Speaker Interview: Ujjwal Sinha
Marni: Hi this is Marni Edelhart, Director of Content and Experience for the 2016 Marketing Analytics Conference in association with the Direct Marketing association. I am on the line with Ujjwal Sinha, formerly the VP of Business Intelligence and Analytics at Target. Ujjwal is a strategy, analytics and business intelligence specialist and a marketer with over 20 years of experience in the software and retail industries.
As a Vice President of Enterprise BI and Analytics at Target Corporation, Ujjwal led a 500+ person analytics team that was responsible for all BI and analytics functions, including predictive analytics, optimization, data science, big data, data quality, business intelligence and reporting across all business functions of the entire company. In earlier senior roles at Salesforce.com, Microsoft and McKinsey, Ujjwal managed a multimillion dollar budget and instilled operational excellence into business operations. Ujjwal holds a PhD and Masters in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Bachelor’s from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Hi, Ujjwal.
Ujjwal: Thank you for taking the time.
Marni: Unlike many brands who are only now delving into the art of advanced analytics, Target made some very early investments in this space, which of course resulted in a lot of learning. What are the biggest lessons you have taken from being an early adopter of modern marketing analytics?
Ujjwal: That’s a great question Marni. Being an early adopter helped Target in a number of ways. One of the most obvious ways where it was helpful for us was to establish Target as an analytics leader in the corporate world. This had multiple advantages. First of all, it helped us attract a lot of good talent. The buzz was out there in the market that Target is a leader which is doing a lot of good things and they are at the cutting-edge, and this painted a very good picture in the recruiting world where we were able to attract a lot of high profile and really impressive talent.
So that was one. The other thing is BI and analytics, as you know, (and this happens in all companies), is a field which requires a long gestation period. It takes a while to set up a data warehouse, it takes a while to set up big data infrastructure, and be able to get real ROI from your investments. So making these investments early, getting into the space early, helped Target capitalize on a number of these opportunities. So while a number of companies are making those investments today and are adopting analytics these days, Target has had a little bit of a head start in that respect.
Marni: It’s definitely one of the first companies that I heard about in this space. In some ways, modern data sources and improved computer processing capabilities have completely revamped the possibilities promised by data science, while marketing analytics is not a brand new field. Could you please outline the most impactful changes you’ve seen to what’s possible with analytics?
Ujjwal: Certainly. I think your question has several facets to it. So let me touch upon two of these. First of all, I think there is an element of what is new with marketing analytics or what is new with analytics in general these days. And secondly, to your point that marketing analytics is not new, how is it coming together? Let me comment on both.
So on the first one, as you know, the biggest thing that has happened over the last 10 years is we have a lot more data, meaning we are capturing a lot of data – data probably existed but was not systemically captured earlier. There are also some new data sources that did not exist earlier. So if you think about wearable devices or other such areas or even smartphones that did not exist several years ago, there is a lot of new data that has come in and it is a goldmine from a marketing perspective. So that’s one part that is new and highly impactful.
But on the flip side, like you said, the field of marketing analytics itself is not brand new. So the business problems or the business questions that are asked in marketing analytics, remain largely similar. So, the real question is, what is the innovation that is happening there? And I see an interesting situation in the corporate world. Every company and even within any company every function is in a different stage of evolution. But in general people still need to do a little bit more work in terms of connecting advanced analytics techniques with the business question. I am not saying that this is not being done, but I think there are opportunities to do this even better. And be able to extract maximum ROI from the investments made in technology, infrastructure and analytics. Am I making sense?
Marni: Yeah, you are definitely making sense. I am curious, do you think that as the conversation about marketing analytics gets more and more sort of hyped up, and spoken about as this is some sort of big new idea that everyone needs to dive into, do you think that there are old business practices that are being left in the dust that we shouldn’t forget about? Or do you think that people are sort of putting the cart before the horse in many cases as they build out their analytics programs?
Ujjwal: Yeah. I think we should not be doing that. In general, if I were to advise anyone, I would say that the traditional techniques for making business decisions, they may still be valid. I think with today’s data and analytics, we have an opportunity to make those decisions better, more timely, and perhaps more expansive. So I don’t think we should throw out any of the goodness that has been with the field for the past few decades. I think we should augment all of that experiential knowledge with data and information and help make better decisions.
Marni: That makes sense; balance in all things.
Marni: So what suggestions can you offer to those looking to build out the marketing analytics teams?
