Podcast Transcript – Tom Langley from John Lewis

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Nick King – 00:00:01: Welcome to the Time for a Reset Podcast, where we interview senior marketers on the big issues of the day and how they’re dealing with those challenges in an ever-changing landscape. We deep dive into the latest trends, strategies and tactics that will help you stay ahead of the curve and stand out in a crowded marketplace. This episode is hosted by me, Nick King, Global Practices Lead at CVE. Let’s get into it. I have with me today Tom Langley, who is head of customer personalization and retail media at John Lewis Partnerships. I think we all know their brands, John Lewis and Waitrose. Tom’s role within the business is creating a new data-led customer proposition and capabilities across the group. Previously, he was at Dunnhumby, where he had a range of roles, all of them with data at the absolute heart. Where there was leading personalization was Global Head of Marketing Consultancy, where he identified the retail media opportunity and launched a business unit that built out the ad stack and also brought in the right team to deliver what was at the time a really nascent area in the UK. Tom, brilliant to have you on the podcast.

Tom Langley – 00:00:59: Thanks for having me, Nick. I’ve enjoyed listening to a few of the episodes and I love the concept of what you’re doing.

Nick King – 00:01:04: We always start at that sort of original place of, if you could hit reset on one thing in marketing, what would it be?

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Tom Langley – 00:01:11: I love this question and it’s kind of made me think a bit. I think I would go kind of as high as I can and then it’s very particular to retail. But I think the big challenge we have at the moment is the lack of understanding of the role of marketing at the exec and the board level of retail. If you look at the role that’s most prominent at the moment in retail and the conversation in the industry, it’s really around that chief operating officer role. You think about marketplaces, range, availability, supply chain, delivery, all those challenges, which are completely valid. But I think where we’ve lost our way a little with marketing and the role of marketing and the role of brand building, that exec level is where we’ve got to do that reset. And I thought about what is it that’s creating that challenge? And I think it really comes down to the challenge of measurement and that articulation of the value of marketing. Though we’ve had an incredible amount of new tools at our fingertips as marketeers in terms of new channels, new data points, which makes us able to optimise marketing in a much more kind of precise way, you could probably reset on that conversation to say, do all of our marketeers really understand the difference between all the different kind of measurement approaches? And I knew that just for fun, I was writing down a handful of those. And if you think, if you could find how many marketeers that understand the difference between econometrics, attribution modelling, share a voice, AB tests, geo tests, test and control, year on year, period on period. And just, you know, we could have fun and just keep going on. But I think the challenge is, is that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should in terms of, you know, are those metrics the right metrics for what you’re actually trying to achieve? And I think the challenge with all those different metrics is, is we’ve lost that clarity of conversation at the exact level to state what is the role of brand building and brand perception. And it’s very pertinent in retail because of the challenges in retail at the moment. But I think as a retailer, you have to remember that you are a brand. You are of course a retailer and that does require really good operational kind of models, but you also have to make sure that you’ve got clear reasons that customers want to turn right to go to Waitrose instead of, you know, the competitor or the same for John Lewis. And the same is true online of why am I choosing to open up a John Lewis window instead of Amazon and other competitors? And that requires us to make sure we put brand building and the perception of the brand right at the heart of the business strategy and growth strategy. I think that for me is always on my mind of where retailers are going and, and what is that role of just remembering that there’s a huge role in customer perception and why customers choose you as a retailer that needs to be part of the conversation at the exec board and the strategy level.

Nick King – 00:03:48: I think that’s such an interesting point of view. And I think obviously a business that invests so heavily in the Christmas ad and I even saw an article today that was starting to talk about it was being discussed online. It’s kind of here at the end of September, beginning of October. It’s a business that clearly invests in brand at the top level. How much do you have to battle that sort of, we invest over here, but what is the ROI or does it stand alone as something that you can build all your other campaigns around?

