Peter Barker, CTO at Rufus Leonard, on the importance of close CIO and CMO collaboration and how they can deliver truly differentiating experiences for their customers.

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In a world where connected, consistent and differentiated experiences are born from closely aligned technology teams and marketing functions, the spotlight is on the collaborative relationship between a CIO and a CMO.

The traditional role and responsibilities of the CIO has altered as a result. As ‘2019 State of the CIO’ research highlights, 55% of CIOs are spending more time learning about customer needs as a way to foster the creation of revenue-generating initiatives[1] – prime marketing territory. While, according to Forrester, a CMO’s collaboration with a CIO is one of the four essential steps in planning their marketing evolution[2]. It’s clear that to deliver extraordinary brand experiences through robust systems built on a foundation of strong architectural principles, these two roles must seamlessly align.

Defining your differentiating experience

Today, 89% of companies compete primarily on the basis of customer experience[3]. In this competitive environment, the biggest challenge CMOs have is making sure their brand is delivering a truly differentiating experience. And while 80% of companies believe they are delivering these ‘superior experiences’ to their customers, only 8% of customers would agree[4]. While brands may deliver on customer experience promises and meeting customer expectations, few are creating those competitive advantages that give customers that little bit extra.

Forrester identifies this as ‘digital sameness’ – companies solving the same problems in the same ways over and over, therefore creating the same experiences. “The experiences of the world’s leading brands languish, lapse, lockstep, or lag because their customers struggle to separate one experience from another.[5]

So how do you stand out in the landscape of digital sameness? Thirty years of helping brands like BBC, The Gym Group and Pinsent Masons has taught us that if customer experience matches customer expectations, then brand experience exists to create meaningful difference.

That’s why brand experience needs to sit above customer experience. This involves identifying and investing in hero moments along the journey – specifically where your brand could credibly provide a unique experience – which will create a memorable and differentiated experience for your customers.

It’s these unique experiences and offerings that will keep people coming back to you (loyalty) and start encouraging them to talk about you to their friends (advocacy). Brands with a strong brand experience command 79% higher purchase intent and an average of 45 more Net Promoter Score points than those who offer a lesser experience[6].

Driving your differentiating experience

When it comes to driving brand experience, there is no question of the importance of technology. After all, companies who create technology-driven differentiation see growth 4x faster than the competition[7]. Aligning the activities around brand experience bring focus and priority to the CIO and CMO relationship as well as ensuring you meet your customer’s digital expectations. At the heart of this business-critical relationship is your platform.

It’s the CIO’s job to provide the blueprint and platform to deliver experiences in a way which manages costs, threats and risks to the business. It’s not just about efficient IT provisioning; if the platform isn’t accessible, fast enough, or can be easily compromised it will cost – both in business and reputation. The platform is the key to growth and efficiency; allowing you to create new highly personalised services more easily and expand seamlessly with new partners or new channels using your services.

So how do you build an intelligent business core that facilitates and orchestrates internal and external ecosystems, all while delivering experiences driven by data, content and insight from people, process and platforms? And that’s not all; it also needs to connect your back-end and front-end distribution channels to create actionable insight which will help you evolve and optimise your product and service development.

Ultimately, you’re looking for a platform that can inform high-quality propositions quicker than your competitors, as well as creating operational efficiencies through automation to drive more contextually relevant customer experiences. A big ask? The good news is there are a number of routes you can take to develop a robust platform:

  • Commitment to a full enterprise stack
  • A vendor PaaS solution
  • A CMS that has some experience and headless features
  • Distributed channel logic
  • A centralised Omnichannel Experience API which you own

Choosing a robust, omnichannel solution

There are pros and cons to each option, but if you want something that lets you control and own your business experiences, is highly portable, open source and more easily maintained, for many modern businesses your best option is a centralised Omnichannel Experience API (OX.api).

