On the Sofa: with David Ellis

Welcome to our new series of posts, ‘On the Sofa’…our first episode is with David Ellis.

Introduction & questions by Belinda Collins (BC):

BC: It was so nice to feel a sense of normality return last week, I jumped in the car (not the train, yes easy does it!) and drove into Central London, to Farringdon, a familiar and old hunting ground of mine and spent some time with David and other Station10 colleagues in the office. Yes you read correctly in the actual office, real people, face to face and 3D not just 2D on a screen. It was refreshing, invigorating and also a test for the old interpersonal skills they’ve been shelved for the last however long.  

We’ve done a lot of work over the last year but we’ve not done much just generally chatting – getting to know people through informal and candid conversation. Virtual meetings have their merit and are efficient and effective, most of the time, but they aren’t personable, but nothing beats a sit down with a cup of tea (peppermint for me, Earl Grey for David) and a good natter. 

Here are some of my questions and things we covered in our discussion:

Tell me a bit more about your digital data journey to date? Your career – where did you start, what did you do? 

My journey starts in advertising. As a graduate, I was unhealthily obsessed with getting into advertising, which I found fascinating.  Actually, what I discovered fairly quickly was I was actually fascinated with understanding customers and the insight into their thoughts, feelings and behaviours.  At the same time, I also noticed there was a new thing called “New Media”, which was where the future lay, and which was disrupting how advertising would work.  So, I started working in digital and web experiences. Before long, I suggested that it would be good to analyse how customers behave on web sites, and set up a department to do that. That was nearly 25 years ago, and I have been doing that, in various places ever since.

About 10 years ago, I noticed that digital itself was transforming.  So, while we had spoken about the web, and web analytics, actually the future was multichannel.  Whether that was digital, apps, physical, stores, call centres, etc.  What you needed was to understand the complete customer journey. That’s when I set up Station10, and we have been helping clients understand their customers, and to make the most out of their data, ever since.

David Ellis

BC: When people talk about ‘digital’ what does that mean to you? 

It means multichannel.  The current idea that companies that have been successful in lockdown are digital is a misnomer; several of our clients, from travel, to financial services, to retail, and across geographies too, have said they have seen a significant increase in call centre activity, alongside digital. Whether that’s for reassurance that a product will be available or refundable if affected by Covid, whether that’s helping with assisted digital journeys for those who aren’t used to digital, whether that’s live chat to help customers through a transaction journey, whether that’s just because they want to talk to someone, because they haven’t been out of the house for days, the last year has been about the multichannel revolution.  Not a digital revolution.

David Ellis

BC: How has covid impacted the challenges you face in the digital world, on a regional and channel level in particular? 

I think there are several ways in which Covid is impacting the world.  At a straight-forward level, it has accelerated the existing trends about multichannel and what’s called the shift to digital. It’s true to say it’s a shift to digital, but it’s definitely multichannel.

Covid has also accelerated how important data is, but ironically at the same time when data is being disrupted. The data deprecation trends, which have nothing to do with Covid, are actually changing how you collect data in the first place; consent and permission for gathering data. This is a challenge every organisation currently has, but it has made it a board level discussion. This has particular regional flavours. Germany has a much more consent-based approach to data already, and has lower rates, so is arguably in a better position to understand how to manage in a more data-sparse environment; some eastern European countries have gone one step further – Estonia has a fascinating approach, where personal data can only be used by the authorities with the explicit consent of the individual. 

David Ellis

BC: I remember the fascinating story of Estonia well, as we did a blog on this very topic in 2020 when we were discussing Data Ethics and Data Governance and how the two collide: David Ellis discusses – data laws, data governance and data ethics… – Station10 

Sorry I interrupted carry on…

No that’s fine – I was just about to say it’s well worth understanding these trends, and it’s one of the reasons why data ethics will be one of the growth areas in the next 2-3 years.

But data will be essential for how businesses recover, or accelerate. It’s regarded as one of, if not the, key business asset in order to bounce back from Covid. But if the data collection is suspect, then how do you evaluate your marketing campaigns? We will move away from “cookie-based” metrics, towards more “people-based” ones, and also change how we communicate and target customers.

