The Brilliant and Beautiful: Creating Luxury Digital Experiences with Burberry CIO
Burberry Global CIO Mark McClennon shares his passion for getting a versatile perspective on consumers, the importance of using data to drive insights, and - most importantly - in our fast-paced world, to always be sure to stop and smell the roses.
Global CIO at Burberry Group Plc
Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling multibillion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax, with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth.
Narrator: Mark McClennon spent close to three decades at Unilever, leading the consumer goods company's global digital transformation efforts into the powerhouse that it is today. Now as CIO of Burberry, Mark leads IT at the luxury fashion house, a retailer renowned for its extraordinary creativity and innovation. In this episode, hear from Mark about his colorful professional journey from canned fish to luxury retail, the importance of having a variety of experiences to give you a well rounded perspective, and how to leverage technology to create brilliant luxury customer experiences, both online and offline.
Chet Kapoor: Hello Mark. How are you?
Mark McClennon: Chet, I'm fantastic. How about you?
Chet Kapoor: Doing great. Super excited to connect with you today. Looking forward to having a conversation about you.
Mark McClennon: My favorite subject.
Chet Kapoor: You spent two decades at Unilever, and now at Burberry as a CIO. Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Mark McClennon: I mean, I was actually at Unilever for about 29 years. It was a long stint. Been at Burberry about three and a half. I think one of the mistakes people make sometimes, Chet, is to try and make it sound like it's a very structured, planned out career, that 30 years ago I decided on this path and this role. To be honest, nothing could be further from the truth. For me, it was much more about just following my passion and always wanting to do a little bit more, pushing myself to try new things. That was always the sort of theme of my career, so I was lucky enough to live and work in the UK, in Italy, in France, in the US.
Mark McClennon: I worked in different functions. In fact, I started in finance, worked as a marketer for a few years, worked in strategy and leadership. And then a huge chunk of the career in IT. I went from - my first role at Unilever was in the wonderful world of canned fish which was a strange place to start. And then I finished up in luxury retail. So, a real colorful journey. But I do think there's a serious side to it. I do think that variety gives you an amazing perspective as you go through your career as a CIO.
Mark McClennon: I do find lots of CIOs have a similar kind of slightly random looking career path where you've done lots of different business roles, different countries, different cultures, and I think it gives you a real value to impart to a business. Because you can walk around a problem. You don't just see it from one perspective of technology. You can see it from a customer consumer point of view, you can see it from a commercial point of view, et cetera. It's been a colorful journey along the way, I have to say.
Chet Kapoor: It's very interesting, right? I guess I carry on around this all the time, which is you can read about the functions, you can talk with the people that do the functions, but those are very different from actually doing the functions yourself, right? I mean, shipping a product, selling a product, supporting a product are very different in a tech company than actually saying, "Let me get a perspective on what you do and give me your perspective so I can better serve you." It seems like that has been a cornerstone for your years of experience and bringing it to Burberry. Is that fair?
Mark McClennon: That's totally fair. That is totally fair. I was telling someone the other day the story of some of the time I spent with a marketing community in Unilever, and again, you can spend lots of time reading about marketing and branding as a discipline, as a subject. But to actually sit in a hut in rural India, talking to consumers about how they wash the dishes, or clean teeth, or where do they get a sense of pride from, what things are special to them, those things are life changing for me, Chet.
Mark McClennon: It just gives you an insight into people, and what makes people tick, that you can take back to craft better products, better experiences, to orient a team better. Those kinds of things I think are wonderful experiences to go through. I do think you have to experience some of that. That set of experiences I would have missed so much if I hadn't done that.
Chet Kapoor: What came easy and what was hard?
Mark McClennon: In my eyes, business is a contact sport. One of the things that's always been clear to me is to get things done in business, you've got to have a passion for people. You've got to be happy to work with people. I will never forget some very early advice I got in my career, and I'll change the language, because it was a little bit colorful when I got the advice. We were in a group of graduate trainees and one of the lecturers said to us, "You're all aspiring to be future leaders." He says, "I'm going to save you some of you a lot of time and pain." He says, "If you don't love working with people, stop now."
