Interview with Steve Lok, Global Head of Martech, The Economist

Steve Lok, Head Martech, The Economist
Steve Lok

“There’s been a shift in our ability to connect growth directly to marketing resource spend, essentially creating another directly attributable revenue engine with an enormous amount of potential growth.”

What does digital transformation mean to you?

Digital transformation is the holistic act – top to bottom, side to side – of a fundamental shift in how business is done in a particular industry or vertical, due to technology enablement. We see this across products, people, and processes – we spend countless resources on optimizing all three at all businesses to create an efficient machine – and they all need to shift together. This is the “disruption” we all talk about – less like throwing a wrench into a machine and more like using the machine as a wrench. Today, it’s about understanding value to the customer, which includes a level of relevancy and trust which can be difficult to represent online.

“You need to be ruthless in measurability of anything that you spend money on.” How does this apply to digital marketing?

This is one of those transformation cornerstones, and why there’s a rise of the martech discipline and practice, and why we come from all different other areas of a business. Data, web tech, dev, project and product management have all had to justify and prove their spend against results for years – so it makes sense why these backgrounds and experience are now desired in digital marketing and have given birth to the hybrid that is martech. Now to see which of the digital marketers are happy to jump into the other side(s)!

Our team at The Economist has a motto:

  • Pursue determinedly.
  • Measure relentlessly.
  • Optimise ruthlessly.
  • It’s been a rallying call to our transformation.

You talk about Marketing going from this “thing on the side that we had to do…. to leading the company.” In your experience, how did that come about?

There’s been a shift in our ability to connect growth directly to marketing resource spend – in both people and pounds – essentially creating another directly attributable revenue engine with an enormous amount of potential growth. There’s a core tenet in growth hacking that is about scalability and amplification around customer-centricity. We created a marketing team at The Economist that integrated optimization at every corner we could act on it, utilizing data and tech at hand – and essentially hacking together stuff that didn’t yet. In many ways, the growth hack at the company was the realization of a promise around being customer-centric – at least in parts – and making that profitable bit by bit. We’re still seeing significant growth today, 3 years on since the initial pilot days.

How does the Economist look to leverage targeted advertising to drive traffic and subscriptions?

Listening to, understanding, and then addressing audiences is key to our growth across most metrics today. Although at first, we were able to get away with doing some of the simpler, low-hanging fruit type digital evolution work and essentially looking at a single type of audience, we knew that we had to look for new customers and new-type customers for the future. That really led us down the path of breaking away from a last-touch type of optimization which has severe limits when you are trying to target someone across a dozen different channels, and allowing them to convert at “their time”. Multi-touch attribution goes hand-in-hand with multi-dimensional audiences to discover, learn, and communicate value to.

Today, it’s about understanding what targeting and communicating brand value means to the customer – in a post-GDPR world, that means understanding context and communications around that context to be valuable to the user at different steps of the journey.

Modern marketing emphasizes on breaking down silos. What were your takeaways from the Economist’s attempts to achieve this?

It’s funny because the siloing issue ended up leading us into the arena of CDPs two years ago, before CDPs were the new “it” girl – and it showed the importance of having martech expertise at the strategy helm. More than just paying lip service to “breaking down silos” – what we needed from the different parts of the business – internal and external – made it so that we were going to run straight into brick walls if we didn’t address this issue. So three years ago when we started this thing, I got pushed back into shell and Perl scripting just to hack together a simple data retrieval and transformation capability to force-normalize disparate data sets so we could do some cool stuff with it. I was hacking together a syndication XML zip file on an FTP with Twitter trending topics with a blog RSS and batched cookie files into something resembling a JSON stream for personalization and retargeting. We’re not using that anymore thankfully, but we’re still pushing the edge of what we can with hacking together other systems and platforms to answer some “wouldn’t it be cool if” type questions. That’s been integrated into the DNA of the team.

How do you see the problem of ad-fraud being tackled? How can brands be assured of ROI on the digital marketing spends?

Everyone’s favorite topic right now – data ownership, privacy, and GDPR. Not on their own of course as much of it is just words on paper – but the enforcement of these ideas and rules are creating accountability from a foundational perspective. Recently there’s been an attempt by some IAB members to smack together a new “fair play” standard on the adtech end of things. While well-intentioned and noble in ways to create a bridge between the old and new worlds around advertising, it’s still an attempt to deviate from the transformation in spirit and I don’t agree with it, as it’s trying to preserve parts of a system which were faulty at the foundation. There are alternative ecosystems popping up as this is creating a lot of new opportunity to shake up a highly optimized system. Right now I think, we are really relying on people – trained experts – in the field and on the ground to engage in a lot of oversight work to preserve integrity.

What startups are you watching/keen on right now?

