Delivery Sessions Interview with James Chester, VP of Global Business – Data, Technology & Product, Starcom

In today’s evolving digital space filled with endless problems to solve and boundless data to collect, simplicity is key. But according to James Chester, VP of Global Business – Data, Technology & Product at Starcom, finding simple solutions to complex problems is the biggest challenge for marketers. And now, as increasing regulations create even more barriers, the opportunity for game-changing innovation is here for the taking.

We sat down with James to learn more about the importance of simplicity in data analysis and tips for building a strategy — and a team — that’s designed to thrive in the future of digital transformation.

Tell us a little about your experience in data and technology that led you to your role as VP, Global Business – Data Technology & Product at Starcom?James may have taken a unique career path into data technology but garnering several years of architectural design experience after graduation was actually the perfect foundation for a marketing career — and his inspiring approach to onboarding.  “I’ve traveled a bit from my original degree. After a number of years in architecture, I wanted a change and eventually built a startup with some of my colleagues where I transitioned into branding and media. I worked as a contracted consultant for startups and marketing agencies before joining Digitas Health in client engagements as a Subject Matter Expert on ad technology.

“A few years later, I built the Media Technology group at Publicis Health Media, where we managed the tech stack and led the tagging strategy for our clients. With a continuing goal of building a team of technologists that could speak to the ecosystem as a whole, my hiring process was driven by looking for individuals with a strong sense of creativity, passion, and potential. In the agency world, it’s so common to limit yourself to candidates with ‘agency experience,’ but I never aligned with that way of thinking, because I believe it limits exposure to potentially remarkable and innovative talent. I seek out non-traditional backgrounds and focus on what a person can bring to the team because I believe a diverse team is a strong team.”

Talk to us about the significance of digital transformation. How have you and your team led this process for your clients’ global media business?While digital transformation has a different meaning to every business, there is a primary objective driving the process for James’ team. “Our main goal is to identify opportunities for the integration of technology and automation in an effort to create acceleration and growth in digital media. So for us, that means evaluating the business as a whole in areas like creation and deployment of operation strategies, digital products, real-time measurement solutions, and more.” 

So what does this evaluation entail? “I view the process essentially as one big user experience problem by thinking of the data journey as a pipeline or a supply chain. How is data entering the ecosystem? How is it being created, managed, leveraged, and used? We look for the points of friction; any barriers along the way and we ask ourselves: are there places where technology is present and creating inefficiency? Or are there opportunities to effectively integrate technology-based solutions to drive speed while maintaining accuracy? You have to find the balance between what’s necessary and what’s just complicating the process, especially in engagements with a lot of scale.”

What impact does data, creative and planning have on this transformation and a successful marketing strategy overall?To put it bluntly: they’re integral to any strategy. “They have to be connected and aligned to be successful. But again, it’s easy to make things more complex than they have to be, especially as the acceleration of technology and the evolution in the availability of data make the process even more convoluted.

“It all starts with a very clear definition of success. Your core objectives lay the groundwork for an entire chain of dependencies. Successful strategies depend on clear insights. And clear insights depend on the connection of messaging with a strong creative concept in a way that generates clear signals at every stage of the funnel. This requires common structure up and down the organization, and then from a centrally aligned objective, everything else should flow. For global advertisers, consolidation can be a critical piece of enablement at scale.”

What are some of the global and societal changes that are redefining digital transformation, requiring leaders and organizations to rethink their teams, products, and technology?“The evolution of workstyles is an obvious one. Most of us are working in remote teams now, which I think is a good thing. Obviously, global businesses have always been distributed, but now domestic teams are awakening more to the feasibility and opportunity that comes along with that. My personal philosophy is that businesses should be evaluated based on value and output — not time at a desk or in an office. Communication is so easy to achieve via all the channels available today, so I think this is not only giving birth to a new way of working that’s a lot more efficient and flexible, but also creating tighter competition for talent which will eventually make teams much stronger.

“We’re also witnessing a large shift in regulations regarding online privacy. Browsers have led the way in regard to limitations on cookie-based tracking, and now we’re seeing walled gardens like Apple, Google, and Facebook follow suit by closing their systems off a bit and becoming more black box. This is creating a new set of challenges for advertisers and it’s pushing the industry to innovate. And that’s exciting because it’s creating an environment for disruption that will inevitably lead to new ideas and new ways of working, likely powered by AI and a new economy of data and strategy.”

What advice do you have for other leaders and marketers in regard to developing an impactful digital transformation?The answer to this is pretty elementary. In fact, it’s one of the first lessons we learn growing up.  “Just listen. Gathering the right signals and ensuring that you’re solving the right problems always starts with listening. There are a million problems you can solve and even more things you can do with technology and data at the core. Finding a simple solution to a complicated problem is where the impact really lies. The question driving every decision should be: how will this impact the end-user?”

What do you think the future of digital marketing looks like? What role will data and media play?“I believe the future of digital marketing will be driven by zero and first-party data and data science, machine learning/AI, and blockchain, so the best investments, in both knowledge and resources, will be made in these areas. As the industry continues to evolve and respond to concerns around privacy and security, technology will become increasingly complex and fragmented, and we will see a loss of fidelity and scale of traditional data sets and measurement methodologies within paid media. Engaging with your audience directly has never been more important, but measuring results at scale will likely be achieved through modeling and the analysis of data in clean rooms. Digital marketers must have a clear understanding of emerging policies, technology, and strategies for identifying and engaging with audiences to have an impact moving forward.”