We Live and Breathe Data and Technology – Sans Ego: Silverbullet CEO Ian James
Journey into Tech
Hi Ian. Tell us about your journey into tech and how you started at Silverbullet.
I first entered the world of advertising and technology firmly on the direct brand side, where I was the first Global Head of Digital for Bacardi, the world’s largest privately held, family-owned spirits company.
During my time with Bacardi, I adopted a huge passion for the conception and development of world-class processes for the integration of digital marcoms into the broader business – creating a seamless stream of insights to drive smarter business decisions. This passion grew, as I went on to hold roles such as International CEO of Acxiom (recently acquired by IPG for $2.2bn), and Chief Digital Officer for Starcom MediaVest Groupe.
During my time at Acxiom, we launched LiveRamp, which created a turnkey for the industry into tech and data.
During the same time, Oracle had just purchased BlueKai and the MarTech landscape was beginning to blossom into what we know it is today. As a consequence, clients were becoming increasingly confused as to how best to make sense of it all, requiring a new type of partner to help them work out how to harness all this new tech and data.
In 2015, two of my good pals – co-founders Umberto Torrielli and Simon Theakston, two ex-Oracle professionals who’d been instrumental in the development and global roll out of the Oracle DMP, Bluekai, and myself, launched the Silverbullet Data Services Group.
Silverbullet Data Services mission was, and still is, to provide clients with the best-in-class skill surrounding the wonderfully complex world of data and technology, to not only help marketers realise their full potential across their data assets, but to pioneer a smart marketing strategy powered by data intelligence.
You come from a very interesting background where you have managed vastly different portfolios. Could you tell us how your data science expertise helped you scale Marketing and Sales challenges.
Starting my advertising and technology journey on the brand side has given me an acute understanding of what the client really needs. During my time at Bacardi, I understood the importance of technology infrastructures and strategy frameworks in order to deliver a smart business strategy.
As I moved into the land of agencies, I was able to gain the skills needed to understand the varying needs for clients from all verticals, whilst gain deeper understanding into what the role of the big technology companies play – from Google to Facebook, to Adobe and Salesforce.
As I transitioned from StarcomMediaVest Group to Acxiom, my passion for data, and its importance in the delivery of 1:1 personalised engagements for consumers, became ever more apparent. I met so many smart people during my time with Acxiom, who taught me about the true value of data, and during that time I pivoted into a world surrounded by data scientists, engineers and traders.
Coincidentally, during this time I met co-founders Umberto and Simon, and my passion grew tenfold.
Having a core understanding of the power of data is so important for any marketer or publisher out there.
Getting to grips with a smart data strategy is vital for any smart, forward-thinking organisation, I can’t express that enough, and our team of data scientists here at Silverbullet blow my mind on a weekly basis!
Surrounding myself with incredibly smart people has also helped me along this exciting journey I am on today, and for that I am tremendously grateful.
In the last 5 years, how much have the AI, NLP and Text Analytics technologies evolved in the market?
It’s so exciting seeing where technology advancements are taking us, both today and in the future. And this is why I am so excited about the future of the Silverbullet Data Services Group.
Working so close to our clients enables us to get a true understanding of their needs, and projects us into the future to adhere to their needs. When we reflect on the past five years – with particular focus on the past 18 months and the extreme shifts we are caught up in – we need to be there to support our clients more than ever before.
As GDPR continues to gain momentum in market and we’re seeing the rise in fame of the Californian Consumer Privacy Act, regulations are ready to tighten at any given moment. Add in the latest browser lock-down on third party cookies, and it’s fair to say we’re going through immense, unprecedented change.
A well needed change at that.
With huge change follows great opportunities for new products and platforms to solve the next wave of challenges. And it’s here where our strengths at Silverbullet really shine. Our incredible team of data scientists and developers – headed up by Co-Founder and CSO Umberto Torrielli – are using AI and machine learning to underpin everything we serve for our clients.
Two of the most exciting platforms we have created over the past 6-12 months, and will be starting to roll out are:
4d: A next generation contextual intelligence platform, boosted by AI. This innovation helps support our clients overcome the challenges of a world without third-party cookies, as 4d is set to create waves among the contextual intelligence landscape.
I was sat in a product update meeting just the other week and was blown away by the advancements in NLP, and the ability for technology to extract video metadata and create contextual segments from moving media.
What I love about 4d is that our team of data scientists are creating the ability to blend context and first-party data insight, which not only supports clients in reaching personalisation at scale, but generates data intelligence back into the business – it is incredible!