Tom Langley – 00:04:20: It’s a good question. I think we’re probably good in some business need work. And I think, you know, Christmas is set up and this will be my third Christmas ad and it is such an excitement, even with internal business, my colleague and friend, Rosie Hanley, who leads the marketing team and John Lewis, you know, she’s very excited and comes into the, yeah, our leadership meetings and sort of has to bite her lip internally. It’s still a well-kept secret. But, you know, from one perspective you have that we still really hugely invest into those types of activities in our Christmas ad and some of our broader activation. But I do think that because of that challenge that I mentioned upfront, you know, in understanding the role of marketing and having that clarity of, you know, understanding we are placing bets on growing our brand, growing our customer interactions as part of our overall strategy is somewhere where we’ve still got to do work, but we’re seeing good progress. We’re investing a lot into our marketing technology, our data, our loyalty schemes. I think, you know, when you think about CMO wars, probably 15 years ago in looking after paid media and kind of the role today is so much more complicated in terms of how does the brand show up in e-comm, how does it show up? What’s the role of a loyalty scheme? And your chief customer officer role is just so fragmented and complicated now and articulating all of those things and how it comes together at the exact level is complicated. But I think we’ve turned a corner mostly through the articulation of, through data and how can you improve the customer experience in a kind of more fragmented world, particularly, you know, in John Lewis, you’ve seen that sales have gone to close to 70% now, so you really have to invest into kind of that digital side of the business where you interact with customers and you can be a lot more targeted and a lot more personalised than you can in the store, for example.

Nick King – 00:06:02: You touched a little bit on the MarTech side and I’m always interested to see how invested in terms of time senior marketers are in sort of the tech stack. Some want to embrace it, some want to just leave it to the technology or function. How do you get involved and kind of what’s your current challenge in that area?

Tom Langley – 00:06:23: I completely agree. I mean, I actually, you know, having worked at Dunnhumby for 15 years, I guess we were very part of the organisation, which came with the data, the analytics, some of the activation in the very target to space. So it part of my journey just to become part of a, you know, a marketing leadership team, which then other areas of the team where it’s, it’s about brand building, it’s about creative and content and trying to think about how all of that comes together. And I think the role I play in that leadership team is hopefully that I understand, you know, the data and the tech and how it can actually be used. So that doesn’t become something buried in technology, but actually a way that our marketing team see that they can make their marketing more efficient and effective, but actually I think it makes people’s career paths and their jobs much kind of more enjoyable. If you can make technology do some of the hard work, you’re taking a lot of the laborious tasks away so that most people in marketing, I think, want to spend their time thinking about strategy and growth and where do we go, but there are a lot of jobs to be done in marketing and getting campaigns live, getting content from A to B, communicating, getting sign-offs. So there’s a lot of tasks that tech can take away. And I think my job has been to really help out our late, you know, my boss, you know, our customer officer, she has also come from a data and tech background. So I think we’ve made a big change in the last two years to bring in people who are embracing what data and tech can do to, I guess, grow our brand and grow, grow our business through marketing.

Nick King – 00:07:50: And I don’t think it’d be podcast in 2023 if I didn’t ask you a bit about AI. Is that sort of something that’s on your radar or are you just thinking the technology sits there, I will trust that they use the best tools within their capabilities to port me.

Tom Langley – 00:08:07: Absolutely. I think you’ve got to be quite precise on how you want to use, whether you machine learning or AI and know the problems that you want to solve and how you want to solve, I think, you know, obviously there’s a lot of conversation around generative AI, which could, you know, come into more of the content and in areas like that, but I think the early parts for retail was really around that prediction model of how do you predict what someone is going to buy once they browse and not bought or based on their past purchase history, they’re really using clever data science approaches to predict what customers are going to do to improve their e-commerce experience. I think when you consider that in a physical store, you’ve got tens of thousands of square feet to display products and merchandisers over years have learned how to really curate ranges that think about where customers are, how are they going to experience things? How are they going to choose and make that choice and how to group brands, how to group products together and ranges together. And you consider how do I now achieve that all about on a tiny phone, you know, considering I can probably get three or four products on there. I think data science is absolutely critical to ensure that a customer sees the products that they’re interested in and the products that they’re potentially going to purchase and how do we ensure that we help customers to, you know, find things quickly, find inspiration, get great service. So I think as a retailer, you have to embrace kind of all of these models, I think, and we’ve probably spent more of our time on that piece, which is how do you enhance the digital recommenders so that the products in front of customers are great and we’re sort of early on our journey on the generative AI, which I think the whole industry is in terms of what will that mean for our content and creative teams?

Nick King – 00:09:47: Yeah, totally. I think that leads quite nicely onto your role is it within personalisation when we love to talk about the data that we have on our customers and yet on the other side, there’s a whole world of privacy and I think the industry too often just sort of has a nod towards rather than actually really doing something about it. How do you balance that sort of personalisation and the data you have with respecting your customers and future customers’ privacy concerns and needs?

