Transformation through messaging and engagement: An interview with Gary Hurry

David Rowlands, editor at B2B Marketing, recently spoke with Gary Hurry, international marketing director at IRI, about the transformation IRI has seen this past 18 months. To check out the full podcast, click here!

1. Hi Gary, thanks for joining me today! Before we begin, could you please just introduce yourself and give us a bit of context around who IRI are, and what your role is?

I joined IRI around 5 months ago to lead marketing across our international markets – EMEA and APAC – so geographically and culturally a really wide and interesting spread. IRI is a global leader in technology, big data, analytics and insights for some of the world’s largest and best known FMCG manufacturers, retailers and media partners. Our insight, predictive analytics and modelling helps brands to optimise their strategies across distribution, pricing and promotion, range, assortment, new product development and a whole range of other business critical decisions. We’re a trusted partner and well known within the vast majority of consumer businesses on the planet.

Prior to joining, I was the VP of marketing for Thomson Reuters for Europe, and spent the first half of my career in B2C for brands like Zurich and Lloyds. It is an incredible time to be working in B2B and I can see many others making similar shifts to be where the real action is!

2. It’s been a bizarre 18 months for the world, and ‘transformation’ has very much been the word of the day. What sort of transformation have you seen when it comes to your target markets and buyer personas, if at all?

For many of our clients, their business model has been turned upside down as we saw the biggest shifts in consumer behaviour in a lifetime. Some sectors were wiped out overnight, whereas others found themselves in an unprecedented growth trajectory. Without being over-simplistic, just think how home baking grew during lockdown or how our in-home alcohol consumption rocketed. But, on the flipside, we also saw massive shifts in health and beauty, ready meals, grab-and-go lunches and many others. When you factor in underlying consumer behaviour, such as online shopping, the evolution of discount retailers, the drive for sustainability and a huge focus on health and wellbeing, it’s safe to say that nearly every consumer brand has an element of market disruption and transformation under way.

But essentially, the world needs answers like never before. Not just looking back, but most importantly, trying to forecast and shape the future with confidence. So, for IRI, our position has undoubtedly been elevated into one of genuine strategic partner. Insight is at the forefront of c-suite conversations like never before, and, if anything, we’ve seen a real uplift in both commercial performance, but also how our brand is perceived.

3. And how about when it comes to messaging and engagement? Has there been any change here? 

At the start of the pandemic, IRI made a really big decision to invest significant energies into thought leadership and help the world understand and navigate through this period of rapid change. We were the first insight business to have a dedicated Covid resource centre and had the most up to date trends, shopper insights and buying behaviour from across all our markets. Much of this would ordinarily have been behind a commercial paywall, but we made the decision to be a leader and essentially offer a real-time window into what is happening in the world. This really paid off for us as our media share of voice and brand reputation soared to new heights.

We’ve still got a long way to go until normality returns, but we’re now taking the time to really think about our brand positioning – and brand promise – as we start to look forward again. Fundamentally, we don’t see ourselves as a big data company, but one with a much stronger purpose to help brands and retailers in their pursuit of potential. Technology and data will always be at the core of what we do, but our messaging and engagement is definitely evolving to capitalise on the opportunities we now have to be a genuine and valued strategic partner. You’ll start to see a much more emotionally-driven brand strategy from us emerge – something I’m really passionate about within B2B. Whoever you market to, they’re people with hopes, fears, ambitions and dreams, and I always feel that the leading brands resonate on this level. Without this, we’re all just a commodity.

4. Of course, just because the pandemic is winding down gradually, that doesn’t mean the world is without new challenges. What would you say is IRI’s biggest challenge over the next 12 months, and how do you intend to overcome this?

One of our key business goals is to grow IRI across our international markets – EMEA and APAC. We’re very well placed and have an incredible proposition, but we don’t have the same scale we have in our core US market. So, for me, as marketing leader, the big challenge is to demonstrate how marketing can make a significant impact in this growth goal. I’ve already mentioned brand, and one of our challenges here is that the company’s development and innovation has perhaps outgrown the things we’re most known for. So, if anything, you could say that we’re selling ourselves a little short in that regard – which, of course, is a much better challenge to have than the other way around.  

But deeper than that, our big challenge is to continue driving dialogue and commercial traction in the c-suite of major global businesses. As we all know, this is a tough audience and so our whole marketing programme needs to be positively disruptive, intelligent and relevant. Behind the scenes, we’re also making big investments in our marketing technology, people capabilities and culture to ensure that marketing is not only operating effectively today, but is also constantly evolving for the needs of tomorrow. 

