Adidas CIO plays to win at digital marketing

Jan Brecht tells how a unified tech-marketing team scored a victory at the 2014 World Cup

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Another example, called Snapshot, you can kick or throw a ball, and your smartphone will measure the speed with which you've thrown or kicked the ball. And again, that's interaction, that's not just sending trivial marketing messages, but you engage people with the brand through technology, which is not technology that we have bought, but technology that is in the consumer's hands anyway.

Another area of challenge for CIOs working with CMOs is navigating the vast array of tools sold for digital marketing. Are you developing in-house or buying externally, and who are the interesting vendors? It's mostly external. The pace at which these startups move is very difficult to match internally. So you do go to tools on the market, social media sensing and data analysis in particular. There are new tools every quarter, so in terms of social media sensing, we've probably tried at least eight or 10. We've always had the best tool at the time, but there's another even better tool six months later, so that is changing rather significantly. What I can tell you is, usually it's not the well-established companies, the big incumbents of the IT industry. And the pure startups are usually a little too fragile, let's say, for a company our size. What you want is companies that are strong at being able to correlate your data. If I can give you one name, there's SAS, a company with a background in statistics research. It's a medium-sized company, super smart in doing your data correlation, and these are the guys you would want to work with. They're nimble enough to adapt, not as slow as the big incumbents in the IT industry, yet they are not as volatile or as fragile as the startup around the corner.

Beyond digital marketing, what are some other areas where you see technology helping to grow Adidas's business? One is soccer in the US. In the US you need statistics about sports, right? Baseball is statistics-driven. So one thing we did with Major League Soccer in the US is, we equipped them with microsensors, little sensors you put in the sole of your shoe, and then you can collect all kinds of on-field metrics. The point there is: wearable technology. That will also be for the person who wants to train for the next marathon and has an individual training plan [aided] by the wearable technology that we offer. That's certainly a field where IT is not only enabling the business, but going forward will generate revenue because you can sell this stuff.

And, in addition to my position as CIO, I've also taken over global supply chain for the Adidas group. We're looking into synergies with IT and supply chain. The good old RFID technology -- which has been discussed for decades in most companies but almost never implemented [beyond pilot projects] -- has huge potential. If you are able to track your product from the point at which it gets manufactured into the store, along the entire supply chain, there's very significant potential to decrease working capital, increase full-price sell-through, product availability, et cetera.

What is our role? The wearables area is conceptually led by a product department, because that is a product we sell, but we do all of the mobile and back-end development for it in IT. And RFID, that's IT-led. I think now we're at the price point of these RFID tags where it all of a sudden makes sense, also for lower-priced items such as a pair of shoes. We've done it, on a larger scale, with our Neo brand, and it's helped significantly to improve product availability in the store. So we are now looking at expanding that on a larger scale.

What are you looking for these days when hiring IT staff? Probably the biggest opportunity we have, not just at Adidas but at most companies, is to really change the decision culture to something which is data-driven. I'm the first one to acknowledge the importance of intuition, but please make sure you base decisions on data. And there you see a big difference with the companies who had the advantage of being born late enough to have that data-driven decision culture in their DNA such as Google, Amazon, Zappos, Zalando, online players. If you have a long history, that's a cultural change you have to introduce.

So back to the talent question, finding people who are data scientists is probably the most rare skill to find at this stage. What you need as a data scientist is the statistical tools, and technical knowledge, and then the key skill is to apply that to your business context. That is industry, if not company-specific. So either you take a strong business person, who is strong in an analytic way, and you train them in the statistical tools, or you take someone who trained in the statistical tools and teach them business acumen.

It's extremely difficult to find both in one person outside your own company. Being able to read and understand the data, then use it for what I call predictive analytics, is probably one of the biggest opportunities that we have.

Biographical snapshot:

Adidas Group CIO Jan Brecht is 42 and joined from Daimler AG in 2009, where he was based in Detroit as CIO Americas. He studied theoretical electrical engineering and applied mathematics, then went international early in his career, with stints in France, the U.K. and the U.S.

Asked about key turning points in his career, Brecht says, "It's the big project in which you grow." A huge international expansion into China and South Africa when he was working in IT at Mercedes meant the company needed a scalable solution much faster than anything it had before. "It was a huge challenge at the time, that kept me up at night. But we managed. And you always build on these experiences, right? They help you not only from a technical perspective but also I hope from a maturity perspective."

Then, prior to taking on the CIO role at Daimler, he went to the U.S. to integrate IT after DaimlerChrysler AG was formed by a merger in 1998 -- only to then have to also take it apart when the majority stake in Chrysler Group was sold in 2007. "That was one of the biggest M&A projects in the history of this planet, I had the pleasure, or the challenge, to lead the IT part of that. It was a very stressful time, and it certainly helped me to grow," Brecht says.

Brecht is an avid runner and skier, and is married with two children.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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