Rise of the machines: Vodafone’s Geri Ellis on keeping up with a rapidly changing world

In the latest edition of the ‘Rise of the machines’ series, we chat to Vodafone’s general manager of digital and social media Geri Ellis on how the rapid progression in digital technology is impacting the teams that sit on the client side of the industry.   

StopPress: As a the general manager of digital and social media, what does your role involve these days? Has it changed significantly over the years? 

Geri Ellis: The reason my remit is both digital and social media because you need to create consistent brand experiences across all those mediums. Whether it’s an external media digital banner or a social media post, it needs to flow through to a website or a platform that is owned by the company. You need that to be consistent. 
If you have your agency looking at above the line, and another agency looking at social media, and you’ve got your digital in-house, that’s when the journey breaks. You really have to ensure that you get that affinity flowing between above-the-line advertising as well as the experience online. Ideally, which is of course what we’re all trying to do now, is to extend the digital channels to be a consistent experience across all of your distribution. It’s very common these days for customers to use at least three of four channels: they may start off watching a TV advertisement, go online, phone to find out more info, then they go to th retail store to touch and feel it, before finally purchasing it. Now, if you don’t join up all those channels, it’s so easy for the customer to walk away from it. There’s nothing worse than having broken customer experiences.

SP: Is it easy to find staff with the digital skills necessary to develop these experiences?

GE: I’ve been in New Zealand for nine years and it has been really challenging to find people with digital skills. There’s a real shortage. That includes everything from digital marketers to interaction designers (which is very different from a digital design skillset) to HTML5 developers and app developers. Because of this shortage, we are working with the universities and we do bring on graduates to introduce them to a world where being in marketing is okay for someone who has done a technology degree, and vice versa. 

SP: So does this mean that modern marketers should have technical skills?

GE: I’m a marketer and a strategist and I’m definitely not a technology person. If you ask me to explain what goes on underneath the bonnet, I would totally rely on our architects and I trust them to tell what’s the best solution. But I’m focused on digital experiences. So what I look for in marketers is people who actually understand customer journeys more so than understanding visual design or traditional marketing skillsets. 

SP: Are younger marketers better suited to this?

GE: It’s probably easier for younger marketers to come into this. Having been brought up in a digital era, they can relate much easier. But an interesting statistic I read the other day is that we now have a greater population of people who have experienced the internet than those who haven’t.  So there are fewer people around who don’t know what it’s like. I would say that old thinking of ‘we must have young people doing this’ is rubbish.

SP: So how do you create effective customer journeys?

GE: Marketing is closely related to human psychology. It’s understanding how to fine-tune your message to be relevant. The difference about digital is how to make it contextually relevant, because that’s what the internet does. You can personalise the information and you can make it geographically relevant. And that’s why there’s this emphasis on big data. Funnily enough, this is bringing the industry full circle because it’s going back to traditional marketers who focused on one-to-one and direct marketing. And this is also why senior marketers are important, because they’ve got the grey hairs, they done a thousand campaigns and they know what works and what doesn’t work.

SP: Do you see the head of digital role evolving into something else?

GE: The head of digital role could be anything you like. I specifically came in four years ago to drive transformation. And this isn’t achieved in 12 months. My remit has expanded every year into more parts of the business. I actually prefer a decentralised model when you get to a stage where both the company and the country has enough digital skills. The reality is that New Zealand has a real shortage of digital skills, so it’s really hard to find people who just have it as part of their core skillset. I think it should be a mandatory subject in schools if you want to get that. If you want people to enter the workplace with a digital background then you have to include that as part of the curriculum. It’s really hard to decentralise the system when you’re trying to grow IT staff … When you have a decentralised system, you can’t keep 3,000 employees up to date on what is happening in the digital world.

SP: What are your thoughts on how quickly technology is changing?

GE: Technology cycles used to happen every decade. Every ten years, you would see an evolution. It went from mainframes to PCs to laptops and then to phones, each time with a ten-year gap. And now we’ve gone from phones to wearables in three years. So the pace has just increased so much that the challenge you have is ‘how do you maintain and grow that knowledge consistently across a decentralised function?’ That’s a really big overhead as opposed to having a small core team of subject matter expertise that focus on future thinking and on where things are going to go. 

SP: Are telcos struggling to keep up?

GE: We are in this real dilemma in that consumers are driving behaviour shifts faster than we can keep up with. They are demanding that we deliver the technology before we can even build it. When I used to work for Microsoft 20 years ago, we were trying to drive technology that customers didn’t want – for example, nobody will ever use more than 10 to 20 percent of Excel functionality. We are completely the other way round 20 years on, where we now have consumers saying, ‘I want an app to do this’ and ‘when I can I do this?’ We are massively scrambling to keep ahead of what customers want. 

The challenge that comes with that is that most existing companies, which haven’t started off with a blank slate, have an awful lot of legacy infrastructure. And this infrastructure is kind of like a tugboat in that’s it powerful. But the world we’re living in now needs speedboats. So, you have to re-engineer the tugboats to carry on towing, but now they also need to go really fast. What this means is that many existing companies need to transfer their entire business: their processes, their policies, their marketing programmes and their distribution strategies.

SP: Technology also comes with security risks. How important is it for Vodafone to keep customer information safe? 

GE: It’s absolutely critical, because that has one of the most powerful impacts on the trust in your brand. Obviously, the more self-service functionality you create, the more you need to authenticate the customer to ensure that they remain in control and their data is protected. So the functionality that we create in our digital services—for self-service or online buying—has resulted in huge priority of managing and protecting customer data. We do not share our customer data with anyone.

SP: Advertising online also comes with risks. Are you concerned about ad fraud through bots or click farms?

GE: Web analytics is a core skill that we have at Vodafone. We combine and code all our EDMs and everything else that comes through, and then we track it all the way through, depending on whether it’s paid for, search or social. There is certainly a way of identifying fraudulent search activity or traffic numbers. You need the skillset in-house to identify anomalies.


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