Tom Langley – 00:10:17: It’s definitely a conversation that we have regularly here and I had regularly at Dunnhumby with all the retailers you work with around the world and I think the great thing and if you are you know a retailer, the brilliant thing you have as a retailer is you have that direct interaction with the customer on a really regular basis. So as you know we have a research panel where we directly talk to customers regularly and that can be in focus groups or it can be through some of the survey work we do and so we’ve done quite a lot of work here and in my kind of life in Dunnhumby to talk to customers and have an open dialogue about it and I think the thing that always comes through in all of those conversations I’ve had with customers is we expect you to use our data to improve the service and personalisation and so the conversation you always end up with is if you can create the right value exchanges for customers, they will expect you and they will let you use their data. I think as long as you are using data and protecting it in the right way which is a baseline expectation you know these days that is table stakes now you have to ensure you protect the data. I think that the most important thing is thinking about how can you use data to solve customer needs, improve the experience and create the right value exchange so that they feel there’s a good value exchange for me to log in and you know once I’ve logged into a website I kind of inherently know that my data is now being tracked. If I use a loyalty card of course it’s even more kind of prevalent so you just have to constantly think about those value exchanges and I think a lot of the challenges in data permissions came from a lot of what we call misuse or bad marketing in digital marketing and a lot of the DSPs and how it was created around you know the focus was automation and data rather than brilliant marketing you know the conversation wasn’t you know did you see that brilliant display campaign it was more how automated everything is you know so I think that’s not the right focus the right focus should be on how are we creating brilliant customer experiences and then using data in the right way you know people understand that Google takes their data and uses it to enhance search but they get a brilliant free service the challenge when you are a retailer is that customers don’t understand that online commerce is really expensive to run and therefore you actually need to have advertising and things like that inherently into the business model I think if you know use it in the right way I think customers are okay with it. I think that’s absolutely spot on.

Nick King – 00:12:25: Your role obviously has a big focus on retail media and worked in it sort of probably since it really came over to the UK you’ve got two very different brands in your remit, I’m always curious to see how you approach that with two distinct brands and what you’re trying to achieve how do you view it on a sort of day-to-day basis?

Tom Langley – 00:12:48: Definitely, I think that’s part of what I love about the role of moving to the partnership was that you have these two distinct brands and I think there’s different paths to it in terms of part of it, you just have to think about the customer journey and what’s the customer journey look like when I’m buying in some of the big categories in John Lewis and what’s the consideration journey to buying a new kitchen, a new sofa, a new television, a new phone. It’s much more considered. You need to go on a longer journey of thinking about, so you need different types of content through versus when I’m buying my groceries where. Often in groceries, 60, 70, 80% of people’s baskets is the same week on week. So a lot of that consideration is not done on such a short period. In a weekly basis, it’s done over time as you grow and you’re feeling towards brands. It will change over time, but it’s a slightly different brand life cycle to Don Foods. I think that’s part of the important consideration for what do we therefore need to do in the customer journey to influence consideration in John Lewis versus Drive Purchase and Waitrose. So we think about those things slightly differently. And the other part is, I think the industry and grocery, particularly for me in retail media is very mature. Grocery has had retail media kind of the last 10, 15 years and it’s been maturing very quickly. Whereas in a lot of premium fashion and premium beauty, you haven’t had so much retail media mechanics out there. So the dialogue isn’t there. It hasn’t kind of got to a mature state in terms of you’ve got roles within both organisations who are there to work on retail media, work on activation together. That’s part of that journey is to educate both the industry as well as our business and our suppliers business on what are the role of some of these kind of retail media propositions and how can they help build brands. That’s part of the fun for it really. I think the exciting part for us is the fact what we call pan partnership and understanding customers across grocery, potentially some of our financial services products through to all the different categories in John Lewis and how much you can understand about customers and help brands grow and understand customers in their lives to better serve them and execute your brands within that. So that’s the big exciting part really is the fact that we can bring all of that customer view together.

Nick King – 00:14:59: I don’t think you can move for an article on that retail media is going to grow enormously. Have you got sort of any sort of major predictions of where you see it operating in the current and how it’s changing for next year?