An OX.api framework provides the capabilities to curate the experiences the CMO craves across all of your channels through solid technical engineering, adhering to architectural principles such as:

  • Availability: Multi-layered, HA, zero downtime deployments, and caching strategies
  • Data quality: Single source of truth, upholding compliance such as GDPR
  • Interoperability: Best practice, standards, portability, and SOLID principles
  • Secure by design: Multi-layered security designed with cyber security specialists
  • Resilience: Service bus for integrity, and containerisation to ease DevOps
  • Performance: Maximise the use of elastic computing and the Cloud, blend Cloud and Edge, and build for performance

Investing in a platform with these capabilities essentially aligns the CMO’s agenda with the CIO’s agenda. It unites your brand purpose to your tech stack, allowing technology to deliver the experiences customers want.

Your key takeaway

When you connect and power the experiences your CMO craves with the tools and systems your CIO needs, you can unlock the unique and meaningful moments that will truly set your brand apart from the competition. The opportunity available can’t be denied. Not only is it about fulfilling what your customers demand, but rather creating an infrastructure for innovation and optimisation. Taking your customer experience beyond the status quo is the key to unlocking market share and driving growth – which is ultimately what will separate the industry leaders from the followers. 


[1] IDG –  https://www.idg.com/tools-for-marketers/2019-state-of-the-cio/

[2] Forrester – https://www.forrester.com/report/Four+Steps+To+Establish+An+Innovative+Marketing+Function/-/E-RES139931

[3] Gartner – https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/customer-experience-battlefield/

[4] Bain & Co – https://medium.com/@CMcVoy/80-of-ceos-believe-they-deliver-superior-customer-experience-661efabd16b0

[5] Forrester – https://go.forrester.com/blogs/brand-experience/

[6] WARC – https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/news/from_hero_to_nearo_why_understanding_brand_experience_matters/

[7] Forrester – https://go.forrester.com/blogs/if-you-want-to-dominate-then-disrupt/

When Malta-based construction and property enterprise Vassallo Group embarked on a company-wide digital transformation, it looked to CIO Carlo Aquilina…

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When Malta-based construction and property enterprise Vassallo Group embarked on a company-wide digital transformation, it looked to CIO Carlo Aquilina to build the entire infrastructure, operations and innovations at the group…

Walk through the streets of the beautiful island of Malta and you will not be able to escape the work of the Vassallo Group. Property, hospitality, education and healthcare, the Maltese construction and property company completely reshaped Malta following the devastation caused by the Second World War. Indeed, Vassallo Group embarked on a mission to ‘rebuild the nation’ to its former glory and beyond.

Building on its strengths, the Group carries a legacy that is over 70 years old, and over the years has diversified its operations that have brought about expansion and investment. Today, Vassallo Group, stands at the forefront of several different sectors in the local market that include property and construction, furniture and interiors, elderly and disability care, catering, hospitality, architecture and education. The Vassallo Group is a large, complex enterprise and represents a unique challenge to its IT function, which provides technological solutions and support to all of the companies and their users.

Vassallo Group talks to Interface Magazine

Carlo Aquilina was approached to take on the role of CIO at Vassallo in 2015, having spent a while building up an IT team at a manufacturing enterprise. “When I started in manufacturing, IT needed lots of work. We started from scratch. We built up the whole IT department and the whole team. When Vassallo approached me, they offered me that challenge again as they really lacked IT. It was a real challenge, but I built my team and we started on what needed to be done.”

Vassallo Group previously had a shareholding in an IT company and this sister company was providing IT, but the level of support was not sufficient for their local clients, thus Aquilina was asked to build the IT function that would serve the 1,900-plus employees and its extensive client base. “When I joined, I was tasked with the project: to start from scratch. I gave the board of directors a number of options. Should we go on premise, should we go with another hosting company, should we go hybrid, should we go cloud? The main ambition was very simple and I was given six months to come up with a solution where we gave our clients, our clients, meaning our users basically, a brand new environment with zero downtime. It was all firefighting in that first year.”

