Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Meet the Revolutionaries: Dean Harris, ‘Head of Membership Commercial’ at Co-op

New Digital Age (NDA) in association with LiveRamp, is spotlighting the men and women championing a data-led revolution in the marketing industry. ‘Meet the Revolutionaries’ focuses on the efforts of the industry executives helping to push digital marketing into a new era of data collaboration.

Here, Dean Harris, Head of Membership Commercial at Co-op, describes his innovation process and how it’s not just about getting buy-in from the Board, but enthusing the whole organisation that counts if you want to get change projects off the ground.

Tell me about your current role.

‘Head of Membership Commercial’ isn’t exactly a ‘Ronseal’ title – it doesn’t really say what I do. In summary, I have three key remits; I’m responsible for Co-op’s membership rewards across all channels. Making sure the personalised discounts in our app, gamification offers, and exclusive instore promotions deliver value for our members and perform for the business. 

Most recently, I’ve started looking at our Retail Media services, our B2B offering to suppliers that provides them with opportunities to grow their brands using Co-op’s media and data. Most of this has been via instore advertising, but we are rapidly expanding our membership, digital media and data-led opportunities.

I’m also member data owner so any changes to how our member data is used or moved inside or outside the organisation needs my ‘rubber stamp’. I must make sure I’m primarily protecting members’ interests when we use their data against any commercial benefits.

Can you give an example of a time when you personally have helped to drive innovation?

For over 150 years Co-op has been a member-owned business. For us a member is not just a loyalty programme user, they are a shareholder; they have a say in how our business is run.

Late last year we began to fully commit our marketing efforts to serving them, enhancing their shopping experience, prioritising their value as a shopper. As such, I was aware we’d get more members, shopping more, spending more. Which meant more data and more media consumption.

If we could unlock this rich first-party data within digital media targeting, we could strengthen our own advertising effectiveness and support our suppliers with their media efficiency challenges. We just didn’t have the capability to connect our data with digital media channels at scale or with ease. Investment in our systems would be needed.

My approach was to link this proposal to our Membership strategy and position it as a multiplier effect for those efforts. This all took place over an intense six-month period this year. Executive approval to onboard a new data enablement partner into Co-op was given in June, with a view to start using the capability in January 2024.

For Retail Media, this will mean that Pepsi can target members in digital media that buy soft drinks, but don’t buy a lot of Pepsi. And equally, if we wanted to launch a new own brand pizza to our members, we use trading data to target those members that buy within that mission, reducing the media wastage from targeting shoppers that aren’t interested.

What are the most common challenges to innovation?

Not all innovation involves technology and data, but nowadays anything transformative usually does. That usually throws up multiple challenges with dozens of stakeholders across multiple teams, technical complexity, data governance, and costs coupled with speculative returns – the list goes on.

In my ten years at Co-op, the main challenge I’ve experienced is that the business is rarely short of things to do. So, if an opportunity presents itself, you need to earn the trust and buy in of numerous stakeholders to disrupt the existing roadmap and influence investment into your innovation proposals.

There are also two types of innovation – market innovation and business innovation. Market innovation is being first to explore new ideas in your market, whereas with business innovation you tend to follow someone else’s path, but it is still transformative for your organisation. 

If you’re focusing on market innovation, you can’t go to your stakeholder and point at a rival to provide reassurance that this works. So, this one is really challenging. For this I tend to look at overseas markets or different retail sectors to support the initiative. Take Walmart, Target, and 7-eleven with their rapid advancements in unlocking first-party data in digital media, for example. Leverage other non-compete markets that might be ahead of you.

What tips can you offer others hoping to drive innovation? 

You need to win hearts and minds, but the numbers also must stack up. That can be tricky for any truly innovative venture as there’s limited performance data to use. It’s more speculative in nature. 

In the beginning, seed the idea, bring others in the organisation along with the same excitement and conviction. For this you need to nail down your elevator pitch, making it repeatable by those you need support from. 

Always seek out the ‘informal approval’ process from critical teams and stakeholders first – that cross-organisation endorsement – then the formal route should take care of itself. And ride the momentum – technical details can be resolved further down the line. By pursuing permission for the next stage, not the whole thing in one go can create confidence. It makes the investment more of a two-way door, and reducing innovation projects risk, whilst protecting the high rewards is key.

How do you think digital marketing might evolve over the next few years?

It’s perhaps a cliché to say that AI and automation will continue to be a hot topic and all markets are going to go through trial and error when introducing these to their operations. But I think there are three domains to look at which is audience targeting, creative and media planning. 

I believe creative will push too far, then fall back with pursuit of cost efficiencies hindering effectiveness. I don’t think a machine will ever beat a human at creativity. 

With media planning, I think this will be increasingly more automated, and data driven. Resource will move from doing the media planning to looking after the machines that are doing the media planning.

Audience targeting will be a powerful for AI and automation, as data becomes more accessible between brands, retailers, and technology partners. There will be better algorithms, more accurate lookalike audiences, scale, ease, and automation. The biggest risk is transparency and market consistency. So, I think there will be more regulation needed to put some control on what is a fast-growing part of the market; GDPR v2?