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How ITV built a data team from scratch

Clemence Burnichon, director of data innovation at ITV, describes how the broadcaster has built a data management and analytics team

To compete with Netflix and the other prominent networks and streaming services in the broadcast world, you need to be ahead of the curve. Viewers expect high levels of personalisation, and they are more fickle than ever before with their attention divided between the myriad of streaming platforms contending for space.

To remain a key player, networks need to truly understand who their viewers are and what they want – and that all starts with data. At ITV, we have been able to leverage the power of data to transform the network over the past few years, pulling crucial insights about viewer behaviour to make decisions across the business.

Data is at the heart of the digital transformation journey at ITV and has always been part of our DNA. We strive to be more than just TV – we want to become a digital-led entertainment company that provides high-quality content to people wherever, and however, they choose. This intention was at the forefront of our minds when we decided to grow our team – and grow we certainly did.

In 2021, ITV had a tiny team of just two data engineers. Today, our data innovation team has more than 60 people across all disciplines. As someone who has been at the helm of this data team as its growth exploded, I have some advice for others who are looking to build up their data teams.

1. Finding the right technology

The first step is figuring out how to manage and interpret data in a way that is most useful for the business. Finding the right technology to support the company’s goals is essential. An important question for us in the beginning was, “Do we build it or do we buy it?”. That’s where Databricks’ Lakehouse came in. This was the right technology for us. 

Using the Lakehouse gave us the opportunity to create a platform that was suited exactly to our needs and worked for a variety of use cases across the company. Using a modern data architecture, such as Lakehouse, removes some of the complexity typically associated with sharing data between departments. We were able to give different access levels to people with different job roles, as well as enable more productive collaboration by giving team members access to real-time analysis and insights.

After adopting the Lakehouse at ITV, projects that used to take months now take minutes. We can switch focus to thinking about more advanced capabilities, such as machine learning. This has been a game changer, as data scientists and engineers within the team now have time to innovate and scale up – working on projects that are more engaging and valuable to the business. 

Once the right technology is chosen, it is easier to train new team members on how to access and use the data. You can begin to think long term about how data can be converted into actionable insights that will transform services and create a better experience for users.  

2. Create a vision and shape stakeholder expectations

After the first big phase is completed, it’s important to create a vision with data that motivates people to do their best work. When other departments start to see the amazing things that are being done with data, it inspires them to join in. 

Data at ITV covers a wider area of the organisation than you would think, cutting across all business areas including finance, advertising, viewer/product, human resources and marketing – all of which have unique needs that need to be considered.

For our data team, the biggest internal stakeholder was marketing, so it was critical to understand what they needed from us and how we can use the data that we have to tell a story. The goal is to inspire the marketing team by presenting the art of the possible to them, and providing the right skill sets, technology and data insights to make their marketing strategy come alive.

3. Focus on building a diverse team

In addition to gaining buy-in from other departments, creating a powerful vision about where the company is going and what it wants to do with the data is a great tool for recruiting and developing new team members. If they believe in the vision, they are more likely to want to take part in it.

The final, if not most important, factor to consider is how to create a unique and diverse team. The most successful teams are the ones that have people with different experiences that can be shared, and so the presence of people from all different backgrounds, races and viewpoints is key. This could also mean bringing people in from different industries, with different educational backgrounds, as well as hiring recent graduates.

There are many different fields of education and career paths outside of the traditional routes that require analytical skills that could be useful for a data team – it’s necessary to keep this in mind during the recruitment process. It’s important to choose the right candidates to complete your skillset, and be transparent with them when it comes to expectations. We’re all human and don’t always have the answer. Making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, particularly for those who are new to their field. 

Importantly, there are more and more women who are choosing data as a career path, which is uplifting to see. Data and technology are still very much male-dominated industries, and as leaders we have a responsibility to challenge those norms and think outside of the box when recruiting candidates. 

Looking forward

Building ITV’s data team has been critical over the past couple of years, and now that our team has grown, we can look to leveraging more advanced capabilities with data such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. We have a lot of incredible optimisations on the horizon, including more personalisation for audiences, and developments in neuro-linguistic programming. This is all a result of carefully selecting the right technology to meet our business needs and building up a team with the right skillset to get the job done. 

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