MarTech Interview with Rick Erwin, CEO at ALC

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MarTech Interview with Rick Erwin, CEO at ALC

“Consumer and business data has become a critical ingredient in every form of Marketing and Advertising.”

Could you tell us about your role and journey that brought you to ALC? What inspired you to take up your current post? What lessons did you learn from your journey in Marketing Technology? 

I’ve spent most of my career in the data space, in leadership roles at some of the world’s largest information companies. The past twenty years have seen incredible changes in the way data is applied to the Marketing discipline. When I started, data use was confined largely to direct mail, and today people data has become the very currency of Marketing and Advertising. This makes sense: when properly used, data can improve every consumer interaction and improve the relationship between brands and their customers. And, the sheer amount and quality of data available to marketers today dwarfs what we were working with only 20 years ago.

I’ve learned some immutable truths through this experience. First, the pace of innovation and technological change in our industry will only increase – and with it, the potential for data to be used in new and different ways to improve consumers’ lives. Second, that large data company behemoths have never kept pace with the change because doing so inevitably puts their legacy business at risk in some way that they cannot afford.

Finally, that the first two truths mean that in data-driven marketing solutions, there is always a “last mover advantage” that enables the savvy, innovative new company to bring the disruptive innovation that brands and their partners need. That’s why we see such an opportunity to do something different with ALC.

You have a long history of leading data companies. What have you learned about what works and what does not?

The science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon once said, “90% of everything is crap.” Whether you agree or not with this rather cynical view, I believe this wisdom applies in our industry. It seems that every company claims to do everything. Everyone has the best data; everyone does identity resolution; everyone’s tech claims to solve your Marketing problem. In my experience, more than 90% of these claims are not accurate, so how can brands possibly sort through the noise, and find out what is real?

I believe it is by choosing providers not based on the name of the company but instead based on the people you know and trust who are behind the company. In other words, you align with the individuals whose knowledge, integrity, persistence, and performance has been proven to you before. Those individuals don’t go to work for weak companies. They don’t create bad products. They don’t make promises that don’t deliver.

Further, when you see several people of strong reputation and track record, particularly executives, flock together at one company, that is usually a company worth betting on. The companies with fanciful claims and management teams you’ve never heard of are longshots at best.

What is ALC Data and how you bring a new approach to the data business? 

My team, all 20-year data industry veterans, recognized that brands and their partners need a new ideal in data. The legacy providers, as great as they once were, cannot deliver on brands’ current needs. This team has rethought the Marketing data business from the ground up – with the mission of making it possible, safe and profitable for people data to inform every Marketing and Advertising decision and campaign across the enterprise.

Consumer and business data has become a critical ingredient in every form of Marketing and Advertising. And yet, it is not being used to inform most Marketing and Advertising decisions. That’s a statement of mathematical truth: that A) all forms of media are becoming addressable at the individual level, and B) most marketing and advertising impressions and decisions don’t yet rely on that type of data.

Why? Marketers are being held back by inertia and stagnation in the data business. Legacy data companies are dependent on an outdated business model that makes wider data adoption cost-prohibitive for marketers and prevents them from further realizing the efficiencies that data provides. These companies have failed to transform their core business models and technology infrastructure for the modern digital age – and that gap is starting to show.

This failure is holding back marketers at a critical juncture in their efforts to keep pace with the mobile consumer. They need a new type of data company, and a new type of data partnership.

– A company that can simplify the economics of data and solves the problems that brands and partners haven’t been able to solve affordably in the past.

– A data solution that is built on the predictability of a subscription-based model that liberates the Marketing enterprise to realize the incremental value from their data without worrying about incremental costs.

– A “pre-connected” data solution where identity is baked in, and which doesn’t require laborious post-processing.

– A data solution supported by the advice and expertise of seasoned industry experts and problem-solvers.

– An agile, nimble, and adaptable platform that can be efficiently customized to meet the unique needs of each brand.

ALC is that company purpose-built to overcome the barriers that are holding marketers back from realizing the true promise of what people-based data can do to advance their businesses.

