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CIO interview: Gideon Kay, European CIO, Dentsu Aegis Network

Dentsu Aegis’s European CIO, Gideon Kay, talks about how to transform the organisation into a “digital economy business”, dealing with M&A activity and creating a centralised approach

Gideon Kay, European CIO at the Dentsu Aegis Network, sits in a breakout room in his firm’s London office and looks back on his time with the advertising and marketing specialist. Kay has been with the firm for four and a half years and has seen the business develop rapidly.  

“Dentsu Aegis has grown rapidly and the culture that’s associated to that change has provided a really exciting journey,” he says. “The industry is characterised by its speed of change – it’s a case of innovate or die.” 

Further business growth will take place before the end of the decade and technology will be at the heart of that business transformation. Kay says Dentsu Aegis has a corporate vision that the firm will be a 100% “digital economy business” by 2020. He defines that aim as creating and delivering services digitally to clients who demand such provision.   

“Whether that’s digital media or digital marketing, we need to meet those requirements,” he says. “But let me be clear – if a client says they want us to, for example, buy print advertising globally, we’ll find a way to do that – but we’ll do it in a way that is the most digital possible.” 

Kay joined Dentsu Aegis in January 2014 after moving from his role as global CIO at venture-backed life sciences company LGC. “It was a global business and did some high-profile work, including the forensics on the Stephen Lawrence case,” he says. 

During his time with LGC, Kay was approached about the Dentsu Aegis role and the thought of working in media and advertising appealed to him. 

“It was an industry I hadn’t been in before,” he says. “It was a much bigger organisation – while LGC had about 2,500 employees, Dentsu Aegis had 25,000 when I joined. Today, the firm employs more than 45,000 people.” 

Kay says the role also gave him the chance to work in a much more digital and data-centric business. “The media and advertising industry was pivoting due to technology and analytics,” he says. “There was a significant amount of activity taking place and that all appealed.” 

“The industry is characterised by its speed of change – it’s a case of innovate or die”

Gideon Kay, Dentsu Aegis

Such was the scale of change that Kay took on the global CIO role at Dentsu Aegis on an interim basis for 15 months. During that time, the firm appointed a global chief technology officer (CTO), Dominic Shine from News Corp, in September 2017. Kay then transitioned back to his current role of European CIO, where he reports to the European chief executive.   

“It’s a fascinating role in a fast-paced industry,” he says, referring to his current position. “Most of our major clients are consumer brands and attuned to consumer confidence and demand. They want to spend their advertising dollar in the best way they can to garner the best outcomes. You have to keep moving.”

Managing technology developments 

Kay’s day-to-day responsibilities range from what he calls the obvious activities, such as operational service and infrastructure support, through to commercial requirements, including managing investments, contracts and third parties. Increasingly, however, one of his key roles is managing a wide set of stakeholders across a dispersed geography. 

“There is a huge amount of mergers and acquisitions [M&A] activity in this business – we did about 30 deals last year and 45 the year before,” he says. “All the due diligence and project activities around that integration are part of my remit. I also have to look after the application portfolio and think carefully about the offerings we are presenting to our clients.” 

Kay says security and governance responsibilities sit across those global activities. This emphasis also runs across what he refers to as “transformation programmes”, including the implementation of global finance, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and HR systems. The key, says Kay, is effectively managing and rationalising the company’s collection of applications and data sources.  

He recognises that data management remains a key area, particularly when it comes to customers. Kays says there is a sweet spot when it comes to using information to deliver targeted messages to consumers. And Dentsu Aegis aims to lead developments in that area on behalf of its clients, with the IT team helping to build and purchase big data platforms. 

“Customer experience isn’t just about delivering the right message in the right way – it also needs to be at the right time,” says Kay, who believes CIOs must focus on a combination of geography, governance and technology. “In an increasingly time-poor society, we need to help our clients to understand when to provide meaningful messages. Advertising and media that works is advertising and media that’s welcome because it helps you.” 

