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Juggling risk and opportunities, chief data officers are becoming key agency roles


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

May 10, 2023 | 10 min read

With consumer and regulator sentiment hardening and major industry shifts due, we look at how chief data and product officers are becoming increasingly vital to agency-client relationships as part of our data deep dive, The New Data & Privacy Playbook.

ben silcox

Ben Silcox, Publicis Groupe UK’s chief product officer

As brands come to rely more and more on a sound data strategy to ensure advertising success, chief data officers are becoming as important as hotshot CEOs and chief creatives to agency arsenals.

“This topic isn’t technical, geeky stuff that sits in a dark room – it’s substantial in making a brand appear and behave in the way that the business wants it to,” says Ben Silcox, chief product officer at Publicis Groupe UK.

These roles encompass key client-side responsibilities spanning data collection, data management, keeping up with regulatory changes – and advising clients on how best to navigate a shifting privacy landscape.

For Havas Media Groups’ chief data and product officer Laura Kell, “it’s all about making sure clients have the right data set-up to deliver better work.”

With bigger agencies gunning to take bigger and bigger slices of a brand’s marketing setup off their hands, data officers work across a wide swathe of functions – from e-commerce platforms and customer data management to the more traditional media offering.

Value of data

Most agency groups haven’t had data or product officers on their C-suites for long; Silcox was one of the first to occupy the role at Publicis UK. Elevating the role in 2020 indicated its importance to clients, says Silcox. “It’s a signal and also a practical job internally. After the acquisition of Epsilon and other capabilities we had, the need to connect the dots was that much greater – and the need to make sure clients could find it accessible.”

Silcox and his colleague, Digitas UK head of data Leila Seith Hassan, can be brought in at every stage of the client process, from prospecting to pitching to bringing a new catch on board.

“We are brought in at the very earliest stages, as a fourth part of the typical strategy, creative and media triumvirate, to bring things together and connect the dots.”


“Data is such a critical component to how we help our clients drive value and that can be value from how they’re improving the impact that they have, but it can also mean delivering connected experiences for consumers across the entire funnel. Because of that, I’m always involved from the absolute inception of new business, even at the prospecting stage. But the second we get an RFP or RFI, I’m involved,” Hassan says.

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Managing Digitas’ UK and Indian data teams from London, Hassan spends approximately 50% of her time on client-side duties. “We often do onboarding if we’re taking over from an incumbent agency that has handed the keys over to us, or if we’re setting up something new, we do quite a lot of work getting under the hoods of our client’s organizations.”

Though the days of data evangelism are largely behind the industry, Hassan says many marketers at legacy brands still struggle to realize their data ambitions. “A lot of organizations don’t understand the difficulty in actually leveraging your data to get value. What we do is break down their organizational silos, connect the dots so they can connect throughout their businesses to get value.”

Silcox says that the worth of that work shows up in different ways for clients and agencies. “Firstly, how can we as a business offer something that's far more accessible for our clients – how do we take the pain away for them?”

“The second part is to enable delivery. And thirdly, it’s to help our clients and our business win by having a laser focus on true competitive advantage and not getting caught up in the shiny shit.”

Privacy and permission

As well as helping to actualize the valuable information clients hold, her team also helps to identify potential threats. “Lots of organizations have big pots of data because they started collecting, thinking they could magically raise profits, or consumer engagement or efficiency. But there’s an inherent risk in having all this information, and perhaps they haven’t thought it through,” Hassan says.

For Kell, one concern takes precedence over everything else. “The big event for us is the deprecation of the cookie and the phenomenal impact that’s going to have on what clients do.” Ahead of the planned, and long-postponed demise of the cookie, her team is helping clients adopt first-party data strategies where they can.

It’s not the only eddy to steer around. In the UK, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recently fined TikTok millions for multiple violations of data laws. It was a reminder that getting data management wrong can carry a high cost. Meanwhile, consumer attitudes towards digital advertising drift further towards the reclusive. Kell is using the moment as a chance to reorient client priorities – away from what’s possible in mechanical terms and towards a less intrusive approach.

laura kell

“There’s a lot of focus in terms of looking at permissions and what’s permissible… but that's not really what we're kind of focused on. It goes against the spirit of what regulation is for,” says Kell. ”Consumers don’t want advertisers to be engaging with them in this way. I could find backdoors and routes around it that allow us to get the same outcome, but we’d have missed the bigger point.”

“At a base level, we’re preparing strategies for clients that can work without the use of any first-party data or third-party cookies. But we’re also using first-party data in ways that enrich the customer experience,” she says. The opportunity to engage with customers on a deeper level, she argues, is bigger than the gains to be taken from squeezing their patience with workarounds.

For Hassan, the priority in this area is helping organizations move on from the cookie without incurring additional risk.

“I don’t think people are asking as many questions as I would like them to when it comes to using first-party data to create personalized experiences,” she says. “I don’t think people understand how it can go wrong and how it can erode consumer trust, consumer faith when it does.”

The chance of reputational backfire, she says, “is just not worth it. Just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.”

This isn’t just an educational task, but one that directly adds value. Kell points to Homebase as an example; Havas handles both the media and customer data platform (CDP) accounts for the British DIY and gardening retailer, meaning it can draw directly on the brand’s first-party data to fuel its marketing.

“We have total access to their first-party data and we can use it across all aspects of paid activation, but they can also use it for their purposes as well.”

In cases where it doesn’t manage both sides of a brand’s business, Kell’s team is called upon again to find ways to add value. “If the client wants to manage its CDP in-house or they have another agency doing it, we need to work out ways to connect to that data and use it to power media activation. We use partners like InfoSum… which means a client can store their PII data and we can connect it to our datasets without there having been a transfer of personal identifiers.

“The solutions that InfoSum offer are really smart and future-proof. We believe their model can survive long into the future because it does respect consumer demands for privacy.”

Hassan adds that shepherding clients towards a first-party approach can lead to more involved work. “It might be that in a cookieless world, they just ultimately have to come up with a different strategy. That could be rethinking what their value exchange is to consumers so they can have a relationship with them; three or four years ago that was never a consideration,” she says.

Though this kind of consultation work can drive home the importance of agency data teams for clients, it’s also crucial to making sure agencies can deliver on their promises.

Kell says: “We’re not charging for these things. This is advice that we need to give to clients or else we won’t be able to deliver what we need to.”

To read more from The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, where we’ll be demystifying data & privacy for marketers in 2023, head over to our special hub.

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