Understanding the holistic view of the customer will be critical for that. But it’s also an opportunity. To start thinking about metrics like Customer Lifetime Value, not just visit conversion.

At the same time, business resilience will become critical. Covid has changed this; if you can’t deliver your products, or resource your people, because everyone is ill, how you make your business more resilient is now a board level discussion.

David Ellis

BC: What’s your vision for the future of digital? 

We are living in a unique time in history.  We are part of the fourth wave of data and insight innovation and advancement.  I could talk for hours on that, but each one has been characterised by computer advances.  This wave is enabled by, and characterised by, advances is predictive analytics, AI and ML.  It started around a decade ago with cloud computing reducing the cost of infrastructure, and the wave will continue for at least the next 10 years.

But it’s also just been supercharged by Covid.

This decade will define the future of humanity.  After the First World War, there was a great focus on fixing social issues, but also a sense of urgency, to get on with life, to make up for lost time, and to do amazing things. This led to great advances in architecture and design (the skyscrapers of New York, Chrysler and Empire State, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Cole Porter, jazz, Frieda Kahlo, Picasso and Dali in art), but was also driven by technology (advances in aviation and passenger aircraft, automotive advances, the golden age of rail travel, TV, radio). All of these were happening anyway, but were supercharged by the prolonged recession from the First World War and Spanish Flu.

On the back of Covid, there will be a similar sense of vibrancy and urgency. When they are allowed to again (and it seems within touching distance now), people will be desperate to see each other, and to travel. And this time, rather than physical architecture and the internal combustion engine, the key drivers will be digital and multichannel “architecture” and the engine of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

But I also think a lot will need to change.  Business resilience also speaks to sustainability. And digital will have its own sustainable “moment”.  The narrative so far for digital is that’s a good thing, because it reduces pollution compared to the alternative ways of doing things; going to a meeting vs Zoom. But it’s not as clear cut as that, and in any event, that narrative doesn’t work when digital is the new normal; then you have to start being more efficient with digital itself.

At the moment, “the Internet” and data account for about 2-3% of global electricity consumption. By 2030, that figure will be 8%. To put that in context, that will be more than the entire annual electricity consumption of the US.  Already, cryptocurrency accounts for 0.5% of electricity consumption.  Or more than the entire consumption of Chile.

There will be a huge demand for more climate-friendly approaches.  What will happen to global conferences, like Adobe Summit or Max?

David Ellis

BC: What I find really interesting here are some key themes that seem to be emerging – for the industry I see there is a Commercial theme all focused on ‘business resilience’ when it comes to all parts of the operation from understanding your customers, to analytics and insight, managing data in light of governance and law. Notwithstanding the new and emerging pieces coming directly from COVID like the change of habits leading to data insight and re-learnings, the impact of outsourcing operations and now managing and utilising (positivity) the data that comes from remote working to help with employee productivity and wellbeing.  

Then on the flip side we have a huge emerging piece on really where is the data and sustainability piece going; tackling the carbon and environmental impact of data, ethically focused businesses leading with purpose and values, those businesses who are thriving on trust and customer loyalty through explicit data uses. So we’ve almost got a real split between Commercial Business Resilience and Cultural and Sustainable Data Management.  

Some really exciting topics for us to lead on and shape direction on for the industry and for our clients.  

Finally tell me – where do you go to for inspiration and learning? 

I am a bit of a history buff. I love how right through human history, we have adapted and innovated, so I’m always fascinated by that. As you can probably tell. But I’m also interested in the art of the possible. For this, I love an example from Harry Potter. In one of the books, there is the Marauder’s Map, which tracks where people are on a map of Hogwarts, and allows the user of the map to see where both friend and foe alike are. When this was written in the late 1990s, this was simply the work of fiction, and so magical. Now, it’s just Find My iPhone, or Life360 apps. It’s standard. I love how to think how we can turn fiction or what is thought of as magical into the possible.

David Ellis

BC: Thanks a lot for reading Series 1, Part 1 of “On the sofa”, with Belinda Collins, and my guest David Ellis.

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