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CIO interview: Lee Wilmore, data intelligence director, TI Media

The media company formerly know as Time Inc. UK has put data at the heart of its business strategy, integrating silos of information to bring greater value to the business

Lee Wilmore, data intelligence director at TI Media, might have worked for the same company for 20 years, but he’s seen more change than most digital executives.

TI Media faces similar challenges to other consumer magazine publishers – and it’s a story that has grown in intensity over the past two decades: a drop in print readership and advertising revenues that is not being made up by online advertising income. Wilmore and his data team have the task of using customer insight to help the business face this challenging environment.

They’ve also had to meet this test during a period of tumultuous change at the business. TI Media was originally known as IPC, which was acquired by Time Warner in 2001 and renamed Time Inc. UK in 2014. Further change came with Time Inc. UK’s acquisition by Meredith Corporation in 2018 and its subsequent purchase by Epiris LLP, after which Time Inc. UK was rebranded as TI Media in June 2018.

Wilmore recognises the scale of change within the firm and the broader publishing industry. “Over the past five years, we’ve been through a considerable business transformation,” he says. “Increased pressure on revenues from decreased advertising and circulation means the organisation has focused on a cost-cutting exercise, including a headcount reduction.”

Through this period of change, Wilmore has remained a consistent presence in head office. He has held a range of senior positions, including head of database marketing and director of customer intelligence. In April 2018, during the business reorganisation, Wilmore took on a new role, assuming his current role as director of data intelligence.

Looking back on his 20-year stint in the publishing sector, Wilmore says media remains a fascinating place to work. One of the benefits of working for TI Media is the publications it owns – among them are Country Life, TV Times and Woman’s Own – which are like a collection of mini organisations.

“We’ve got a broad range of brands, and that means working with different businesses and people all the time as you move from project to project,” he says.

Defining data for the business

Wilmore is rethinking how the firm uses data to help the publisher generate more revenue from each customer that interacts with its brands. His data work is now placed at the core of the firm’s business strategy, rather than being held in siloed repositories.

“We’ve gone back to basics and focused on what’s really important for the business. My role is all about the data architecture, working out how it can be best prepared to allow the business to meet ongoing challenges”

Lee Wilmore, TI Media

“We’ve gone back to basics and focused on what’s really important for the business,” he says. “My current role is all about the data architecture, working out how it can be best prepared to allow the business to meet its ongoing challenges.”

The focus on data has also affected reporting lines. Wilmore’s team used to be part of the marketing team, but he now reports to Amanda Wigginton, group customer strategy director. As part of his new, cross-business role, Wilmore has considered definitions of data and what the exploitation of information means for TI Media and the readers of its publications.

“We spent a lot of time just thinking about data as items relating to our customers, so things like names, addresses and emails,” he says.

“Now, we’re looking at data through a much broader business definition – we’ll look at customer data, but also finance data and digital data, which might involve information on individuals who’ve clicked on our websites.”

Making the most of information

After assuming his role last April, Wilmore has developed a plan to bring together TI Media’s data silos into a single customer database. The objective is to bring customer, advertising, content and online information together, to enable Wilmore and his business peers to exploit this information quickly and efficiently.

“The idea is that we pull all of those different types of data together in one place, where our analysts can look at it and then answer the business questions that are causing us the most concern and to identify the best opportunities,” he says.

Creating a strategy for data integration, however, is just a starting point. Wilmore’s key business challenge is that the amount of information held by the business continues to expand. He also refers to the disparate nature of business information and the need to make the most of that insight quickly.

“There’s always more data – and the data that we do have, and have integrated, changes over time as well,” he says. “There’s always an amount of looking back over what you’ve already done and making sure it still works and is relevant.”

Resources present another challenge, especially given the broad nature of the business. The company owns more than 40 successful brands. Wilmore says those brands are often trying to achieve their goals in the quickest way possible, which can make it tricky to ensure that standardisation is achieved across a diverse range of business requirements.

“There are always new data sources, so there’s always the challenge of bringing in new stuff and learning about that new data quickly enough because the business expects a complete understanding quickly,” says Wilmore.

Bringing insight creation in-house

Since moving into his current role in April 2018, Wilmore says his main achievement has been the insourcing of processes associated to the creation of a single, 360-degree view of customers, which was previously outsourced to a specialist data service provider. Wilmore says the firm has had a range of partners over the years to help manage its data, but he believed insourcing was the way forward.

“The potential to make that move would immediately tick two of my boxes – we’d save money because we wouldn’t be paying an outsourced provider, and we’d potentially be able to move faster because we’d have the development in-house and we could direct our talent towards the challenges that the business identifies,” he says.

Wilmore’s reticence over going into another outsourcing arrangement was related to a series of business concerns – transformation, governance and data control.

“The outsourced service had been left behind by where the business is going in terms of digital transformation,” says Wilmore. “The demands associated to the change meant extensive development work was required.”

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provided another wake-up call to the business. “Everyone realised that our existing databases weren’t compliant and needed substantial development to make sure we could quickly and easily access procedural updates to customer records. We had to ensure we could enact all of the rights of the individuals that we now have an obligation to deliver,” he says.

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Finally, Wilmore says the business also needed to think carefully about which systems it would want to share its data with going forward.

“If you’ve got a black box where an outsourcer controls what data is going in and out, it’s always expensive when you need to change provider and it can lead to slow integration,” he says.

“Taking control in-house meant we had much more flexibility in terms of plugging new business intelligence tools or email marketing platforms into our database. It creates a strategic advantage for the business – we can create changes much more easily.”

Establishing a foundation for big data

By bringing control of data back in-house, TI Media placed data at the core of its business operations. The key technological element, says Wilmore, was to integrate all customer data into a single cloud-based data lake. As part of this process, Wilmore implemented Talend Cloud Data Quality on a Snowflake database in Amazon Web Services (AWS).

“We ended up proposing to the board that we would buy some technology,” he says. “I scanned the market for ETL [extract, transform, load] tools and cloud-based databases. We ended up proposing a mixture of Talend for the ETL work and Snowflake for the storage. We were comfortable they could work together.”

Since implementing Talend’s technology, the company has been executing 10% more marketing campaigns, and response rates to campaigns have increased by 5%.

The data integration project has also helped reduce the time it takes to onboard new data by 85% and helped to reduce data budgets by 50% as part of TI Media’s centralised data operation. “We’re breaking down those traditional places where data exists in our business,” says Wilmore.

Delivering great results for the business

Wilmore has helped create a core data team at the heart of the business and established new relationships with key suppliers.

“We really need to crack how we can work with external consultants to carry on delivering great results at speed”
Lee Wilmore, TI Media

However, the hard work is far from done. Publishing remains a challenging sector – competition is great and the potential for disruption across all channels is as high as in any other industry. Wilmore is aware of these challenges, both across the sector and within his own enterprise. His aim now is to use the big data platform he’s created to help the business work with partners and create new opportunities.

“We’ve been stripped back by cost-cutting, so we need to figure out how we can deliver all the wonderful things we know we can deliver with this technology with minimal resources,” he says.

“I’m figuring that out at the moment and it involves partnering with other companies on projects. We really need to crack how we can work with external consultants to carry on delivering great results at speed.”

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