Tom Langley – 00:15:13: A lot of the conversation at the moment in industry is how do we create a bit more standardisation? I think almost all retailers have created some version of a retail media offering within their few entrepreneurs who have created offerings around the store, on the website, through the CRM and you’ve got a lot of lack of standardisation. And I think in order to scale, you really have to start to create standards because if you haven’t got standards, you can’t then innovate because you sort of haven’t got a level set and you’re not really testing and learning and growing. I think we’ve got to see a little bit of standardisation out there. I think what that will help is then having a dialogue with the broader media industry. I think retail media is still very much a shop and marketing and trading kind of function, whereas you’re starting to see the big agencies creating retail media arms, particularly as Amazon has kind of grown their offering, grown a dialogue with Walmart in the industry. I think what we need to do for the agencies to be able to plan retail media within the broader planning is create some standard metrics that you can plan against in terms of the ROI it delivers, the ROAS, the reach, so that it’s easy for them to consider, okay, retail media within my broader campaign versus Google versus Meta versus TV versus press. And I think that’s the bit that I think we’ll see everyone working on and a couple of the bodies in the UK, ISBAR and IAB are working on trying to create kind of those first versions of standards that I think will help us.

Nick King – 00:16:36: So, exploring that ROI piece, you mentioned attribution is kind of a big focus of yours. I’m interested, retail media has such an opportunity to be able to, with the death of cookies next year, as long as Google don’t change their mind again, that there’s all sorts of problems in the wider marketing world, yet retail media seems to have this huge opportunity. Is there anything in particular that you’re doing internally to focus on how you can demonstrate that performance through the brands that work with you?

Tom Langley – 00:17:04: Exactly. And I think that is, you know, if you ask most people, what’s the USP of retail media, it’s the fact that you can close the loop from the kind of viewing the media through to then the customer purchasing. And I think that is our important piece, which is we, you can give a brand, a kind of full view of activation through to purchase, but also repurchase and how that’s, you know, that customer is staying with your brand or moving through different brands over time. So I think the data has to be that key and that closeness to the customer. We are investing a lot. You’ll see all the retailers investing a lot into loyalty, but also e-commerce so that you can identify all your transactions and make sure you can close that loop. Another challenge, I think with attribution modelling is most of it tends to focus on e-commerce. So many transactions are still happening in the store. If you see grocery is still more, you know, 90% on average of the transactions are still in the store. And so any attribution model that’s only focusing on online sales is going to be inherently kind of wrong. You know, you’re not, you’re going to be optimising for the wrong, potentially missing lots of sales data. So I think having loyalty cards and things like that helps you to then identify all of that. I think that’s kind of part of it. I think it goes even broader than that though. I think that customer kind of attention is such a big topic at the moment because customer’s attention is being drawn upon by so many different devices. Things in their lives that are stopping them from being able to pay attention, I think. Retail media has inherently probably been thought of as a fairly lower funnel mechanic, but if it was me and I was going to build a brand, I think I would be starting to think about, you know, actually the context of when someone is shopping in a physical store potentially, you know, how do I use that as the theatre to grow and build my brand and build my brand perception and grow the kind of that brand from physical store. I think when you’re trying to find someone in the right context, in the right frame of mind that they are paying attention, you have to grab it and you have to spend that time. And I think we’ll see physical stores really evolve. We do a lot of activations in store. We’ve just done a big piece with Charlotte Tilbury and our Oxford Street store. I think the brands who get it, they are using the physical stores as that, you know, real place to build the brand and think of it as a much more kind of upper funnel before you then go into some of the kind of, you know, whether it’s sponsored products, CRM, personalised offers to do that lower funnel activation. I think you can work through the funnel within a retailer.

Nick King – 00:19:22: It’s lovely to hear a brand that’s still thinking about the in-store experience. I think we can sometimes get so distracted and view that everybody’s just digital only when clearly not the case. There’s also a movement when we think about sort of the consumers, we talk a lot about sustainability and how we’re operating and it feels like that’s suddenly coming into the marketing space as well, the WFA conference not long ago. It felt like nearly half of the presentations were on sustainability. How do you think as you’re not on the supply chain side, but on that marketing side, how are you sort of operating with when it comes to sustainability and how you think about all these sort of things?

Tom Langley – 00:20:04: Yeah, I mean, it’s a massive topic at the partnership. I mean, the partnership exists and I guess our purpose is to create a happier world. And in part, it is about, you know, really thinking about our ethics of sustainability. And you’ll see actually a lot more content coming out from Waitrose in particular on actually talking about the lives of farmers and how we’re working with them. And it’s always been important. It’s been inherent in Waitrose, but I think we haven’t talked about it. Yeah. We haven’t let people know that actually through the kind of the last few years, when there’s been challenges for farmers, we are paying our farmers in the right way. We’ve got ethical supply chains. We own a big farm out in Lakewood with a big farm shop, but. So I think that it’s always been part of our brand and you’ll see us doing more. There’s a TV program that’s coming out now about some of our supply chains as well. But so it’s a huge part for us. And I think it’s knowing that the customers are more conscious of this. It’s a very challenging time because the reality is some of those products where, you know, has been ethically sourced do cost more. And so customers are cost conscious, but they’re also conscious of the world. So it’s trying to find that happy medium for customers where, yeah, they can supply ethically and sustainable sources as well as a price point that they can afford. And I think that will be the challenge in the market that we’re in grocery.