Mark McClennon: He says, "Stop now, because you're going to cause yourself and other people so much pain if you don't have a passion for people." That is something that stuck with me early on, and it's something which I found easy. I didn't know I would find it easy, but I did find it easy, and it's something that's sort of stayed with me throughout. In terms of what was coming through was tough, what are the hurdles? I think business is just about hurdles generally. I mean, business is tough. Winning is tough.
Mark McClennon: First and foremost, I think what you've got to have to get through that is a sense of passion and belief in what you're doing and I look at some of the really tough times I've had throughout my career. The ups and downs, 30 years ago to even the last year, the first thing that gets me through is that passion and belief in what I'm doing. Secondly, I also think there's something around just surrounding yourself with great people.
Mark McClennon: Going through all those hurdles is so much easier when you have great people around you. And then the other part for me is the roles of coaches and mentors, which is something I didn't realize until much later in my career. I was so lucky from early doors, all the way through to today, having great mentors in businesses, and great coaches and leadership coaches who have helped me along the way, helped me to be at my best more often, held up a mirror to me.
Mark McClennon: That was so important to me. I was the first in the family to do A levels, first to get a degree, first to work abroad. Some of it was new ground for me, and to have those people helping me over those hurdles and even smash through the hurdles I think was super important. And then also it underlines to me the importance of being a coach and a mentor. Because there's so much tough ground ahead in business life. I do think it's really important for all of us to take on a coaching and mentoring role with those around us, and I have to say I still learn more from doing that than I probably impart to people. I just find it's a great way to keep your own skills fresh and your own perspective on leadership fresh, and how you get through these challenges, just by talking through these things with other people.
Chet Kapoor: You know a lot of people don't make this point, but almost anybody who does it, right? Whether they do it outside their professional life, right? Because they want to give back to society, or whether they will do it in their professional lives, they will all tell you if asked the question, beyond the satisfaction you get on giving back, does it make you a better person and do you learn something about yourself? And you nailed it, right? I mean, every time we do this, we're also learning a little bit more about ourselves through those conversations. I thought that was a very great insight.
Chet Kapoor: Technology is changing the shopping experience, right? And it's happening across the board. You talked a little bit about Unilever, obviously now at Burberry with a top luxury brand. Give us your perspective on how technology and data has started to shape the customer's buying experience.
Mark McClennon: I mean, I think there is a revolution with tech and data. We all know that. One of the many things that tempted me to join Burberry was Burberry's always been a brand of firsts. It's built on a belief of creativity and the power of creativity to open spaces and create possibilities. It's very much a do and learn, an experimentation type culture which I love. I think historically we've been pioneers in creating compelling experiences in terms of brand experiences, digital experiences, in-store, socially. I think we've done this in Burberry over the last decade. I think we've got a strong reputation for that.
Mark McClennon: For me, all this leads to this moment now where we tie all these pieces together. One of the things we've done recently is a store in Shenzhen in China. This is a social retail store where we've connected everything into one long term relationship. We've taken the success stories we've seen over the years in those different areas. With social retail, we're tying all this together into one cohesive experience, which lives in perpetuity, and it actually grows over time with the customer.
Mark McClennon: It's no longer about those separate experiences I spoke about before. It's about bringing all of those together, not as one-offs, but as something that's constant. It's something that's more of a journey and it's something that's sort of a deeper relationship. For us, it's still really early days but I have to say it's so exciting to see what we can do. When we were talking about where to do this, where do you innovate around social and retail? It had to be China.
Mark McClennon: China was just the obvious place for us. It's the home of the most digitally savvy luxury customers. We were lucky to have a really great relationship with our partner, Tencent. We've pioneered with them a new concept which we believe will redefine expectations in luxury retail. This is just for us, a first step in this exclusive partnership between our companies. For me, the social retail store in Shenzhen, it's a place of discovery. It's a place that connects and rewards those customers that engage with us, online and in-store, because those journeys are so much more fluid now.
