Eularie Saldanha
Jan 18, 2023

Brands that won’t adapt to cookie regulations are going to lag in two years: Merkle analytics chief

Shirli Zelcer, global head of analytics and tech tells Campaign India about Merkle's transition post-acquisition by Dentsu, the evolving role of AI, its usage and more.

Brands that won’t adapt to cookie regulations are going to lag in two years: Merkle analytics chief

The global team of Merkle hosted a roundtable at its Mumbai office on 17 January. Headed by Pete Stein, president, Merkle Americas, Shirli Zelcer, global head of analytics and tech, Merkle, and Navin Dhananjaya, chief solutions officer, insights and analytics, the trio shared insights around their plans for the agency globally and its plans to grow Merkle to 50% of Dentsu’s revenue.

Merkle was acquired by Dentsu globally in 2016. The network also went ahead to acquire Sokrati, a data-driven performance marketing and analytics agency in 2017 and rebranded it as Merkle | Sokrati in India. 

On the sidelines, Campaign India caught up with Zelcer. Edited excerpts are below: 

What brings you to India? When did you get here and how has your time been? How big a market is India?

I have a very large team that supports my practice in India. I come regularly since it’s important to stay engaged with the team. It energises me and I learn about what’s working and where we can do better. My time so far has been excellent. I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of my team members in different offices. India for me is a huge part of Merkle’s future. Currently, we have 6,500 team members here and see it as a large unparalleled talent market for us.

You were with Merkle even before it was acquired by Dentsu in 2016. How would you explain in short, the transformation post-acquisition?

It’s been a great journey and joining Dentsu has allowed us to connect and expand with the different areas of the network. Ever since we were acquired, Dentsu has been following the ‘One Dentsu’ approach. So, we’re able to take our core area of expertise around customer experience management and bring them into media and creative and provide our clients with the option of having so many full services that interactively relate with each other. We enjoy the ability to offer our clients a more holistic offering. I love learning new things and the acquisition has allowed us to increase our offerings and our capabilities based on everything that Dentsu does. 

In the past, you've spoken about ethical AI. Could you tell us where this stands now?

Ethical AI is the ability of AI to rid biases of any kind in one's marketing journey. The relationship between humans and machines can make things better. AI on its own would never be successful because it would never know the nuances of human behaviour. Being able to have these human senses to what the AI is doing is what makes the combination powerful. 

No matter how advanced machines get, they will always require human intervention. Do you believe that they would ever be able to be by themselves? 

The machines don’t know if something is necessarily negative or positive. They don’t know if something has happened because of the global pandemic or if it's ongoing. The calibration has to come from the humans. The more that I work with AI, the more I see the nuances that humans have to be a part of. The more we find used cases for AI, the more humans are also going to have to make sure that they’re monitoring it and doing the right thing. 

Data and analytics have become crucial in the digital world. However, are there areas where the function still needs to improve massively?

The more we start thinking about data on an individual customer level and not a broad level, the more it’s going to be better. We’re still challenged with bringing all these different data components together. Right now it’s still very hard to bring together digital data and actual brick-and-mortar data. However, we’re getting better and better at it. 

There's a general connotation that people shy away from analytics since it's too technical. Is this true? Have there been challenges when hiring for this role in India?

It’s getting easier. About 12 years ago, when I was getting into this space, we did feel like that. It wasn’t called data science and it was very back office heavy, with nobody wanting to talk to us. Now, the evolution is that there are so many programs that are focused on it, with universities providing training around it and people across brands seeing its value. We’re getting pulled into more discussions and businesses want us in the room because they see the power and the value and so from a recruiting standpoint, it becomes easier.

Of the three - strategy, data transformation and digital transformation - which would you say is an absolute for a marketer? Or could you rank it in order of preference?

It’s different for different brands and depends on where they are and where they need to go. Talking about individual brands, it’s really easy to say what comes first and what comes last. But overall, in the market, it’s so hard to do that because those things play so closely with each other that you can’t have one without the other. Data transformation cannot do anything unless you’re transformed digitally. So the relationship between them is important and needs to coexist. 

Merkle swears by its employees and DEI initiatives. Have you recently made any such hires, beyond the generic diverse population across the analytics function?

We believe in diversity and a good mix of representation and India is no different from other markets. We also have a chief diversity officer who helps us with better recruiting practices in actual employee experiences that help make sure that we’re a diverse company. 

What are the challenges in this space?

One of the biggest challenges is revolving more around privacy and the ability to use data in the way that we’ve been using it. Again, we’re transforming the way we use data and the way we’re marketing. So, all the practices we had are no longer available and they’re going to change more in the next two to three years. As cookies are going away, and as different wall gardens are becoming more and more exclusive, we’re not going to be able to look at data, analytics and digital marketing with the same lens. It’s very important for us to develop different methodologies around marketing, attribution, measurement and modelling with AI that take into account all these different regulations and then help our brands understand how to market in this new environment. Brands that are not paying attention to it now are going to be lagging in two years.

Campaign India

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