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Why Sanjeevan Bala, Chief Data Officer at ITV, sees himself as a chameleon and data as magic

Wed 26 Jan 2022 | Sanjeevan Bala

Sanjeevan Bala, Group Chief Data and AI Officer, ITV PLC, regards himself as ‘a bit of a chameleon.’ This quality has served him well in his career. In anticipation of Big Data World, Bala shared some of his remarkable journey into the magic of Data.

Born in Sri Lanka, Sanjeevan came to Britain at the age of two and has since been  nomadic –  living and working in different countries. He says: ‘I have memories, early on, of integrating into new cultures and learning how to adapt while retaining a sense of my own identity. I feel this ability has helped me throughout my whole career.’

Perhaps surprisingly, that career began with a job in investment banking in Australia. Bala reflects: ‘Though not a career for me, I came to terms with just how much value could be created with data. That was my introduction into it. I think it’s safe to say I accidentally fell into it.’

Following that, intrepid Bala was drawn to the Americas, where he spent time in start-ups and strategy consultancy in Silicon Valley and New York –  ‘The roles all revolved around how you put the customer at the heart of your business. I was fortunate as I got to cover a wide range of experiences.’

His unifying focus was around ‘innovation and driving future growth in all the businesses and companies I worked in. I was able to work across so many different sectors, which allowed me to see patterns and similarities in how businesses operate and (critically) how they drive a growth strategy. But data was almost like this mysterious black box, where you deal with all this great stuff with customers, put this stuff in this black box, this magic happens and then you create this value. The question in my mind soon shifted to trying to understand what happens in this mysterious black box?’

But data was almost like this mysterious black box

On leaving the US and returning to London, Bala worked at market leading data-science company – Dunnhumby. He knew the methods and importance of creating value from data. He says: “a lot of the work was to connect the great customer and growth strategies but taking a more fact based approach to growth strategies. At Dunnhumby I got to understand how businesses start their data journey and how you really link it all together. I critically discovered the ‘magic’ in the black box.”

Join Sanjeevan Bala at Big Data & AI World, 2-3 March, ExCeL London

Strategic planning: RIP digital transformation (and how to change that)
2 March 2022, 10:45 – 11:10
Big Data & AI World Keynote

Working in TV – Channel 4 & ITV

Bala was headhunted for Channel 4. ‘I was quite new to it all. I learned the importance of really understanding the cultural DNA of a business and, critically, how you have to talk the language of the business not data! Because if you think about TV businesses, it is a hugely creative endeavour. We create and tell amazing human stories. Talking data in a really creative business can be like chalk and cheese. If you think about the different skills…the notion of applying science can land the wrong way. It can become quite divisive if you end up going down the either / or of creativity versus science. We didn’t even talk about data when we developed the growth strategy, instead we spent time going native and started to map business outcomes across our entire business. We worked in partnership with colleagues across commissioning, content acquisition, scheduling, marketing, distribution and commercial to map how we might create new value.

Talking data in a really creative business can be like chalk and cheese, the two don’t naturally go together.

Sanjeevan’s current role at ITV is what he calls ‘group-wide’, which means that it is international and sits across all parts of the business. ‘So, if you think about ITV, we create and own content IP in how we produce, commission, acquire, promote, distribute and monetise it. We are going after the most obvious use cases by enabling teams to use data to drive marketing, product and commercial outcomes and in time we hope to go further up the value chain to work with commissioners and empower them with tools and data to be another resource they can use to drive our creativity.’

He adds – “my team constantly looks at and tries to re-imagine how we might do things differently and therefore are always looking to showcase the art of the possible? Our focus, given our creative DNA is about how do we combine our world class creativity with data – combining art and science.  Put simply, we are trying to ‘colour by numbers.”

Sanjeevan’s Big Data World talk will be about securing strategic buying.

‘Data’s one of those things where you end up either where you need it, as in everyone else has got it and we need to do something with it, or it can be seen as a subtly tactical thing. One of the things my team has done is engaged with the corporate strategy and tightly developed the data strategy to align and drive growth, winning over hearts and minds and securing investment.’

Also in Bala’s BDW talk, he will touch on the art of being a chameleon – how it will allow you to talk the language of the business, which in turn results in securing buy-in. He will also cover the risk of just delivering ‘faster horses’ without transformation –

         A lot of these digital and data programmes often deliver a faster horse and that’s not really transformation.

Bala will discuss decoding culture and the cultural changes needed to make the program stick. ‘To make it stick, you’ve really got to think about culture, and walking in other people’s shoes, feeling part of their journey. That’s really key and it’s way more than just about the technology.’

The big win of using data analytics for ITV’s corporate strategy is growth. ‘We’re linking to growth in terms of revenue, and that can come through revenue protection, where we’ve got a load of capabilities in the market in terms of our commercial offering and how do we protect that. But also growth in terms of new capabilities – for example, how do we understand better who the viewer is, what they are interested in, how do we promote our shows differently on different digital platforms,  and once viewers come onto our digital platforms –  how do we personalise that experience for them? A lot of the narrative for us in these cases is how do we use data to drive growth in our business.’

The second big area is around this culture idea in that there’s no sense in only going hiring all new talent – ‘let’s hire an army of 20-something digital native professionals” because actually, they will be a bit like chalk and cheese because yes, they will know a lot about digital and data, but will fail to engage as they don’t understand content businesses. A lot of what we are doing is thinking about how we really invest in colleagues already in the business and compliment with new hires and skills. Because our colleagues at ITV are our greatest creative asset that we have. And what’s really striking is that they are phenomenally creative in their endeavour, they really understand the content of telly and what we are trying to work through is how do we upskill that skill, because then we get the best of telly understanding and digital and data, rather than have these all-new digital people come in who don’t really understand telly. That’s one of the things we are working to ensure that we land correctly in.”

Forward plans!

Given the challenges of working in a pandemic environment, Bala says that if you shelve the challenge of doing the whole thing remotely, he and his team have done exceptionally well. ‘We have set out a really compelling vision, we’ve got buying, and have secured funding. We’ve set up the operating model… so we’ve got off to a really good start. I think the main thing we got right was to set out a really compelling vision that was understood by the business, this kind of co-creation idea and I think that has landed really well in 2021 in that we’ve initiated the idea, the what if, the art of the possible, in a really compelling way.

          You think about science and data and creativity and how they don’t naturally sit together – we’ve done it in a way that’s not felt threatening, it’s felt quite empowering and inspiring for the colleagues at ITV.

A lot of this year will be about delivery and that cultural change around how ITV can get people feeling inspired by what the art of the possible might look like. Now that we’ve initiated it to delivery, it’s all around talent engagement. How do we ensure that our colleagues at ITV, the teams that we are building, feel really empowered? We are rolling a Happiness Index to better understand engagement with how our colleagues in data are feeling at ITV, and how inspired they feel about using data to create value.’

Bala has fond memories of watching ITV as a youngster, and is relishing his role at this iconic TV channel – ‘As a kid, I always watched telly. It’s one of those weird things. You see all those amazing shows and compelling story lines that people talk about. It’s a phenomenal creative outfit. I’ve always seen ITV as a really iconic, a really big brand that can entertain Britain – in the days when we only had four channels and before the internet, I always saw it as a place to enjoy live sports and watch shows together as a family. I didn’t train in anything to do with telly, it’s the furthest away from what I graduated in. As is every business, we are going through massive digital transformation.

Data, digital culture, skills…all these things are core to the growth and longevity of our businesses.’


Experts featured:

Sanjeevan Bala

Group Chief Data and AI Officer for ITV PLC


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