Meet the Technologists: Debbie Ellison


Geometry’s chief digital officer speaks with LBB’s Alex Reeves about her journey from coding to digital business leadership, owning her shopaholic side and the opportunities that Covid brings for transforming retail and ecommerce.

Debbie Ellison has managed to channel her self-confessed shopaholic nature into her day job. Or at least part of it. As Geometry’s chief digital officer she juggles quite a few responsibilities around making technology more accessible and applying technology to solve her client's problems. But a big chunk of it comes back to shopping. Because driving business growth is at the core of her professional values and those of WPP’s end-to-end creative commerce agency. She’s got way more than just passion though. Debbie’s background in coding paired with her business management nouse have propelled her through an impressive career.

LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Debbie to hear where she’s coming from and what’s going on in her brilliant mind at this strange time.

LBB> What was your upbringing like and how did you get so into technology?

Debbie> I was raised on a council estate in Kentish Town. But I went to school in Hampstead because my mum was an NHS nurse in the Royal Free. I remember when I was at that state school, all my friends were being prepped to go to private school and I wanted to go with them. But for me it wasn’t possible [to pay the fees]. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a great school called Queen’s College on Harley Street.

It was there that I fell into computing as a subject. I want to tell you that it was because I loved the topic, but actually my teacher was so inspiring. He was still doing some consultancy. He was such a character. He used to drive into school on his BMW motorbike and I thought he was really cool. I would love to be cool like that. We were the first girls’ school to offer computing at GCSE. Because so many girls applied, the teacher had to interview for the spots. He asked me why I wanted to study computing for GCSE and I said “I just want to be cool and rich like you.” 

I don’t know how but I got a space on the course. And I loved it. It tapped into my logical mind. I loved learning how to code. I loved surprising my tutors that I could write really decent programs. I remember the first one I wrote was teaching teachers how to learn the faces of their students. It was like a gamified experience that would show them three faces and a name and they’d have to match the name to the face. I was 12 or 13 at the time. I remember my tutors saying it’s quite impressive for a young girl who’s only just started studying, to write such a program with an algorithm sat behind it. 

I was hooked. I did it at GCSE, went on to A Level. Frankly, the standard of teaching was so good that when I went on to study Computing and Business at Brunel University, I pretty much knew the subject matter inside out. I felt for the first year that I was ahead of the curve.

I also had my first child at 19 while I was at university, so I didn’t make things easy for myself. 

What was interesting was I didn’t feel it at the time, but I think I was one of two or three girls on the course at university. I now think back on how unbalanced it was from a gender perspective, but at the time I just loved it.

LBB> How did that progress into a career in coding?

Debbie> I did a year placement with the university at GlaxoSmithKline. And that’s when I started to look at internet technologies, started to develop a platform that helped scientists order proteins for their testing. It was definitely a career that I fell into, but one that I really loved. I loved the coding side of things, writing programs and creating things. That really tapped into my sense of creativity.

I loved the logic of it. It was like a Rubik’s cube. When something was wrong you had to look at all the permutations and figure out why your program wasn’t working. Because I developed my career, it moved out from the sense of trying to find logic and the smartest way of doing things into creativity. How could I do this better? How could I create a UX that people will want to use? That sort of thing started me moving away from just pure development.

Then I joined a company called Northgate Information Solutions, where I was hired because I could program, but I was actually scouted by my mentor internally there to be part of their ecommerce team. And I loved that. We started doing amazing things like the first live streaming of festivals, working with Sky on their streaming, getting more and more into developing great UI, understanding technology and how it could be more accessible.

That’s been a thread throughout my entire career. I think digital has a massive opportunity to be more accessible. I don’t want to overcomplicate the concepts of digital and technology to bamboozle people. I think making it easier to understand for everybody is an equaliser.

LBB> What were some defining moments or projects that took you from that point up to your position in creative agencies and eventually as chief digital officer at Geometry?

Debbie> I went onto another consultancy based in Soho, working with the likes of Conde Nast, building sites for publications. Looking at user experience, how you optimise sites to shape people’s behaviour. My experience in development coupled with my experience in project management really helped to propel my career. I was known for being creative as well as being able to lead teams to deliver.

At that time they were just starting to get into digital themselves and they didn’t really have the talent pools to draw on. Their clients were asking them about multi-channel strategies and being more digital. And I was really lucky to bring that level of experience and gravitas around knowing what I was talking about and delivering. It helped me deliver some amazing projects for lots of government clients.