Quadrant: A data-drive ROI and measurement tool that sits within our data services arm, curated to measure and analyse the value of data and tech. By blending our human experience and artificial intelligence, the Quadrant solution is empowering clients to join up the data dots within their organisations, helping to answer that million-dollar question:
what is the return of my investment?
As a CEO of a Tech company, what challenges do you face within and outside the organization to sell your product? What message do you have for other CEOs who head AI-driven product companies?
Because the industry is going through such a significant shift right now, many businesses are cautious to invest in what they see as unfamiliar or uncertain areas. Our clients vary in their understanding of data and technology, and so much of our sales cycle is education-dependent.
This means we have to be agile and flexible, to ensure we offer the right level of education, depending on the individual client and their needs.
What’s more, we often find many of our clients don’t realise the service they need in the first instance. Many will approach us with a simple ‘technical engineering’ requirement, whether that be integrating their entire tech stack, or supporting them in the deployment of a CDP.
Yet, more often than not, during our time with them, they will soon discover they require a specialized partner to further help them unlock their data value through activation and measurement.
When it comes to advice for the C-Suite, I would strongly advise any CEO within the technology and AI space to invest in talent and education. Clients hugely respect knowledge and will form a much greater bond with your team if you go that extra mile. The surge of in-housing has seen businesses desperately try to bring expertise in house, yet there still seems to be a huge skill-gap in the market.
Our methodology is: People, platforms and products. Invest in all three, and you will have all the tools for success.
How do you use technology to stay on top of your game? Which marketing, Sales and Communications tools do you use for these activities?
Again, we tend to use a very similar process as stated in the previous question, and we look to continuously invest in people, platforms and products.
Our Marketing and Sales teams are currently developing a group-wide new strategy that combines marketing automation platforms such as HubSpot, and CRM powerhouses such as Salesforce, to join our internal data dots. We will also be ensuring our team has regular training workshops across the various functionalities of these tools, so we can better utilise their solutions to streamline our internal processes.
We’re also looking to work with our PR teams to support our social network, building both brand awareness and lead generation through smart platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter. We approach these channels with a “business and people vision,” utilising the company profile for thought leadership activations but also raising the profiles of our experts.
What’s more, is we keep very close to the industry associations and bodies who sit across the MarTech landscape.
Being members with these partners enables us to continue learning, whilst keeping ahead of industry wide discussions that may impact us and how we serve our clients.
What is the approach you often take to build a Marketing and Sales calendar for the quarter? What kind of talent and skill do you usually seek and hire for? What challenges do you meet in building an effective AI Product and Marketing teams?
Building a robust marketing and sales strategy for the year starts with internal communication.
We have leadership meet ups every month which align all areas of the business, sales, product, marketing and services. This regular dialogue enables us to gain complete transparency throughout the organisation, which in turn creates an understanding across department priorities for each quarter.
This is then communicated to the rest of the team, so we are all across what’s coming and how best to sell/market the business.
For Silverbullet, at our stage of the journey, much of our efforts are internal investments in both people and product. Investing in the right talent has always been the heart of what we do. For me, bringing in intelligence will always create the best foundation in which to both sell and market. Once you’ve nailed your team, the rest often follows.
Insights and Predictions
With GDPR and CCPA coming to effect, how have you managed to keep your data governance policies intact? What foreseeable changes should CEO/CMOs make to ensure they adhere to various customer data privacy regulations that are currently in place?
The position of the Silverbullet Data Services Group is split with regards to data governance.
When we focus on our Silverbullet Data Services team (and where we originated from), we are positioned so we do not process any data ourselves. In effect, we advise, architect and support through managed services with the roll out of a smart data strategy on behalf of our clients. What we do provide here, is support for a client to ensure they are integrated in the correct manner with trusted partners, who all adhere to the GDPR and relevant privacy regulations so they can safeguard data management against the future.
Our other businesses within the group: content engagement experts Platform360, programmatic pioneers BeetleDesk and soon to launch contextual intelligence platform, 4d – will all have their individual privacy policies in place. As a group, we are now in the middle of building a robust analysis process to ensure each and every business that resides in the group adheres to a robust policy.
We are doing this through a variety of ways, including working with an amazing business called RedBud, who’s proprietary tool can run insight analysis scans to identify how well a business is adhering to compliance and privacy. They are able to identify the consent string, determine privacy policies within the adtech stack and identify any warnings that may harm our practice.