Mark McClennon: Technology and data have just enabled us to blend those experiences more and more. For us, it's something really, really exciting, and it is that customer journey and that customer experience, which is the end goal. And with any kind of experiment, I think you're bound to hit these bumps in the road. You've worked in tech long enough, Chet, to know there's always bumps in the road with tech and data. But I think when you have that North Star, of that brilliant, luxury customer experience, it sort of pulls everything together.
Mark McClennon: Helps us to prioritize, it helps us to focus, so that whole Shenzhen experience for us, it's still early days, but that's been really exciting to see the art of the possible, and just to challenge ourselves to evolve how we see the customer and those experiences we create.
Chet Kapoor: What has been more challenging going back to the people aspect of this? My hypothesis is that it's actually more challenging for us to think about the art of the possibilities than for our customers, because they are living in that world. They are living in that mindset. Have you found that to be the case? Which your customers actually are fairly accepting of social retail, but getting there is something that we have to expand your own minds into delivering that experience.
Mark McClennon: Totally. I think we have a little advantage that we are very customer centric in Burberry. We talk about the customer a lot, across all the functions. It's one of the big subjects in IT, in the digital team. We all talk about the customer. I think the barriers quite often I see in the industry to great customer experience are just some of the old siloed structures and behaviors, and part of the baggage that we all bring with us, Chet. I think about some of the things that we did in the last company. It was often the thing that got in our way was ourselves. It wasn't even the competition. We were the greatest competition to ourselves, just slowing ourselves down.
Mark McClennon: Coming into Burberry, I think we've got that advantage that we are customer focused. But you do have to evolve how you see the customer, because I still think there's a tendency for people to talk about in-store, online, those kinds of things as separate entities rather than just different perspectives on a journey. I think we've just got to keep reminding ourselves of that. I think ultimately, though, there's something about ... I gave you the example before about spending time in favelas in Brazil, or in huts in rural India, or in small apartments in Tokyo, to understand consumers.
Mark McClennon: I think there's something about understanding luxury consumers, and it doesn't matter what the industry is. Understand your consumers, live that life, and understand what's important to them. That for me, it can't be an academic thing. You have to really understand how they live and breathe and what's important to them. And that's the unifying factor.
Chet Kapoor: It was a phenomenal experience to go to the Burberry store in London. It was awesome. At Burberry, you've used AI to enhance your sales and customer relations. AI now, it's showing up in - and in ML - it's showing up in many places in the consumer world, right? Are there any specific thoughts on what you've already done and where you think you're going with it?
Mark McClennon: The use of data generally to drive insight, and whether it's artificial intelligence, machine learning, analytics generally, I think it's on everyone's agenda. We've been a pioneer in the space, in the luxury sector, and we've had analytics capabilities for quite a number of years now. Certainly I think we've done some really nice stuff around customer communication and outreach and a lot of that stuff's been almost repurposed and brought to the front again. When we look at some of the tough times we've had with COVID, which makes you look at businesses in a different way, but we've had to use the power of data, of AI, for instance to identify customers that a store associate should reach out to and offer virtual style appointments.
Mark McClennon: We've used the data to drive some of those interactions. For me, I think one of the important principles, in particular in luxury, is that the technology can't really replace that human moment, that human interaction. Because luxury customer service is human, it is personal, and I think what we've got to do is find a way to bring the power of this to the business and to the store associates in particular. For me, I think some really exciting stuff we can do in-store to bring that power of insight to the customer associates and store associates, but without losing that human touch.
Chet Kapoor: Yeah. No, for sure. For sure. Shifting gears here, how's it going with your teams coping with distributed work?
Mark McClennon: It's strange for everyone, Chet, isn't it? People talk about the new normal. I think there is no normal.
Chet Kapoor: I know.