One of my highlights is joining the WPP network. I joined a small digital agency with government clients. They merged with OgilvyAction. I loved taking the experience from government and digital delivery into the consumer world. For me there’s nothing better than shopping, digital and technology. That’s the sweet spot! So to be able to help drive growth was super interesting. And the injection of creativity from the agency was something new for me and something I loved.

One of the projects that I still look back on fondly was working for Triumph lingerie when we launched a new range that was designed by Helena Christensen during London Fashion Week in Selfridges. And it was probably the most stressful time of my life. But we’d built an immersive booth that allowed women to try on lingerie without taking off their clothes, using augmented reality to overlay the lingerie on a silhouette of a woman’s body. Because of the technology at the time, we needed quite a big footprint. So within the size of the store on the third floor lingerie department it was massive. It meant that as you were coming up the escalators you’d see this really beautiful big installation. I was really proud to have led that. Creatively it was beautiful, but we drove an increase in sales by 92%. That shows how creativity and technology and experience can merge together to deliver something truly amazing. I was a young-ish senior account director then and it’s still in my book of greats.

Then I helped set up a joint venture with Ogilvy Health World called Ogilvy Digital Health. And that was all about bringing those insights and experiences of consumer business into the pharma world. I thought that was interesting. How do you get across complexities around disease awareness to healthcare practitioners in a really engaging but serious way? 

One project we worked on was to get across the seriousness of suffering from a hypoglycemic shock from diabetes. We created a booth you’d sit in and drive. And as you were driving the booth would heat up just as someone would experience during hypoglycemic shock. You’d get force feedback on the steering wheel, the screen would become blurry. It was great to use a technological, digital experience to get across something quite serious in an engaging way. My stint at Ogilvy Digital Health was a real pivot point for me in terms of applying what I know but in a completely different category.

LBB> I love the sound of The Flagship. It sounds like a real tangible way to show your clients the future they could be part of! How did that develop and what have been some good applications?

Debbie> I’ve been dreaming of this for a while. We have an amazing data and planning team. We talk a lot to our clients about consumer journeys and how you can leverage those to really shape and change behaviour. As you can imagine this great insight gets presented to clients on a PowerPoint presentation. Unless you’re part of that consumer audience, it might be quite hard for you to understand, for instance, what a woman might go through when she’s dragging her kids through a supermarket, or it might be hard for me to understand the thrill and excitement of a football match. So The Flagship was all about being able to bring the rigor of data and insights and strategy into experience. I think that’s important for our clients to see, for them to feel and experience what their consumers feel and experience. 

We’ve used it in a number of ways. It’s been so successful for us. I did shed a tear when we launched. I genuinely couldn’t believe we’d pulled it off. We talked about it for ages and lobbied to get investment and then when the agency said they’d earmarked this budget for me to build it, it was this career making or career breaking moment. I fundamentally believed in it and that it would be differentiating for our agency and for our clients to experience those moments of their consumers’ worlds in a fully immersive way.

It’s been amazing for me and for our business. We’re launching another one in New York as soon as we can. I’m super proud of that and the agency supporting that vision and really going in on it. 

LBB> Coronavirus must have been frustrating in the sense that you can’t use The Flagship to its fullest potential right now.

Debbie> You’re right, it is disappointing that we can’t get in the space right now, but that’s not going to be for long and we are staying in touch with our clients and sharing that insight. Some of the technology that we have in The Flagship, like heat mapping technology where we can understand how people are moving throughout spaces, is super useful at this time for retailers. So they can start planning traffic within their stores.

Also gesture interaction with screens. People aren’t going to be wanting to touch screens. So how can we get people to engage with experiences in touchless environments? We’ve shared a lot of that with our clients.

LBB> Tell us more about your role at Geometry. How do you define a CDO and what does your average day look like?

Debbie> Well, a chief digital officer’s day is long! It’s really multifaceted. 

We’re looking at investing in products. We’ve developed a number of products that help get relevant data into our clients’ hands. We recently launched a product called CatScan that helps our clients audit their brands across a number of digital touchpoints and retailers and in context with their competitors. It’s a truly unique platform for our business.

The next part is around clients and strategic leadership. I’ve been really clear with our business that we operate across four key digital pillars. 