One epic moment from the decade (2011-2019) that changed your outlook on the industry?

I recall in January 2015, being on an investment bank’s panel of senior media and tech execs a couple weeks after Oracle acquired Datalogix. The moderator asked me if there were any recent events in the industry that we would all look back on as a turning point. Mine was the Oracle-Datalogix transaction, as it represented the first purchase, by an enterprise technology firm, of a consumer data company. Prior to that, Oracle had mainly acquired MarTech companies like Eloqua and Responsys.

One of the other panelists disagreed that Datalogix was even a data company (I knew differently, having sold to them and competed with them for 10 years). As we now know, Oracle would eventually spend more than $4 billion on acquisitions over the ensuing 3 years to form its Oracle Data Cloud business.

At the time, I thought it would either be the beginning of a trend where data and the software that uses the data, would be owned by the same company, or else the acquirers would choke on those acquisitions, finding the business model, service levels, and compliance requirements of being a data company to be incompatible with their tech business. Now, 5 years later, we are witnessing Oracle’s apparent retrenchment from that bold strategy.

Tell us something that fascinates you the most in building and working in an open work place at ALC Data. What are your thoughts about embracing inclusion and diversity? How are such inclusive workplaces perceived by your customers and partners? 

Increasing your company’s inclusiveness is perhaps the most important career-long challenge that every one of us faces, because –

– It is one of the most powerful fuels for business growth and transformation, and

– It is one of the hardest and most elusive behaviors for each of us to perfect. So many of our instincts wire us for our “in-group” to the exclusion of all others.

I often see these two small but common ways that we can be accidentally exclusionary in our behavior:

– The technologist wears their technical knowledge like a suit of armor – being knowledgeable and confident is a good thing, after all. Meanwhile, their non-technical colleague is intimidated to reveal what they don’t know about technology for fear of being thought less of.

– Acronyms – they are a pernicious shorthand in many industries and companies that allows a group to communicate more quickly and efficiently. We are often oblivious that we are using such jargon, but the colleague who is new to the company, the group, the industry is intimidated from fully participating because they don’t know the shorthand and don’t want to reveal their lack of knowledge.

Inclusiveness requires more self-awareness than most of us have. No matter how hard we try, we are all accidentally guilty of being exclusive at some points in most days. My own commitment is to try to be aware of inclusion and exclusion in the situations I’m involved in, and to try to set the right tone.

If there was one thing you would want to change in the way modern tech companies try to bridge ‘gender gap’ – what would be it? 

This is such an important problem to tackle. I just returned from a major technology conference with more than 50,000 attendees. It looked to me as though less than 1 in 5 were women. My perspective is that PR and image-driven corporate initiatives will be less effective than real disruptive, actionable change.

Disruptive and actionable are things like being very vocal as a company, internally and externally, about overt support for closing the gender gap, and fast-tracking high performing women for leadership roles that put them in a position to both role model what is possible, as well as drive change leadership themselves.

What startups in the data are you watching keenly right now?

I won’t name specific companies, because they may be current acquisition targets of ours. I am most interested in companies that are fluent in digital identity and data attributes, while also being adept at and unafraid of ethical and compliant handling of PII data. Companies who do both are rare, but we believe they represent the future of our data economy in the US.

Name one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read.

My former Acxiom/Live Ramp colleague Travis May always has a brilliant, orthogonal perspective to mine that sharpens my thinking. S4 Capital’s Sir Martin Sorrell is so engaging on important topics, because he is disrupting the agency holding company model as a response to some of the same forces driving me and my team to disrupt the data industry.

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

Rick Erwin is the CEO of ALC. Erwin earned his MBA from Northwestern University (Kellogg), and holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and finance from Michigan State University.

alc logo

Founded in 1978, ALC has grown to become one of the industry’s leading privately-held providers of first-party data solutions.

Headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey – and with offices across the U.S. – the company enables its portfolio of clients, including the leaders in virtually every business sector, to grow and improve bottom-line profitability through the innovative use of marketing information, segmentation, and broad selectivity

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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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