Vassallo went 100% cloud with Microsoft Azure, which Aquilina believed to be the best short-term, and long-term solution. “We’re a Maltese company. We’re not an IT focused company. IT is here to provide service to the business. Our business is not IT. We’re not a gaming company. All of our products are Microsoft, and so it was an obvious choice to move to Azure.” Vassallo agreed to go 100% to the cloud, having drawn a blank against the large capital expenditure associated with on-premise. “With cloud, you don’t invest in anything and everything is top of the range. Of course, it also helps to be paying operational costs and not capital costs. That was the way forward and then they (the board) embraced it. There was a number of partners who approached us to do this, to help us with this migration. I chose CyberSift, which was a start-up, actually.” An advantage to working with a start-up is that they’re not encumbered by a large kind backend and can move audaciously and quickly and this was certainly an appeal to Aquilina and his team. “I knew one of the technicians; a brilliant engineer and that helped. Plus, the price we were given was also from a start-up perspective.”

Vassallo Group. A Maltese institution

CyberSift viewed the chance to work with Vassallo with similar relish and the then start-up provided a specific engineer to be onsite with the IT team at Vassallo for the full duration of the migration. “Whatever I was asking, I was getting,” Aquilina explains. “‘Okay, we’ll do it for you, but you’ll have to promote us, after.’ Now I’m promoting them. So, we had engineers working for us and I didn’t need to grow my team. In fact, we’re a very small team.”

The key thing Aquilina and his team built in that crucial first year was ‘trust’. “I had the trust of the board of directors because every time they asked me something, I satisfied their request. So, there was trust. At the end of the day, it’s a family-owned company. Trust is very important.”

Aquilina and his team were given six months to deliver the project and took 2-3 three months to design and implement the infrastructure. The following three months, they contacted suppliers, before moving the software. “If it’s on premise or on cloud, there was remote access. It was teamwork, everyone pulling the same rope. Whenever one of the suppliers told us, ‘Listen, we’re not available this week. Let’s do it next week. We’ll slot in someone else. We’ll set meetings. We’ll explain what we are doing.’ All they needed to know is that we were moving from server A to server B. They did it for us because it was their software, their app, their solution.”

With any large-scale technological transformation there are challenges although Vassallo seemed to evade many of the pitfalls through great organisation. “I don’t think we had actually the biggest challenges because it was all planned out. We used to meet every day with the engineer who used to work for us and my team. It was a case of ‘What happened yesterday, what happened today, what is going to happen tomorrow and why? Are we on track? Yes. If not, why? What can we do?’ We worked late at night so that we could achieve it. It was all based on trust and teamwork. It was a case of open-heart surgery because the business wanted to work. The business kept on working even though we were doing open-heart surgery. We had that support from everyone. Everyone understood that this needed to be done. We had support from everyone, from all the partners, from Microsoft, everyone.”

Even though digital transformation involves technical infrastructure, software, servers and cloud, people are still integral to a successful outcome. “Yes, they are extremely important,” Aquilina explains. “There are the users, the customers and the IT team. We are a very small team and that really helped, because a huge team would require lots more organisation and more hand holding. It was me who was both sponsoring and managing the project. I had the lead engineer who was doing the actual work, remotely. They had an assistant administrator who was assisting. People are so important.”

Vassallo Group holds an annual internal awards and in 2016, the IT department was awarded ‘Best Customer Focused Department’ even though it had been, in Aquilina’s terms, firefighting. We were there constantly, anytime, any day of the week. The team and I were presented with this trophy, which proved my theory that the company had move to something much more stable.”

Now Vassallo Group is reaping the benefits of this transformation. “IT-wise, we are working on a business intelligence project. Now we have the infrastructure ready and a solid base or foundation, I want to give something back to the business. We implemented an ERP solution, which Finance, Logistics and Operations are using. I don’t want the directors to go into board meetings with huge amount of papers. I want them to go in with just a laptop. The data is live. We’ve already done that for one of the companies and it’s working. You can connect to the TV to project live data. That is business intelligence. We’re working on the other companies too. Now that they know what they can get, everybody’s bombarding us with requests. Of course, we’re taking our time and that is ongoing.”