One is innovation at retail, which is manifested by The Flagship. That looks at technologies that shorten the purchase journeys and how that can help brands. We’ve got creative technologists proactively prototyping with these technologies. We’ve got a suite of partners, start-ups and entrepreneurs that proactively give us their technology to test, trial and showcase to clients. I’m very grateful for that and the relationships we have there. 

Then we’ve got a big pillar around digital commerce - how we help clients win in non-owned spaces like Tesco’s, Walmart, online marketplaces like Amazon. We’ve launched an Amazon managed service capability where we help clients become profitable on the platform.

Then direct to consumer, so I lead a team also to build out new routes to market and direct to consumer sites, which you can imagine has been very relevant in these times.

Most recently I’ve launched our social commerce plus capability and that is all around looking at performance across social channels in a really different way. Most social agencies look at how they drive awareness and engagement; we look at how we can use social to drive conversion and then work back from that. We often work with a client setting sales targets or business objectives then ask who the audiences are that we need to connect to drive those sales. How do we make audiences aware of this new service or product? It’s almost like we’ve turned the traditional marketing funnel upside down through the lens of social.

So what is a chief digital officer? It’s a really interesting question. For me it’s almost full circle from where I started, which is around making technology more accessible. It’s all about the application of technology to solve real world problems and to connect with consumers in an engaging way in a way that drives business growth.

LBB> Why is shopper and retail tech such an area of interest?

Debbie> Just because I love shopping. If you speak to any of my friends or colleagues, I have a personal reputation as a shopaholic. I’m owning that now. I fought it for a number of years but it’s absolutely true. 

There’s so much opportunity, even now, to improve the shopping experience. There’s an opportunity to bring digital technology into physical retail environments and to connect that with online commerce.

A lot of us had taken retail for granted. This pandemic has shown that breaks in supply chains, not being able to go to a store, not being able to get what you want, has a serious impact on your day-to-day life. It demonstrates how intrinsic commerce is to people’s lives. For me that’s really interesting. From when the pandemic hit and we were all queuing outside stores and there was panic buying, through to then having to queue online to get through to our grocery stores, which was absolutely unprecedented. I think it’s been super interesting to see how consumer behaviour has forcedbeen to change. 

I think it’ll be interesting to see how that change manifests itself across the next few months. For us as marketeers I think that’s super exciting. It gives us an opportunity to be innovative with our clients, with the experiences that we create, in order to make sure we help our clients remain engaged and relevant with their shoppers.

LBB> You're a vocal advocate for diversity in business. Obviously on the whole the industry is failing massively, but what have been the biggest successes you've seen that prove the value of diversity?

Debbie> I always refer to the Nike Londoner ad. As a Londoner, I loved it. I think it really tapped into the culture of London. It’s a well documented piece of work now but I just really love it because it resonates with me. I’ve got two children - a 24 year old and a 15 year old - and I could see how much it resonated with them as children brought up in London. For me, having a diverse agency means that you really understand culture. You have people in your business closer to many more cultures. That’s important. You move away from herd thinking, you have different ideas brought to the table. I’d like to think that the team that worked on Nike Londoner was a diverse team. It was so culturally on point it makes me smile every time I see it.

That’s why I feel passionate about it. I do champion diversity and equality within our industry. I came from really humble beginnings and I was lucky to have had the breaks in my life that I’ve had and people opening those doors for me. I want to do the same. I feel I owe it and it gives me great joy seeing people develop in our business. But it also gives me joy when I see diversity of thought being brought to our clients. I think we should be focusing on that to help get to more pieces of work like that Nike Londoner.

LBB> What does the industry need to do to make sure it’s recruiting the right kind of talent?

Debbie> I do think it’s getting a lot better. I do think there are a lot more senior leaders within the industry that understand the different types of talent that are needed for our business. All the things I’ve spoken about aren’t traditional marketing skills. Bringing products to market, the importance of data and making it accessible to our clients, fully integrated new routes to market for our clients. The commercial understanding of what needs to be done and the size of the prize. The ability to build platforms quickly and to understand the role of those platforms amongst the client’s channel mix. The role of social commerce… These are all new skills that I’m super proud to be leading. They’re not traditional agency skills, but they’re the skills needed by our clients. 

Those skills are out there with our next generation of talent who are doing it. They’re starting their own businesses. They’re managing their social channels. They know exactly when to post in order to drive the most reach. That is the talent we need in our business. And I’m getting giddy just thinking about driving that forward and having those people on my team. You know that your outfit is going to be so much richer and more relevant for that.

View the article at LBB.