Building Successful Businesses podcast: Duncan Painter, Ep3

Read Time: Min

How many customers are owned by your CEO? In our latest Building Successful Businesses podcast episode, we chat to Duncan Painter about why dashboards are out and why CEOs should have a hands-on view of clients.

Listen to Episode 3.3: 

Available on Apple Podcasts:


Fiona: Welcome to our third episode, talking to Duncan Painter, founder of ClarityBlue and CEO of Ascential plc, which both offer insights and data to help companies and brands with decision-making. I asked Duncan how he thinks the role of data and data services companies is changing in a world where we now have more data than ever, but also more volatility and uncertainty to navigate.

Duncan: Yeah, so I think it’s a great question and I suppose it comes down to the fundamental philosophy of what the businesses are trying to do. You know, for me, I think data is quite a low-value commodity product which may or may not describe facts about the business or the problem you’re trying to solve. Quite often it doesn’t even give you facts, it will give you elements to facts. I think where the true value-add has remained in the industry since day one, and it is the gold that everyone has to get to, is how do you refine data into actionable information, you know, stuff that can really make a difference to that business’s success. And I think in today’s world, Fiona, that’s where the execution of that is now automated.

You know, if you went back to the old Airbus concepts of fly-by-wire, what we are trying to build is environments for our customers where the machines are taking on most of that day-to-day course correction or adjustment or actions. Therefore, the job of us and the people using the products that we create with that information is about how they’re realigning levers and getting it strategically pointing in the direction where they feel they’re going to optimise their business most. But it’s not about taking a dashboard and from a dashboard they’re making decisions.

I mean, the point that we make to people today is, if you think about the Amazon environment we work in, Amazon had this fabulous term for 10 years, which was ‘hands off the keyboard’. They didn’t want the humans involved, they wanted the machines making the decisions. Well, for our business we put it to clients: “If you honestly want us to create a dashboard for you, you’re already too slow because the other side is going at machine speed and isn’t waiting for you to make choices.” That I think is the future and has been for some time. To give you a sense of that, on Black Friday, our execution platform for the brands we work for made 55 million changes in that 12-hour period to try and optimise our clients’ products to win on that day. That gives you a sense of what today’s really advanced data systems have to be able to do.

Fiona: Yeah. You can’t compete with that, with a team of four people trying to tweak it.

Duncan: So, if you kept looking at the dashboard, you imagine how many tens of millions of decisions would be waiting, right? So don’t get me wrong, good reporting and visibility and allowing people to make those strategic trend choices, products have got to bring that all out. But to me, those now are really hygiene factors.

Fiona: Then in terms of input data and particularly around customer data as well, there seems to be lots of future-gazing around the fact that people are going to be more willing to share data. Then on the other side, that people are going to be less willing to share data. If you were to look into a crystal ball, what would you see over the next 5 or 10 years? The trend around customer data?

Duncan: Look, I think the reality is the one thing that has not changed in 30 years is that government and regulatory bodies will spend more and more time getting privacy for people. That is not changing and never has. In fact, all the time I’ve been in this industry, new directives have come through permanently on how to bring more and more tightness around how information can be used. And that’s a good thing in my view. The second side to that though is that the companies that will win the most are the ones where, as you say, people are very happily willing to trade their information because they really want the service that that company offers.

And the best example I can give of that, Fiona, and I think it’s quite stark, is that today on the internet there are two very, very large advertising companies. One is Facebook, one is Amazon. Facebook has very little first-party data, so your personal data that you have approved them to have. Most people in the Facebook world are anonymous, and the targeting is done off of effectively cookies. Cookies will go because effectively you’ve never really given your consent to have all that targeting and your information used in that way. And even if you have, it’ll be given very lightly in the main, right?

Whereas with Amazon, you know, you are buying a service from them where you are getting services delivered to a very personal place, quite often your house or whatever, to which that service outweighs your concerns of giving out that information because you’re getting so much more for the exchange.