From BI, Aquilina wants to harness the power of AI in board meetings. “I want to give them the facility to project live data, but I also want to give them the facility to change the data accordingly. They will see the results with AI.” Recruitment could be a big beneficiary of these initiatives too. “What if we employ 100 people? AI will work out the costs, work out the benefits of employing that many people. Then you can take an educated decision. ‘Should we employ 100 or 200? Let’s put in 200 more employees. What’s the cost?’ AI will work out the costs as well as the benefits. That’s all in progress. However, these are very sensitive tools that we need to use and if the tool gives you the wrong information, then you will make the wrong decision. I explained this to the board and they gave me the time needed to do it properly. We have to be very meticulous. They understood and told me, ‘Whenever you’re comfortable, we can start using.’ The CIO has to have 100% trust from the board of directors, because if there’s no trust, they keep on asking, ‘But why and how?’ That is the way forward.”

Providing technological infrastructure, new software and cyber security for such a large company means that Aquilina’s hands are certainly full. “We support about 1,900 employees and 500 users. I can afford to have a relatively small team because we have a solid base, and a solid infrastructure. I have a wonderful team. I recruited everyone from outside the business. I didn’t find anyone here, so they all respect me. We’re all friends at the end of the day, although I am their manager. We talk about anything and I help when needed. So, there’s trust from them and the senior management, which I believe is extremely important. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

Part four of a six-part supply chain masterclass with Frank Vorrath, Executive Partner, Supply Chain, Gartner. In this episode, Frank…

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Part four of a six-part supply chain masterclass with Frank Vorrath, Executive Partner, Supply Chain, Gartner.

In this episode, Frank explores the concept of transforming organisational structures and talent development in order to prepare for the next era of business growth.

“Companies that really understand and develop the talent they have, while also looking from the outside to consistently bring new talent into the business, are winners in tomorrow’s marketplaces.” – Frank Vorrath, Executive Partner, Supply Chain, Gartner.

Listen to the full episode – out now!

In this week’s episode, we chat with Vennard Wright, CIO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). Vennard Wright, twice voted ‘CIO…

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In this week’s episode, we chat with Vennard Wright, CIO of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC).

Vennard Wright, twice voted ‘CIO of the Year’, is the man entrusted with driving massive changes across the WSSC.

Vennard speaks exclusively to The Digital Insight regarding digital transformation, diversity in the workplace and Hillary Clinton… Listen to the podcast here!

The Digital Insight speaks to Mike Dargan, Group CIO at the Switzerland-based bank UBS regarding digital transformation, as part of…

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The Digital Insight speaks to Mike Dargan, Group CIO at the Switzerland-based bank UBS regarding digital transformation, as part of an exclusive series of podcasts…

Could you tell us the five pillars to digital transformation that UBS is implementing and how you’ve been getting them off the ground?

So, we introduced a framework for innovation or digital transformation, which were really the levers by which we achieve things, which is the A, B, C, D, E. A for AI and Automation, B for unbundling, C for cloud, D for data, and E for experience. These are really the levers we pull to try and drive the transformation. It’s also a good way for people to remember what we’re doing, and that will give the right focus to each of the areas.

Now, all of these are super linked. You can only really do this if you’ve got a cloud strategy because you can operate, obviously, in a hyper-scale environment. Getting the data organised is important to drive the right experience.

AI and automation is one of the biggest. We’ve been focused first on robotics or robotic process automation and moving along the value chain to try and drive AI, which can come in many different forms. The first is doing it in a very structured way, so almost like an event, and then moving into machine learning, which can be NLP (natural language processing) and chatbots.

The first area of focus is really in the non-client facing space, so what we’re doing in HR is to have a chatbot. What we’re doing in technology is to have a smart bot which helps everyone when they have a technology issue. They can communicate live if they do. The computer itself will resolve issues and drive things in that way. Click here to listen to the podcast!