Haha – this is the area where I’ll have to “plead the Fifth” as we Americans say, as this is a competitive edge area. I can happily say that the space around non-identifiable targeting – essentially GDPR-safe targeting – is hot. As volumes get decimated and audiences fragment, we will need to innovate new ways to target customers that do not have anything to do with their personal and private information. Although there is sexy stuff around that too – new ways of gaining consented customer information for targeting.

What tools does your marketing stack consist of?

There’s a marketing tech stack (hopefully shared in the article) that you can refer to – in macro terms we focus our martech stack around a customer-context stack and a content-context stack – and that’s something fairly specific to The Economist, even inside of publishing. On the customer side we primarily have the Lytics CDP at the center, with spokes going out to our internal customer database (moving to Salesforce CRM), Bluekai’s DMP, GA, a few inbound data partners, and a couple other in-house built pieces specific to The Economist’s web infrastructure. On the content side, a big piece is reliant on IBM’s Watson engine for content semantics, Opentopic for persona linking, and some custom connective tissue between data sources and destinations. This all comes together in our Discovery hub, where we provide prospects with customized The Economist experiences.

Would you tell us about a standout digital campaign?

Snapchat – if you’d asked me to guess a few months ago as to the success of Snapchat audience integration and conversion (this is before they even had a conversion pixel) – I wouldn’t have expected much. But utilizing modeled audiences based on ML (I try to avoid saying “AI” too much) and finding a connecting a data pipe allowed us to create a measurable Snapchat campaign aimed at younger readers with free trials and subscriptions. We saw a return on ad spend of over 50% – I had to triple check the chart I was looking at! We had amazing creative that was custom for the audience and platform and ended up winning a couple of awards for it. Who says you can’t teach…something about a dog, and new tricks?

How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a marketing leader?

First I’m going to stubbornly go with my own definition of “AI” instead of what we’ve dubbed it inside of marketing and consider “AI” to be a set of integrated automated decision-making algorithms with human-defined inputs and outputs. In that case – which encompasses pretty much every “AI” product I’ve evaluated – it’s of crucial importance for a leader in this space to understand what it can do and what it can’t do.

It CAN and should be automating away the tedium so that marketers eventually have an abstraction layer to be creative and have that “automatically work” for them. It CANNOT necessarily make decisions better than you as a human being (yet) so there’s still work for us. We should be ecstatic to usher it in and remove a huge amount of the button pushing marketing and martech folks have found themselves in these days – and that includes a billion different dashboards. It’ll let creatives be creatives again as they bridge the knowledge gaps between disciplines, teams, and individuals.

One word that best describes how you work.

Systemic [thinking]

What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?

Google’s ecosystem, Microsoft’s ecosystem, Android’s ecosystem. My laptop that doubles as a gaming machine on long and frequent travel (I’m a huge gamer geek).

What’s your smartest work related shortcut or productivity hack?

Procrastination in the form of Google’s “Inbox” app. It makes it so easy to get rid of stuff you don’t really need or want in front of you things that weren’t that important just don’t seem to come back!

Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?

More than anything else in this life, I feel like I have been working on and developing my sense of humility combined with confidence. It’s a difficult one, as human beings we are predisposed biologically towards the things

Thank you Steve! That was fun and hope to see you back on MarTech Series soon.

Steve lives to get his hands dirty with transformative technology across industries with 22 years of experience evolving from ISP to DSP and most acronyms in between. He is currently the global head of martech at The Economist, where he has been leading a venerated content brand into a new era of growth and recognition with transformative tech-ops strategies in subscription marketing – though his team affectionately refer to him as “The Plumber”. Steve has received numerous awards for his enablement of smart use of data in marketing acquisition and in helping his team execute on their visions of the future. Steve started his career as a web developer in the 90s with his own healthcare IT startup and then led agile project programs before accepting his current role in The Economist’s global circulation team. Applying those learned principles into marketing led The Economist team into taking home a Cannes Lions, DMA Grand Prix, and the IPA award for smartest data and technology use in The Economist’s recent Brand Response strategy and to the highest single-year increase in circulation revenue in a decade. Steve is a frequent speaker and teacher on the subject of martech, marketing technology, and agile. He often speaks about how the confluence of tech, data, and content is now real – and provable.

The Economist
The Economist is one of the most widely recognised and well-read current affairs publications, with a growing global circulation of around 1.5m readers and a reputation for incisive analysis and opinion on every aspect of world events.

The MTS Martech Interview Series is a fun Q&A style chat which we really enjoy doing with martech leaders. With inspiration from Lifehacker’s How I work interviews, the MarTech Series Interviews follows a two part format On Marketing Technology, and This Is How I Work. The format was chosen because when we decided to start an interview series with the biggest and brightest minds in martech – we wanted to get insight into two areas … one – their ideas on marketing tech and two – insights into the philosophy and methods that make these leaders tick.

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