Therefore over the next five years, which of those companies is going to prosper and which one’s going to find it harder? Well, the one that’s going to prosper is the one that has the first-party data. I think our hypothesis of the company we’ve created was that in the next 10 years, we only want to be enabling manufacturers and brand or product creators – because they’re our core customer set – we want to enable them into environments where consumers are willingly and happily revealing their information. Our job is to leverage that information on the right side of the walled garden. You’re going to see anyone who’s totally dependent on less invasive, but you could argue very invasive, techniques to get people’s usage and digital footprints, are not going to do very well in the next 10 years.

Fiona: It sounds like you changed your business strategy to think about how you can best help your customers with that focus on first-party data. As you scale, how do you keep that customer at the heart of your business strategy, especially when you have so many various stakeholders?

Duncan: For us, we have multiple customers. Our clients today are major brand manufacturers, people like Procter & Gamble or Unilever or these kinds of brands. Obviously, we have our customer focus to keep focused on those customers because they’re our customers. Then in order to make them successful, we have to have really good partnerships with the marketplaces so they become our customers’ customer. And then, just to make it even more complicated, we have to really understand the marketplaces’ customer who is at the end of the day, the consumer.

So in our business, we’re trying to maintain a real focus across three sets of customers in order for our customers to be successful. So the only way I have found to focus on the customer is number one, senior leaders have to sponsor clients and have to be engaged with clients. So, for 35 years, that’s been the case for myself, even today. So, I have six of our major clients that I’m personally sponsoring. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that I roll up when the contract gets signed once every X years. What that means is you are actively engaged with that customer week in, week out, month in, month out. It helps me stay phenomenally close to the challenges our customers have. It helps me really understand the challenges that my people have in supporting those customers.

As you alluded to earlier, changes we may have made in a workshop room where it seemed a good idea at the time when we drew it up on that wall make sense until of course you present it to a customer and you think, “Oh, my god, you know, who had that idea?” Only realising it was probably you.

So, by keeping that tightness in the day-to-day work of customers and more importantly, turning up when things aren’t going well. Not everything goes well all of the time, so having that direct engagement helps. That then helps me to think constantly about what is the benefit to that partner that they’re working with and vice versa, how are we making sure our brand is getting the best out of that relationship?

Then the third aspect of that is, how do we then work with those marketplaces to help them help us understand, in a privacy-driven world, their consumer behaviour and how they can better serve those consumers? That’s the sort of day-to-day technique that we use, and we are calibrating constantly to what is happening with consumers. Therefore, how is each marketplace adapting to that? Which ones do we think will win? Which ones do we think will lose? So, we can ensure our customer is optimising their decisions, and their capital about who, where, and why.

Fiona: But it sounds like having that focus from the senior team on customers and not separating yourself one step removed, sounds like that makes a big impact.

Duncan: It’s massive. You know, and I’ll say this, everyone is very brave in a head office meeting room. People tend to be slightly less forthright when they get out to the customer, and the customer explains quite clearly why that great idea really isn’t working for them. For me, I think that’s how you keep an organisation at the heart of innovation as well. We innovate because we watch the challenges our clients are having. We think about how we could break those barriers down. If you can keep a very, very tight focus in your business on that challenge, certainly for us and certainly for me, it means that the strategy sessions don’t tend to have to last too long.

Fiona: Does being a listed business impact that at all?

Duncan: Oh, I’m sure if you wanted it to, it could definitely impact it. You know, there are definitely periods, for instance, where we have quite a big commitment to our corporate governance, which is right, and the time we have to commit to that. But I think what I would say is it comes back to your discipline around, challenging constantly. Are we doing that because it’s required, or are we doing that because a group of those people in that particular area, really want to go to that standard? I think that’s something we challenge pretty regularly, which is no, no, we want 99% of our work product every day to go to serving customers.

Fiona: Fantastic to hear Duncan Painter discussing how to keep customers at the heart of your business, whether you’re a listed company or not. In the next episode, we discuss why M&A is a dangerous sport and his coaching techniques for getting it right.

Listen to the next episode here:

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

View Full Profile

ECI announce close of latest fund

Find out more