As the oft-quoted saying goes: “One of the best times to start a business is during a recession.” Economic downturns…

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As the oft-quoted saying goes: “One of the best times to start a business is during a recession.”

Economic downturns bring new problems needing new solutions, innovation from outdated practises and inspiration for a generation of budding entrepreneurs to build the ‘next big thing’.

In 2007-08, the global financial crash left a question mark over legacy industries such as banking, retail and property but it also marked the arrival of new players, who, a decade later, are leading their industries.

For instance, as the US saw the emergence of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Apple launched its first iPhone. Few innovations have represented a bigger game-changer, and one responsible for direct and indirect global growth and change.

Born from the iPhone was an app and software development infrastructure that now influences all we do and this has fuelled the birth of a start-up and technology ecosystem worldwide.

Oxfordshire-based award-winning IT network integrator Lan3 has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. On its blog, founder Steven Thompson remembers: “Nothing makes you feel more alive than quitting your job at the start of the largest financial crisis in living memory. With a stark warning from the bank manager that the UK is littered with the remains of start-up IT companies, the first days were chaotic.

“On the other side of the world, a man called Steve Jobs was about to turn networking, and many other industries, on its head.”

He adds: “The explosion of new devices – an explosion that still reverberates today – resulted in every organisation in the country needing to take networking seriously, sometimes for the first time.”

Many tech powerhouses stemmed from the US post-2008. In February 2009, months after investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey founded his Square mobile payment system. It has become a multi-billion dollar company.

Many of the hugest technology names were also originally founded in bad economic times, including Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and ARM.

So it’s no surprise then that soon after the 2008 crash, Airbnb, Fitbit, WhatsApp, Uber, Spotify, Transferwise, Dropbox, Kickstarter and Groupon were all conceived or launched.

Today’s challenger banks such as Monzo and Starling would maybe still be ideas on a screen had Fintech not got a huge boost off the back of the resulting banking mistrust and the arrival of a new digital-first iPhone generation.

Storage Giant is now the fifth largest self-storage company in the UK but it started during the height of the last 2008 recession. Founder Simon Williams now oversees a multi-million pound turnover with nine trading sites across Wales and England, with three more in development.

Funding from one bank for one new opening was even pulled during the crisis but Simon persevered. He said: “It was certainly a nervous time to start a new business and continue to build it throughout one of the worst economic downturns in recent history. However, I had no doubt we would succeed. This was not because our sector was immune to the fluctuations of the economy but we had an extreme focus on cost control, customer pricing as well as the customer experience.

“To facilitate that customer experience we had to constantly push the envelope with all of the technology incorporated into each self-storage centre. Those systems included state of the art access control, biometric fingerprint technology, lasers and software management control.”

Richard Blanford was another who turned fortunes around amid recession when his large-scale IT infrastructure company Fordway saw most projects disappear.

He was quick to take advantage of changing IT technologies and pivoted his business towards the early days of cloud computing – risking money to build and host its own infrastructure to offer managed cloud services. These now provide 60%+ of revenues with Fordway among the top 25 suppliers of cloud computing to the UK public sector.

Richard explained: “We had to recruit new people and learn new skills as we moved from reselling to a service-based business. If the business isn’t working, don’t wait for things to get better. Understand how you can apply what you are good at differently, and change quickly, even if this means cannibalising your existing business.”

Andy Hey’s Leeds-based Enjoy Digital was founded in 2008 and now employs 55 people. He said: “At the time, I don’t think we worried too much about launching during a recession. Maybe it was my age, but I certainly didn’t understand the scale of what was happening in the global markets. Working in marketing was definitely a challenge during this time as it’s typically those budgets that get cut first.

“In many ways, starting when we did, gave us many long-term benefits that companies now often strive for, such as the value we’ve placed on hard work since day one.”

And with more economic shocks not ruled out in the UK in the short-term, such useful learnings may just be what many fearful companies, CIOs or entrepreneurs need to hear.