I’d recommend any CEO out there to adopt a vigorous strategy when it comes to both GDPR and CCPA.
Fortunately, being a UK headquartered business, and nearly two years on since GDPR came into effect, we feel ready to tackle further regulations that may come our way across the globe.
What are your thoughts on Marketing and Sales alignment? How do you align your Marketing and Sales team at Silverbullet?
I am a true believer in marketing being present across every lane throughout the business, and ensure our Marketing department is positioned as an operation ‘group’ role, versus a stand alone.
For me, Marketing and Sales go hand in hand. It’s extremely difficult for one to do its job without the other.
Like many other businesses, we hold weekly, monthly and quarterly sales updates which enable our local and global teams to keep aligned on our pipeline and revenue success. Our marketing department joins these meetings every month to understand the clients with whom we are talking to, prospects we are looking to explore, road-blockers we are facing and so forth. Marketing can then ensure the overall group strategy can support these efforts, whilst amplifying the wider brand story.
On a slightly deeper level, we are now looking to expand our marketing team so as the group expands, it is fully supported. Our Marketing team has a big challenge at Silverbullet Data Services Group, as they not only have the group to market and build a story for, but they also have to nurture and create sub-narratives for each business within the group. We are now heavily investing in these areas to ensure each sector of the group can take full advantage of the various Marketing channels.
Could you tell us about your most outstanding customer win? Which new markets and industries are you planning to expand into?
A global drinks business came to Silverbullet with an ambition of becoming more data-driven, with a core focus on defining a strong 1st party data strategy. The Silverbullet Group first introduced to the client our Data services team, who set about architecturing a brand new data strategy for the business.
This required a fairly technical and complex project, including technology audits, requirements gathering, data technology implementation and integration, data strategy workshops and use case support. It also required he implementation of an ROI measurement framework, creation and roll out of a governance process and data procurement. Our work started across the UK, US, Ireland, Italy and Spain, and is set to expand into five further regions.
The client has said that “we are now officially the global recommended partner for data strategy, data tech implementation and maintenance support, and audience activation.” They have also mentioned that our Data Services business has helped them achieve more in 4 months than other partners have done in more than a year.
We couldn’t be more proud of the partnership we have curated with this business, and we are now looking to bring the organisation into our content engagement offering and future innovations such as our contextual intelligence platform.
What are your predictions for your industry and technology markets for 2020-2024?
Great question. In order to look forward, we need to reflect on the past and check in to where we are right now.
It’s no secret that throughout 2019 we saw a definitive crumbling of the third-party cookie as GDPR enforcements continue to rise, and large internet browsers are cracking down on data collection. And, in the UK we were fronted with further scrutiny with the ICO’s latest discoveries in the direct processing of special category data, which added to the fire.
Whilst it’s true that the digital ad industry will struggle to adapt to this shift, not all is lost. In fact, there’s much to be gained. Businesses must start to think smarter and better in order to establish a sustainable, long-lasting marketing future – especially when it comes to the use of customer data.
Over the next twelve months, there are a few critical things that businesses will have to consider. With a limited yet enriched data pool available, there will be a renewed focus on making this data work much, much harder. Many businesses will be heading back to the future of contextual targeting, searching for ways to inform with first-party data, and enhance with artificial intelligence.
We will also likely see a more pressing need for measurement, as businesses seek to better understand their digital assets and the value they provide. This surge in new technology and enhanced machine learning means both skill and trusted experience will be paramount. It’s time to re-focus on what marketing should be about: driving inspiring connections between people and experiences in a safe, respected way.
How do you prepare for an AI-centric world as a Business Leader?
This goes back to what we discussed earlier on, and the importance lies within people. I truly believe you can’t rely on powerful intelligence, without the blend of human expertise.
We are always on the look out here at Silverbullet Group, to build a team of scientists, engineers, specialists and smart traders. In addition to that, we are big advocates for partnerships and surrounding the business with smart thinkers who can help us reach avenues we perhaps wouldn’t be able to reach without them.
I’d also urge leaders to think outside the box. Attend events that don’t directly match your business, but have close synergies, to help you expand your little ‘black book’ of references. From industry dinners, to leadership clubs, through networking you often meet the most interesting people.
Business Leaders should very much adhere to that same approach; surround yourself with talent and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. AI can evolve ten-fold, and tomorrow’s technology has already been built. Be smart and continue to learn by creating your own network of specialists so you keep ahead of the game.