5. You recently joined Propolis, our exclusive community for B2B marketers to come together, share problems and solutions, and learn from industry-leading experts. What made you want to join Propolis? Are there any particular content topics you’re interested in at IRI?

Firstly, I am a long-time champion and supporter of B2B marketing, so Propolis was naturally a very easy decision for me. I’m also very passionate about people development and so having a class-leading and always on resource – 100% dedicated to B2B marketing - was a natural progression and has been enthusiastically received by the team. As our markets are so diverse, it’s likely that all of the content will be relevant somewhere, but it’s a real positive that Propolis allows the team to create a tailored development plans and focus on the areas of most importance. This configurability, and the Hive structure, is one of the great strengths of Propolis. The team have already fed back a sense of surprise to how comprehensive Propolis is, which is really encouraging.

Above all though, Propolis will allow our marketers to stay connected with the big trends, issues and topics that are shaping the B2B marketing landscape. We all operate at 100 mph, so it’s important to press the pause button every now and then and take the opportunity to learn, get new inspiration and benchmark against some of the world’s leading brands. To me, this aspect is invaluable.  

6. Of course, community is not a one-way street, and everyone who joins Propolis contributes to the community. What do you think IRI’s marketing team can offer our community specifically? 

Fundamentally, we are a highly collaborative team with a strong sense of community, which is very much within the spirit of Propolis. We look forward to connecting with like-minded businesses over the coming weeks and months.

I wonder also, whether there is an opportunity for us to contribute further by bringing our insights around shopper behaviour and retail trends into the community. As many of Propolis members will be operating in the B2B2C space, it could be really powerful to get more insights into the trends that are shaping consumer brands and retailers. And of course, many of these trends and techniques can often be applied into the B2B world, or are perhaps a vision of what the future might bring. I always believe that marketers are more effective when they have a broad perspective on the world.     

Our international outlook and footprint could bring a really interesting dimension too. It’s always fascinating to see the marketing strategies, challenges and techniques from other markets.

7. So, that’s enough about Propolis for now. IRI are obviously experts in predictive analytics, so how do you see evolving over the next few years? Might the death of third-party cookies make such technologies even more important do you think?

Ultimately, predictive analytics is a technique for making better decisions – taking away some of the risk and uncertainty by finding trends and patterns. And, in a world that is awash with data, I can only see this becoming a more mainstream part of business and marketing strategy. Having backward looking data is good, but being able to translate this into forward looking insights is the real art.

Perhaps the biggest shifts we’re seeing is the democratisation of this trend, fuelled by technology to make predictive analytics and insight accessible across the whole organisation and not just residing with data scientists, analytics teams or a chosen few. And through new technology like AI, user experience, visualisation and augmented decision making, we’re making this quicker, more integrated and easier than ever before.   

Regarding the death of cookies, I know there are all manner of solutions being worked on – both within IRI and outside – and I fully expect some very smart alternatives to emerge over the next 6 months. There’s always a road bump though, whether it be GDPR (Y2K anyone?) or now cookies and we always seem to come out stronger, with more effective and ethical practices. Perhaps the strongest underlying trend we all need to think about is that consumer power shows no signs of slowing, to the point where people now understand and are even starting to place an economic value on their data and how it is used. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming years.  

8. Big data is of course another field that IRI are experts in. I think sometimes it can sound very grand and perhaps even intimidating for some marketing teams. Why should marketers be paying attention to this topic and learning more? What advice do you have for them? 

By definition, you could argue that all data is, or is fast becoming big data, where it’s next to impossible for a human to draw conclusions and navigate effectively. I would say, therefore, that all marketers have experience of this in some capacity, whether it’s building a lead scoring model, looking at buying intent and propensity or just planning media. Perhaps, therefore, it’s just the phraseology that intimidates people, as it often sounds like something that only the world’s biggest organisations or a scientist would do. But, in reality, you’re probably doing it already!

As I mentioned though, we’re rapidly evolving from big data into AI, augmented decision making and visualisation – all powered by technology to put the marketer fully in control. This is all about accessibility, democratisation and ultimately being in a much better position to think about outcomes and the ‘so what’. We’re about to see a whole new age for data, analytics and insight.

So, my advice would be to embrace the possibilities, but also remember this is just a part of the mix. Without clear brand positioning, strong propositions, creativity and timeless other aspects, then you’ll never be truly successful. It’s all about balance.

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