Mark McClennon: I think there is just whatever it is. For us, there's a set of priorities that we always stick to around digital, these digital ways of working. One, which is the foundation for us, is just to make sure that everyone's safe. I do think we've been lucky in Burberry, having ... Certainly I'll talk from IT point of view, in particular. Having some great relationships across our partner ecosystem, because I do think one of the things in these tough times you need to be able to rely on your close partners. You and I in fact have had this conversation.
Mark McClennon: But I think it's really important to be able to reach out to people, to get that help. Because we had to work in such a different way, and it was quite radical for us. But we were super lucky to have such a strong partner ecosystem and partners who really lent in and wanted to collaborate and help us. That has been, for me, fantastic. But it's also given us a chance with the partners to look at how do we not just see this as hurdles and bumps in the road? How do we see it as an opportunity to evolve how we work? There's lots of things that we're looking at, just to make day-to-day working better.
Mark McClennon: Virtual showrooms, so we've got a physical showroom where we display the product, but how do we set a virtual one up? So the customers or colleagues that can't travel can still experience these wonderful products, and we bring them to life. We've collaborated with Microsoft in doing this and it's been just a great experience. Businesses like ours have fared quite well, because we invested so much time in personal relationships originally. I think about the Burberry relationships I have, the partner relationships, we all work so well together, because we know each other. We've spent time face-to-face. I do think there's the human element that we've got to bring back in.
Chet Kapoor: Mark, just think about our partnership, right? We've not missed a heartbeat, right? We keep continuing, doing everything we can, and you're making good progress and we're here for each other, so I think that helps. What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?
Mark McClennon: I think there are a couple of things. I mean, the first one for me would be don't worry so much. I think I was a worrier early in my career. And one of the things I really underestimated, I think early on, was just how many people along this wonderful journey want to lean in and help you on the journey. I said early on, I've had so many wonderful business mentors and leadership coaches, right through to now, I mean some of the support I get from the Burberry team is just phenomenal. I didn't really see that early on in my career.
Mark McClennon: It was there, but I didn't realize. I think that's probably one of the big things for me that I'd certainly say to myself. The other one, maybe it ties into the first one, and that's always make sure that you have a source of joy in your life. I could talk for hours about that, but there's something about stopping and smelling the flowers. Because I do think sometimes we go so fast, especially as technology people. We're in such a hurry. Because I do think speed is a proxy for value sometimes. We want to do everything so fast, but I was saying to a friend recently, I could give you a list of cities around the world that I've touched down in, gone to the local Hilton, dropped a bag off, gone into an office, worked in an office, gone back to the Hilton, gone back to the airport, and come out.
Mark McClennon: And I don't mean dead end cities with nothing. I mean some of the most beautiful cities on Earth, that I never really enjoyed because I was in too much of a hurry. I do think there's something about really enjoying every day and just taking joy from everything around you. I think sometimes we are in too much of a hurry. I sound very philosophical, don't I, sir?
Chet Kapoor: Well, that's great. That's great advice, right? Which is don't worry, right? We can make it part of everything we did when we were younger. I think we would be happier and it would actually help, like you said, help us smell the roses a little bit more. By the way, all of us probably have the same stories, which is let me go to this city for three hours, and go to the next city in three hours, and we've not had a chance to actually take the time to get to know the people or the city, right? I think that's phenomenal advice. Mark, this has been great. I really, really appreciate your time. Thank you very, very much.
Mark McClennon: Anytime. Thanks, Chet.
Narrator: Great advice. In today's hyper-connected world, moving at the speed of technology can oftentimes keep us from stopping to smell the roses. Mark encourages us to be the best version of ourselves and pay it forward by imparting the younger generations with knowledge and mentorship. And who knows, we might learn a thing or two in return. Mark leaves us with three pieces of advice. Don't worry so much, don't underestimate how much people want to help you along your journey, and always make sure you have a source of joy in your life.
Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Inspired Execution Podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and phenomenal stories to come, so stay tuned.
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