This Is How I Work
How do you inspire your people to work with technology?
Technology very much sits at the heart of our business, so I am fortunate that I don’t have too much ‘inspiring’ to do. Each part of the group is made up of developers, scientists, engineers or self proclaimed ‘data geeks,’ so we are very well positioned to inspire our clients and partners.
We live and breathe data and technology – and that will always remain.
One word that best describes how you work.
I’d refer to the group values here.
Hungry and humble: We get the job done with no egos. This is something we have lived by since the very beginning. We are a very hard working collective of experts who sit in niche arenas across the MarTech ecosystem, and we have huge demands from our clients. We are positioned to be an extension of your team, and support you every step of the way.
Neutral: We are unbiased in our approach. Especially across our data services business, we ensure our team are neutral when it comes to the design and roll out of a data strategy. We can advise, perform bench-marketing and deep analysis, but we will never force a partnership between client and technology. For our other businesses – who have their own tech – we ensure this tech can be used with a variety of adtech vendors so not to restrict our clients.
Forward-thinking: Surrounding ourselves with experts and partners, we ensure we are one-step ahead of the game. From hosting Thursday Techy Brekkies (where we invite innovative businesses to come and teach us about a new platform) to training workshops and industry webinars.
One comic book or movie character that you instantly connect with–
There’s a joke around the office that I am Gru from Despicable Me. Both the uncanny looks and the ability to be a corporate mastermind as well as a big softy at heart.
One of my bugbears about business is ego and hierarchy. To me, I could not run this business without every single one of my team members, and I believe that everyone across the group should run and excel at their “lanes”. What I mean by “lanes” is, if you work in ad operations, then that’s your lane. Own it, be proud of it and succeed.
So, like Gru, I have a huge amount of respect and openness to the people I surround myself with. And a huge amount of admiration for those who are smart and innovative.
What startups in the technology industry are you watching keenly right now?
There are so many great innovators to keep an eye on. A little list below of who we are keeping close to our core here at the Silverbullet Group:
RedBud: RedBud is a service and platform designed to shine a light on vulnerabilities throughout the adtech ecosystem, empowering publishers to make informed decisions and take back control.
Infosum: Infosum are a next-generation business who enables trusted collaboration by delivering technology that focuses on a single vision for the future of data connectivity – data should never be shared.
Bidstack: is a provider of native in-game advertising that is dynamic, targeted and automated, serving the global video games industry across multiple platforms. Its proprietary technology is capable of inserting adverts into natural advertising space within video games.
Local Planet: We’re seeing a huge uptake in technology and data requirements from the indie agencies, and there’s a fantastic network called Local Planet.
We’re also excited to watch our existing partners across the data management and customer data platforms evolve and grow as the third-party cookie demise takes shape. Exciting platforms such as mPartical are making waves as the popularity of CDPs continues to rise, and so we’re excited to see how these businesses evolve over the next 24 months. (They just raised $45 million in Series D funding. Cool, isn’t it!)
Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?
I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s our people! I surround myself with incredibly smart people who will continue to educate me within this complex world.
Hiring an expert team is the secret to our success. We have handpicked the best talent from the Marketing Cloud marketplace, the programmatic ecosystem and the general MarTech landscape. Without this team, we wouldn’t be who we are today.
Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read.
Ciaran O’Kane, ExchangeWire. Smart guy, with some seriously valuable viewpoints.
Thank you, Ian! That was fun and hope to see you back on AiThority soon.
Ian has led multiple global companies in Data Technology, Media, and Consumer Goods. Prior to founding Silverbullet Data Services Group, Ian was International CEO of Acxiom which was recently acquired by IPG for $2.2bn. Prior to Acxiom Ian was Chief Digital Officer of the largest Media Agency Network in the world SMG part of Publicis Groupe. Ian has over 20 years of experience running scaled multli-market companies including significant M&A activities
Ian brings a unique proficiency of the data and technology having led varying data-driven transformation projects across global clients. He founded the Silverbullet Data Services Group in 2016, alongside Umberto Torrielli and Simon Theakston.
The Silverbullet Data services Group is a new breed of data-smart marketing services, designed to empower businesses to achieve the new hybrid of data services, insight-informed content and programmatic.
Our guiding principle is to create an insight-driven strategy in order to win. By creating a frictionless flow of data, we enable businesses to technically engineer an always-on, consumer-centric approach to marketing — underpinned by intelligence and expertise.