Ujjwal: I don’t think I know of any company which has completely cracked the code. Let me touch upon two or three aspects here which are interesting from my perspective. One is what kind of talent do you need in a marketing analytics team? And in my mind, this is the single biggest reason why marketing analytics teams haven’t realized their full potential yet. Traditionally, marketers would bring in a lot of business and marketing skills to the table. Analytics training requires a lot of investment in mathematics, statistics, optimization, perhaps even computer science, and when you talk about data sciences, that’s adding a completely new skill set to this mix. So when you think about a marketing analytics team, it needs to have a combination of both of these buckets. Both the technical skills as well as the marketing skills. And that’s where there is a challenge, because it’s usually hard to find both of these skill sets in the same individual. So most marketing analytics teams have to work around this problem by having both of these skill sets available in the team but with different individuals.
That brings me to my next topic or next bucket if you will, and that is the leadership of these marketing analytics teams. Leaders of marketing analytics teams have to be able to understand both aspects, and that’s where there is a void right now. I do not believe that in the corporate world, we have nearly enough experienced managers who understand both the business side and the analytics side in sufficient detail to be able to effectively manage these teams. Now, I am not talking about any specific organization or company. I am certain that in some cases people have it figured out, and they are doing well. But in general, in the corporate world, I think I see a shortage of leadership talent on the marketing analytics side.
Which also dovetails into my third bucket or observation here – where do you source these people from? And this is true for both leadership as well as talent within a team at various levels. That is a huge challenge, a practical challenge these days. Because as you know marketing analytics has exploded as a field in the last 10 years, and the supply of talent hasn’t really kept up with the demand. So if somebody wants to build a team these days it’s extremely hard to hire people. So what do you do? There are two or three ways that you can get around this problem. One is you can hire people from one of the fields and cross-train them on the other. Or you could hire some fresh graduates from some of the new academic programs that a number of universities have launched, bring them up to speed quickly, bring them up the learning curve quickly and give them more responsibility. Third, I’ve seen people go overseas. Find data analytics talent wherever it exists in the world, and use that to supplement your existing team. Making sense?
Marni: That makes perfect sense. I am curious if those three methods you just suggested, they sound like they are most applicable in sort of building out your team. But I am curious about the leadership challenge you mentioned. So if I am a CEO and I want to put in place an analytics team, who do I look to, to lead that? How do I look at my team and analyze who’s going to have the right skill set to take charge of that team?
Ujjwal: That’s a great question, and I wish I had a perfect answer for you. I do not. So if you are a CEO, who is looking to promote talent from within, or hire from the outside, my sense is that you should look for three things, three characteristics. Number one, you should look for leadership talent; that goes without saying irrespective of whether it is marketing analytics or any other field, because at any senior level or any leadership role, you would need leadership skills.
Number two I would say you should look for people who have a balance of experience and depth around both the business aspects as well as the technology/analytics aspects of things.
Thirdly, which is kind of related to the first two, I would say that analytics and particularly marketing analytics is very closely related to strategy in many ways. Because what you are ultimately trying to achieve is either bottom line growth for the company or top line revenue growth for the company. So people with strategy skills, they generally tend to do better in these roles, assuming they have sufficient depth on the marketing side and the analytics side. So that’s the third bucket that I would advise CEOs to look at, whether they are looking to promote from within or looking from the outside.
Marni: Makes sense. That’s really helpful. So looking forward a bit, how do you envision data science will continue to impact business operations and marketing in the next year?
Ujjwal: Sure. We sort of touched upon this earlier. I think there will be two or three kinds of activities over the next one year in marketing analytics as far as data science and any marketing analytics is concerned. One, new data sources will continue to come online and will continue to become available, whether it is from wearable devices or IoT, whether it is from gadgets like your smartphone or whether it is data that always existed that was never captured. New data sources will definitely keep getting added on and we will see a lot of that over the next one year.
Secondly, a number of companies have made investments in big data. And slowly I would expect that over the next year people will start seeing some ROI from there. Again, this is a general statement. Certain companies I am sure are seeing ROI already. But in general when you read some of these surveys you find that most people haven’t fully realized the full potential of their investments yet. And over the next year, I would see that situation improve quite a bit, so more people will feel better about getting some return from their investments they made earlier.
And the third thing that I think will happen is — it’s a personal passion of mine, I hope to see more of this — is that people will invest a lot more in connecting advanced analytics techniques, new data and big data, with the business problem. And make sure to solve, even age-old business problems with the new tools that are being made available. So connect the dots between the business and the analytics side better.
Marni: Well, Ujjwal, thank you so much for all of this great information. Based on this conversation, I am even more excited for what we are going to hear from you at the Marketing Analytics Conference this June in Austin.
Ujjwal: Thank you very much. I look forward to attending the conference and meeting everybody there.