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Helping retailers to feed people during the heightened demand of the pandemic

Global company, IRI, was analysing Big Data even before Big Data had a name. It helps Consumer Packaged Goods, retail, over-the-counter healthcare and media companies grow their business by combing purchase, media, social, causal and loyalty data with analytics to uncover new consumer insights. Ash Patel, Chief Information Officer at IRI, which has 4,000 employees, explains how the company has grown and how it helped to ensure a steady supply of food was provided by retailers during the heightened demand of the pandemic.

Can you tell me a bit more about IRI and how the company started?

IRI would be considered one of the original Big Data companies, even before Big Data had a name. It started in 1979 from the lens of, how do you disrupt the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) industry and how they track their performance and how they better understand their customers, their retailers their markets, using Big Data collected from the actual retailers, in order to create a view of performance for all the CPG manufacturers in the marketplace.
For the prior 50 years, it was done by sending people into stores and literally counting boxes and shelves and things like that, which is called audit. IRI really revolutionised the space by taking a Big Data analytics and technology approach to that in the early 80s and then continuing to enhance and innovate for decades, to the point now where IRI is viewed as three things – a data company, a technology company and a data science or analytics company, put together in order to deliver those services to the CPG in the retail industry.

How has the company grown since it started and how have you helped to ensure growth?

A big part of our core differentiation is leveraging technology. With the data sets having become so enormous between the sales in the various stores, online, social, advertising, television advertising, all sorts of other data sets – it’s not a lake of data, it’s an ocean.
The most effective way to help our clients find their growth opportunities and their issues is to leverage technology, AI, Machine Learning and analytics to help surface those opportunities, because doing it the traditional way of an expert and our client analysing a report or running an ad hoc query just no longer scales. It’s just ineffective compared to the scale of the data and so we’ve continued to grow and manage to innovate in terms of just how effective our technology and our analytics, our AI/ ML is in terms of helping clients find those opportunities.

What’s the business’s approach to management?

Our business approach to management is embedded in our tagline. It’s called growth delivered and so we orientate ourselves on helping our clients drive growth. It’s how our organisation is structured, it is how our organisation is incented in terms of how they’re paid, in terms of driving value impact to our clients using our tools, our data, our technology, our analytics, to help our clients grow.

What is your company’s vision and goals?

Our vision going forward is, in some ways, to take what we’ve done for our industry and apply it to others, in related adjacencies, to really drive efficiency in terms of what we call the triangle – manufacturers that make products, retailers or online retailers that sell products and then the media marketing system that helps generate demand for those products. To drive efficiency between each of those three macro industries, and in any given country or economy, is substantial.

What kind of clients and market do you serve?

Currently we serve three main industries – so CPG, also known as Fast Moving Consumer Goods in other parts of the world, retailers – both brick-and-mortar, online and everything in between – click and collect, etc. And then, increasingly, the media ecosystem, so publishers like Google and Facebook to advertisers to agencies. Overall that whole ecosystem of marketing is a third pillar of who we serve.

You just mentioned the bricks-and-mortar stores, I imagine this last year, you had to change in different ways because of the pandemic?

Interestingly enough, our clients did incredibly well last year, with all the pantry stocking and the mad rush to fill your kitchen during the lockdowns, and restaurant dining and other things being closed. We saw a peak in demand for our services tied to helping our manufacturers and helping our retailers really figure out where’s the best place to deliver their limited supply, just keeping their factories running at full steam to get products out the door and shelves stocked and where is best to redirect that product from a supply chain perspective, what size products to make with their constrained factory capacity, because demand spiked so tremendously overall. We interestingly had a quite a busy year last year helping our clients basically feed the population in the various countries we operate.

Was that challenging to deal with the increase in demand?

It was. A lot of our services that normally we would deliver call it weekly or monthly, we got requested to deliver daily – daily out of stock analytics in terms of where’s toilet paper out of stock or cereal or beer or whatever product it may have been, and really accelerated our delivery of those capabilities to clients so that they can react quickly, based upon which parts of the given country were in lockdown or had significant cases.

What has your career looked like so far?

I’ve been in some form of technology my entire career. I started in the late 90s as a start-up and what we would now call a healthcare exchange, bringing healthcare products and benefits to consumers as a dot.com. I ended up selling that to Aon, the world’s largest insurance broker at the time. I stayed there for 12 years, ended up being the Chief Information Officer of that particular business unit, which was focused on the workplace so everything from employee benefits to pensions to compensation to talent consulting. I left there in 2013 to join IRI and I’ve been at IRI since then.

Have you always been interested in technology, even when you were growing up?

I was. I started early in life in technology. I’ve worked at numerous places, even while still being adolescent and so, I worked at an air defence company taking designs of their parts and their products and putting them onto AutoCAD or CAD software for the first time. I worked at many other technology companies, prior to even graduating high school and so I’ve always had a passion for technology since I was little, since I could hold a keyboard in my hand.

What do you think influenced that passion?

Just the notion of being able to build something. You get to build something that, in many ways, outlasts you and has impact in society, whether it’s on the benefits and the healthcare side of the equation as part of my career at Aon or more on the CPG and how to feed the world, if you will, at the IRI side of the equation. That’s what makes it exciting, that you could take something virtual, if you will, and build on it and keep building on it as you continue to innovate.

In your role as CIO, how do you equip staff with skills and knowledge?

That one is tricky in the war for talent. We always try to hire people that have a few key skills which, quite frankly, are hard to teach. So, problem solving, something that I call synthesis so can you take two abstract ideas and come up with something amazing and concrete? Those tend to be skills that are pretty hard to teach. We can always teach anybody technology. So really the profile is hiring from around the globe, in a global company like IRI, individuals that really have that inherent problem-solving ability, synthesis ability, strong work ethic, individuals that have that passion for learning – they run towards challenges versus away.

How do you work with other executives to make sure that your voice is heard?

I’ve always had this philosophy that I manifest it by even how my function is named, so we’re not called IT or Information Technology, so the name of the function, both here and at Aon was called Business Technology. The reason for that is if you’re in our function and you’re in a room with other colleagues from other functions, nobody should really be able to distinguish that you’re from technology. You’re just another business colleague, you talk in terms of impact. Granted, yes, you’re going to use technology to create that impact, whether it’s revenue growth, profitability or margin expansion, risk management, etc, but it’s from the lens of driving business outcomes and hence why it is embedded into the name.

How do you ensure that different teams within your company work together?

Part of it is this mindset of we’re all going to talk about revenue growth, margin expansion, client retention and satisfaction and risk management. Those are business concepts that colleagues in our operations, commercial, finance or marketing function can all rally around. That’s the core reason why we operate – to drive revenue, to drive profitability, to delight your clients and retain that, and then to manage risk across the organisation.
And then we have this mindset that I think of those other groups as my internal clients, they all use technology to drive their own functions. We have the saying that the customer’s always right, except when we could help them be more right. If you have a better idea, you have an obligation to raise your point of view and help somebody be smarter tomorrow than they are today, in terms of how they wield technology as a competitive advantage.

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