data strategy.