Interview with Simon Esland, VP Decisioning Practice Lead at Merkle

“Customer data platforms (CDPs) will start to gain significant traction in the market and will form the basis of clients building their own private first party identity graphs to start to answer the challenges raised by the coming demise of third-party cookies.”

Hi Simon, please tell us how you arrived at Merkle and what was your journey in marketing like?

Simon Esland: I’ve joined Merkle from Vodafone Group where I led the global marketing decisioning programme. We implemented marketing decisioning across all of our EU Operating Companies to enable highly targeted 1-2-1 personalised communications with our customers. In 2015 developed a strategy that had been building for some time, that pre-defining an offer or communication for a customer wasn’t fit for purpose in a world where increasing amounts of contextual data was becoming available, much of it real time. So, we set off on a journey to find a better way to manage customer marketing programmes, which culminated in the marketing decisioning programme.

My journey into decision management came off the back of more than 15 years’ marketing experience. Early on I specialised in direct marketing, mainly direct mail in those days, as I enjoyed the fact that we could craft a communication targeted at a specific segment, based on our understanding of the audience, and get direct feedback via the response to the activity. The ability to experiment by changing something in the targeting or the communication, and then measuring its effect, was really motivating. As my marketing career developed, I was lucky to be able to supercharge that experience through the use of more sophisticated methods and technologies to improve the targeting, and a broader set of touchpoints to present the communication to the customer. Which takes us full circle to 2015, when the always-on marketing decisioning programme kicked off in Vodafone.

How did the COVID-19 related disruptions affect your work-life balance? Which technologies and hygiene helped you stay on top of your business?

Simon Esland: Having to home school three young children has not come without its challenges. Early on my wife and I realised that we had to implement a lot of structure to the working day – so that our kids could get some sort of education and so that we could continue to work effectively. It’s meant that we have strict start times to the day – blocked out time over lunch when we try to get some time outside (not always easy at the moment living in a Northern European climate) and hard cut-offs at the end of the day too. Although, that sometimes means evenings are used to catch up on things we didn’t get chance to get to during the day.

Initially there was an explosion in work comms across multiple channels – emails, Teams IM, WhatsApp messages, and back-to-back video calls. As enforced homeworking has continued, I get the feeling that people have found best fit methods that work for them. I’m a strong believer in asynchronous communications, which means I’m unlikely to respond in the moment to a message, but rather spend times during the day on focused work with my mail and messaging apps closed, and then at other times respond to messages and calls that have come in. Of course, I’m available for those urgent conversations, but compartmentalising between different types of work helps me be productive and work effectively.

Tell us more about Merkle’s partnership with Pega — what kind of business collaboration should your customers be jointly looking at in 2021?

Simon Esland: Merkle is a long-time partner of Pega’s and we have collaborated on some of the largest implementations of Pega Marketing and Customer Decision Hub in the world. This year we will continue to work with Pega to enable our customers to apply even greater science to marketing decisions through the use of predictive and adaptive analytics that self-optimise, via machine learning. We’ll help our clients automate even more of the marketing process to allow marketers to spend time evaluating and optimising their programmes.  I like to think of it as like a pilot in a cockpit, adjusting levers to keep the plane in flight, rather than a bird flapping its wings. We’ll also work hard to help our customers to deliver true personalisation at scale especially, but not limited to, digital channels, and with some leading customers explore how to extend marketing decisioning into people based paid media channels.

How does Pega’s Marketing Automation / Martech offerings align with Merkle’s CX services?

Simon Esland: Merkle’s 2021 CXM imperatives talk of data transformation, digital transformation and the adaptive organisation being at the heart of achieving customer experience excellence. The Pega Marketing and Customer Decision Hub is complementary to our CXM vision – taking data from across the enterprise, converting it into insights via smart analytics and then executing highly relevant communications for the customer, based on what’s important to them right now, in any touchpoint the customer chooses to engage in.

The Pega toolbox can help clients accelerate their digital transformation – by creating highly relevant, contextual, and consistent experiences across all their digital properties, and by automating and enabling back-end processes to ensure a seamless end-to-end digital experience. Using new capabilities such as NBA Designer and 121 Operations Manager helps clients to introduce agility and speed to their marketing operations so they can adapt and adjust to changing customer needs.

Your predictions for martech in 2021 and how should CMOs gear up for the changing times?

Simon Esland: I think we’ll continue to see the consolidation of martech vendors, as the large players build ever more capable marketing clouds. Customer data platforms (CDPs) will start to gain significant traction in the market and will form the basis of clients building their own private first party identity graphs to start to answer the challenges raised by the coming demise of 3rd party cookies. We’ll start to see growth in clients delivering personalisation at scale across owned and paid digital channels – where the offer and creative execution are both decisioned and rendered in real time to allow for same page presentation.

Most importantly, I believe we will see a recognition that these changes shouldn’t just be limited to marketing thinking or departments. They can and should inform wider operational and organisational changes throughout truly customer-centric businesses to remove old silos and ways of working which have become obsolete in the face of better digital and data transformational change. For CMOs, this process is not about putting digital first in a media plan, having a better website, or a set of customers coming to a business online. The next wave of digital transformation is truly about business and operating transformation, thinking about new ways to meet customers where they want to engage, and putting the customer’s motivations before the brand by aligning the whole business around that common goal.

Originally published on

Phillip Malone

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