Nick King – 00:21:18: I always think it’s interesting how the John Lewis partnerships set up means that you probably have a bit more of a focus because the whole staff have a say ultimately, right? Yeah, that’s sort of something that changes. Was that something that you were interested in when you joined the business?

Tom Langley – 00:21:36: You know, I don’t think I knew too much before I joined the business actually about the partnerships, I probably learned, you know, I knew sort of surface level, but I think what drew me in the reality at the beginning was the, was the brands and you know, actually kind of iconic brands on our high street in terms of waitress and John Lewis and wanting to, I guess, be part of that in the conversation I’ve had, I was, what can I do to help? You know, I think that’s always on your mind when you’re thinking about roles. And I’ve seen an organisation who have built brilliant and iconic brands. But hadn’t, I guess, used as much as other retailers like Tesco who I was working with in terms of that real data intelligence and putting that intelligence into the business. So I felt like where the challenges for waitress and John Lewis were perfect for me, where they’ve got brilliant MPS and brand love for, from the British population, but actually needed to kind of get better at using data and intelligence to grow the business and put that as part of the strategy. So it’s only really since I’ve joined, I’ve learned a lot more about the partnership and particularly as a leadership team, you know, we don’t have shareholders kind of breathing down our throats for in-year profits and dividends, you know, so we can make active choices around doing good with our profits. That’s really the purpose. And a lot of what’s behind the partnership model is to make enough profit to do good with and make those choices, as well as obviously creating brilliant career paths and where people can have a great long career at Jell-O. So I think that’s part of what I’ve really enjoyed is that ability as a leadership team that you are ultimately as a group of, you know, 80,000 partners making the choices of what we invest into both internally to grow, but also externally of how can we put our money towards doing good in the industry? And yeah, I guess the nation at large.

Nick King – 00:23:20: So to we so often finish is, yeah, you’ve had, obviously, you’re in the middle of a great career. I think it’s quite challenging for people entering the sort of that traditional path that graduates and school leavers enter. What’s your advice to somebody entering the industry and how should they think about it and what should they be focusing on in those early years?

Tom Langley – 00:23:43: It’s a good question. It can be so complicated because everything’s changing. Why do you have a constant change of data, technologies, roles, and things like that? So I think it’s important to focus on what are the constant, which is typically the values. And I was in the US business with Dunhamby a few years ago, probably 10 years ago, actually working with one of the sales directors. And he gave me a book at the end of a project on the front of it, apologies for the swearing, but it basically said, get shit done. It really made me think, and essentially he gave it to people who just really helped drive things forwards. You know, I think it’s made me think quite a lot in terms of what am I good at, but also what do I look for in people? I think the most important thing you can do is come into a room and be really positive and to show that you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get things done and move things forward. And I think, you know, for me, that is probably almost more important than some of the kind of the parts of the job, which are, it can be trained. I think it’s that positive attitude. And the last couple of people that I’ve hired, I’m really focused on, are they going to roll their sleeves up, be tenacious and get stuff done and take stress away from me. We’ve all got big plans that we want to deliver and we need the people that don’t come and highlight all this problems, but they actually come with positivity and go, do you know what? Don’t worry about it. I’m going to figure out how to get that done. And, you know, I think it’s a good mantra for life in general is that, you know, always just start with action. Just keep moving forwards, get things done. And I think that that’s probably the simplest thing is if you can go and work for someone and show them you’re positive and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get things done and move things forwards, then you’ll keep progressing.

Nick King – 00:25:15: 100% agree with that. Too much of the modern world is filling in spreadsheets and online forms and making sure everything’s done without actually moving a business forward. So well said. Very much agree with that. Tom Langley, thank you so much. It’s been fascinating talking to you.

Tom Langley – 00:25:32: Thanks for having me.

Nick King – 00:25:34: We hope you enjoyed this episode of Time for a Reset. Thanks for tuning in. We’ll be back talking to another senior marketer very soon. Make sure to leave a review and catch you next time.

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