Creating a centralised approach 

When he arrived at Dentsu Aegis at the beginning of 2014, the firm was in the midst of a significant IT transformation initiative. IT has previously been managed in a federal manner, with each market around the world having its own technology set-up. Kay joined an organisation that was moving towards a more centralised arrangement, with global datacentres, outsourcing agreements and an associated operating mode. 

“That activity had already started when I arrived – but there was a lot of uncertainty and risk about how that would work in individual European markets, particularly in terms of what it meant regarding authority and autonomy,” he said. “I was recruited to manage that programme for Europe through to a successful conclusion.” 

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Kay says his first big achievement was to bring that transformation project to fruition in the six to nine months after he joined Dentsu Aegis. The initiative helped to change the perception of technology in the business – rather than being seen as a potential problem area, internal systems and services are now regarded as crucial to delivering business value and benefit.

The company’s previously prominent federal structure meant the IT team had to be reorganised to suit the new centralised set-up. Kay estimates that 80% of the European IT leadership team has changed during his four years with Dentsu Aegis. “I have worked hard to get the right people with the right skills in an industry that can be quite insular at times – it can be tough to find the required mix of media and technical capability,” he says. 

Kay says his final European-centred achievement has been to build out and deliver major data initiatives across the region. He says the firm moved from an embryonic approach to a fully formed strategy by analysing what elements were fit for purpose, deciding how to support individual markets and creating priorities for the global organisation. 

Supporting global expansion 

During his time with Dentsu Aegis, Kay spent 15 months in 2016 and 2017 as interim global CIO. He used that opportunity to develop a new technology strategy by working in close collaboration with the business’ senior leadership team. The key components of this strategy included a shift away from internal datacentres and a move towards being a cloud-centric business.    

Kay implemented a new service management approach and platform, by using ServiceNow technology, in just six months.

He shepherded the successful global implementation of Microsoft Office 365 for collaboration and Dynamics 365 for finance. Kay also created a fresh approach for cyber security and identity management across the firm. Finally, he led the introduction of Workday as a global human resources platform.  

“We are looking at how we can use technology to make our processes work better”
Gideon Kay, Dentsu Aegis

With a new global CTO appointed in late 2017, Kay returned to his European role. His current priorities include landing some of the abovementioned global programmes around cloud, data and security in his own region. Preparations for the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provided a significant focus during the first half of 2018, he says.   

Kay is now looking towards introducing advanced technologies, and automation is a key area of interest. “We are looking at how we can use technology to make our processes work better,” he says. “Media buying and planning are quite process-centric activities.” This focus on automation will be supported by a continued interest in innovation more generally. 

“It is like trying to jump on a moving train,” he says. “We are an acquisitive firm in a fast-moving industry, where client demands change quickly and new technology emerges rapidly. As we grow as a business, we want our people to collaborate across brands, borders and time zones in a more effective fashion.” 

Removing friction and ensuring great delivery 

Kay therefore continues to look for innovative ways to support business development. He says the key aim across both his global and European roles at Dentsu Aegis has been the same – the removal of friction. “Our business continues to have ambitious growth targets in every dimension,” he says. “My vision is to identify the points of friction, the things that slow us down, and to remove them.” 

Although that might sound straightforward, the challenge is significant, says Kay. He explains that Dentsu Aegis is governed by the ideal that great delivery on behalf of its customers requires scale in terms of operations, activities and innovations – and technology can be the key to identifying and removing friction and ensuring great delivery practices. 

“My approach can encompass automation, creativity and collaboration – and that’s core to my strategy going forward,” he says. “Yet anybody who believes they know what their business or industry looks like in five years’ time is kidding themselves.

“You want to build an approach that is more sustainable for the business in the long term. Creating a team and a set of values that can withstand the pace of continual change is the core of what a CIO should be doing. Yes, they should make use of automation and outsourcing where activities are not core, but great IT leadership must always be about building and supporting internal capability.”

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