Allyson Stewart-Allen, Member of IORMA Board
and Founder and CEO of International Marketing Partners
in conversation with
IORMA Board member Allyson Stewart-Allen is the Founder and CEO of global consultancy International Marketing Partners, which helps organisations build their businesses in international markets via local knowledge of cultures and consumers.
Barbara Walker of IORMA met Allyson to talk about how retailers and brands can best evaluate and respond to the increasing opportunities brought about through social and technological changes.
BW: Allyson, you have an impressive record advising major businesses on major global trends. Looking back to yourself at seventeen, did you have a vision or a strategy to develop your career?
ASA: Well, while I was growing up in California, I did have certain drivers that influenced the paths I took – and am still taking. I knew from my early years that whatever I was going to do would have to meet certain criteria important to me.
I get bored easily; I’m intrigued by how organisations work, but I have never wanted to attach myself to one corporation, preferring to work with them on a project basis. My fascination is with differences – between organisations, between people, and most of all, between cultures.
I like to look both wide and deep. Not into the detail, but into the factors underlying trends because if you really understand this dynamic, you can transfer ideas between one situation, one kind of business and another, and that is really creative.
And I enjoy being disruptive…respecting the strengths that an organisation has, but getting executives to focus on the opportunities before them and evaluate them from new standpoints, even if that feels uncomfortable at first. It’s good to see yourself, your organisation not just as a mirror image but in silhouette, against different backdrops, in uncomfortable situations.
When a business is successful in one country, it’s tempting to see international expansion as just a matter of transplanting current activities into a new market. But you need to see the region for yourself; meet the people, share their culture, get under the skin. You have to be ready to do things differently, to take advantage of all that the region has to offer, and that may well require some fundamental reappraisal and change. It’s not just a matter of selling the same products and services to different people. When you go into a new country, you need to be genuinely curious about what drives it and find your own ways to succeed commercially.
BW: The firm that you founded, International Marketing Partners, has clients across an array of sectors – retail and consumer goods, financial services, law firms, property and engineering. Your own expertise on brands and marketing – does that draw on experience across your client sectors?
ASA: Yes it does. BAE Systems for example is constantly active in developing the skills that the engineering sector needs to sustain its innovation. Its programmes to build long term capabilities in science and engineering depend on winning the hearts and commitment of young people, to stimulate and reward their creativity in the literal sense of the word. That has so much in common with winning the hearts and minds of customers.
Large companies are so often fixated on comparing themselves with their direct competitors. But often they can learn more by studying firms in quite different sectors, looking for the similarities and the differences.
BW: Your book Working with Americans has attracted widespread acclaim from businesses, government, academics and the media with so many organisations keen to apply its principles to their own situation. Are you doing a follow-up guide on Working with Europeans?
ASA: Oh, that would be much more difficult! I’m always wary about generalising, but US values are pretty consistent across business – which is surprising, given the deep divisions in ethnic cultures and political allegiances. In the US, doing business bridges the divide, because everyone can take part, and all are motivated by money. Much more than Europeans, we live to work.
BW: Do you mean that as a criticism?
ASA: Well – yes I do. All my American friends take their phones on holiday. They just don’t feel secure in their jobs and that is bad, because when you do feel secure you are able to challenge and to criticise the way things are – and all organisations can benefit from that kind of disruption from their people. Many young people today, Generation Y, have seen their parents badly treated in the workplace. That is a big stimulus for them to become entrepreneurs; to live on their passion. Employers should welcome that drive and find ways to reward it in the workplace, by actioning the ideas their people have and letting them carry them to fruition in the marketplace.
BW: Let’s talk about big data. There’s great excitement about the expansion of data available to businesses, and this excitement is nowhere near its peak so far ?
ASA: Big data is hugely important. It’s already transforming businesses, especially in retail, at the operational level. But that’s not all. Both technology players such as Google and brands such as [Nike], are investing in innovations like connected devices, wearables, drone deliveries, robots in supply chains and stores. These add excitement for customers; they can build productivity, but most of all they are generating new data. This enables companies to reevaluate just what they are; no longer just retailers, designers, manufacturers, but owners and exploiters of knowledge.
BW: So, this is the era of big data – and of big information too, with a rapid expansion of expertise in numbers, words and infographics. IORMA is planning a big contribution itself early in 2015, with a major research project on consumers in seventeen major international markets. How does the ready availability of data and information impact on your own profession: board level consultancy?
ASA: It makes it even more important. Data and information become useful to corporates only when they are able to identify and assimilate it and to act on it. Increasingly, corporates need guidance through the multiple mazes of data, and they need assistance with interpreting all the information so they have the right insight to make the best business decisions –and right now, that can only be provided by people with experience. Someone needs to sift the factual matter, to give perspective and help boards prioritise. Retailers in particular have to focus on detail, on optimising their operations in the immediate term, and they find it especially hard to be driven by strategy.
BW: In the medium term, what are the main directions of change for retailers and brands?
ASA: The main factor has to be a focus on people, customers. People want brands to revolve around them, to meet real needs and wants, and to communicate in the ways that suit them best.
BW: And finally Allyson, as a frequent commentator in a wide array of media, how do you feel about the fact that businesses – especially retailers – are so constantly under the media spotlight? The constant attention to current sales and financial results – can this be a good thing?
ASA: Definitely yes! Transparency and accountability to all stakeholders are fundamental business ethics. For retailers, it is part of being in the game. As well as that, media coverage of retail provides a key to how economies are faring, and that is crucial to everyone. Short-termism, however, is an affliction of many Western economies which means retailers’ investments in sustainable business approaches suffers – though I don’t have a ready fix for that challenge unfortunately.