Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

My Digital Hero: Paul Rowlinson, MD GroupM Digital, UK

Paul Rowlinson has straddled the digital divide for much of his working life. He started in media as a TV buyer before holding posts including Head of Exchange and COO at Mindshare UK, before becoming MD of GroupM Digital UK in early 2017.

Who is your digital hero?

It was hard to choose just one digital hero, but in the end it had to be Claire Valoti, now VP International at Snapchat, with whom I worked for many years at Mindshare, back when digital was in its infancy. Claire headed up digital display and mobile, while my focus was the audio-visual team.

What has she done to win hero status in your eyes?

Claire is very authentic and empathetic. She has done more than anyone else to humanise digital, especially in the early days when it seemed that a lot of the “digital” people seemed more interested in using baffling language and talking the technology itself, rather than what experiences it created for consumers, and what it could achieve.

She was able to explain digital in a way that was neither patronising nor overly complicated. And her career speaks for itself. She has since headed up O2’s media business, was media director at Weve and head of agency relationships at Facebook before, now, at Snap as VP, International.

How has her heroism helped drive digital?

By being open to sharing knowledge and understanding she has helped demystify digital for many (including me). She takes it back to a human level and focuses on people’s experiences, an approach that really resonated with our agency planners.

All too often we get caught up with the technicalities and the technologies rather than what we are trying to achieve – the how, rather than the why. Claire was unusual, particularly in the early days, in ensuring that digital was and is a tool to deliver better consumer experiences.

By educating people this way she has been instrumental in helping to push digital up the marketing agenda of many clients. It is down to people like Claire that digital has matured considerably over the past decade.

What is the biggest challenge in media we need another hero to solve?

There are many challenges in digital media that we need to solve, but the biggest, perhaps, surrounds the online behemoths – the huge organisations such as Facebook that control information within their own ecosystems. There are now a number of these different parallel ecosystems but as a marketer and advertiser you want to understand people as a whole, not just who a person is within a siloed platform.

You want to understand who they are across the platforms, apps, offline and the open web but the challenge we have is in connecting those disparate and evolving ecosystems. And that’s before you add in the complexity of the emerging Connected TV ecosystems!

I doubt there is any one hero who can solve this. It will take all of us to solve, though perhaps there is a conductor out there who can turn the cacophony of today into digital harmony? I hope so. 

What is your most heroic personal achievement so far in digital?

I don’t consider it heroic as such but I’ve always tried to ensure that digital is always brought back to the human level, which is Claire’s ongoing influence on me.

About a decade ago, when I was running Mindshare’s investment team, people started talking about “programmatic” – it was a new word to me, and when I asked people to explain what it meant I often got answers that left me saying “Sorry. Can you explain it to me in English, please?”.

I persevered and was able to unpick the acronyms and tech jargon and realised that it was really quite straightforward – we were going to use machines to make data-based decisions to show the right ad to any one person at any one point in time.

Yes, the technology behind it is complex, but I didn’t like the way some people wanted to over-complicate it just to appear clever – I don’t think that is what clients appreciate.

They want clear, unbiased answers and advice that helps them meet their goals in the best way possible – doing that and encouraging others to do it is something I feel happy about, and is the closest I will ever get to feeling heroic about work!