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One Woman, Two Worlds: How Shirli Zelcer Bridges the Data Divide

In the ever-widening chasm of our data-driven world, Shirli Zelcer stands as a unique bridge. This piece explores her remarkable position, straddling two worlds and working to bring them together.

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Aanchal Ghatak
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 Shirli Zelcer

In this interview, Shirli Zelcer dives into her recent appointment as CDTO at Dentsu, highlighting the significance of this newly created position and her plans to drive innovation across the organization. She shares her vision for an integrated data and technology strategy, emphasizing the importance of leveraging Merkle's expertise in analytics and marketing technology to deliver superior client outcomes.

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Can you explain the significance of your new role as Chief Data and Technology Officer at dentsu and how it differs from your previous role at Merkle?  

Earlier this year, I took over the role as the Chief Data and Technology Officer (CDTO) for dentsu, sitting on Dentsu’s Group Management Team. In this new role, I will be driving dentsu’s client-facing data-driven, analytics and technology-enabled products and platforms, aimed at fostering innovation and sustainable growth for our clients.   

It is a very exciting opportunity to move into this new role at a time given Dentsu’s pivotal moment in history and the rapid evolution of data and technology. With over two decades of experience in analytics, insights, business advisory, organizational design, AI, data science, cloud, and marketing technologies, I am responsible for driving innovation ranging from ethical AI and advancements in cloud engineering to future-proofing data literate organizations around zero-party data.

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I will continue to lead Merkle’s Analytics and Marketing Technology practice area, a global division of over 5,600 practitioners across the Americas, EMEA, and APAC.  My most recent position was as the Global Head of Analytics and Technology at Merkle, where I spearheaded a global team comprising over 5,600 practitioners spanning the Americas, EMEA, and APAC regions. 

CDTO is a newly created position at Dentsu. What do you see as the key priorities and challenges in establishing and defining this role within the company?  

My key priority as Chief Data and Technology Officer is to oversee the development and commercial impact of data and tech strategy across our core practice areas, including Media, CXM,Creative and BX, as well as working closely with global practice leads. I am also leading a newly formed team from these Practices to drive consistency, interoperability and ultimately delivering better outcomes to dentsu’s clients through more unified capabilities. 

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In the ever-evolving marketing and advertising world, staying ahead of the competition is paramount. At dentsu, it is an exciting time for innovation and business transformation. We are bringing together teams across our global network to hone our capabilities and identify new intelligent solutions and advancements using new technologies like AI - ensuring our clients remain at the forefront of innovation. At every step, our innovations are laser-focused on driving the biggest impact for clients.

Can you elaborate on the integrated products and platforms strategy you will be overseeing? What are your goals for this strategy in the coming years?  

This new role will enable our integrated operating model by overseeing an integrated products and platforms strategy, bringing together diverse teams from across geographies and Practices to deliver value and innovation for our clients. I will oversee three areas: products and platforms, including products like Merkury, GenCX and Dentsu Connect; analytics and insights, spanning analytics, attribution, and data engineering; and global services, which includes the data and tech aspects of dentsu’s creative, media and customer experience management businesses. 

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This year Dentsu plans to tie GenCX (which uses generative AI to combine first party and third-party data) to Merkury, our global data, identity, and insights platform. We will use generative AI to create audience segments and lookalike audiences with greater speed and accuracy, based on clients’ first-party data and Merkury’s third-party data.

Recently, Dentsu has also announced the official launch of Merkury for Media, the network's latest offering within its unrivalled global data, identity, and insights platform, Merkury. The new product is the only one live in-market today where every dollar of media is placed using first-party people data optimized to business outcomes as the root of all linear and digital media planning and buying.  Merkury for Media is powered within Dentsu Connect, Dentsu's proprietary operating system consolidating network-wide products, where practitioners can seamlessly facilitate evolved audience creation and connect data to elevate insights, planning, targeting, and measurement to deliver personal and frictionless experiences across channels.

With your extensive background in analytics and technology, what are some of the most significant advancements you foresee in the field of data-driven marketing and analytics?  

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Marketers have always talked about the idea of 1:1 personalization but have not been able to realize it at scale.  With new technologies powered by Gen AI, we now can identify the right offer, message and creative and tailor it down to the individual.  We also see advancements in the way marketers access data and use the power of Gen AI to accelerate the ability to glean insights and also recommendations from the data using natural language. 

Zero-party data is becoming increasingly important. Can you discuss your strategies for helping organizations become more data literate and future-proof in this area? 

Zero-party data, or data that a customer willingly gives over to a brand, is a way to connect with your audience on an emotional level. Consumers are more likely to be loyal to brands with whom they share an emotional connection.  It’s a long-term relationship driven by shared values, transparency, trust, and open dialog – a relationship that ultimately helps improve your CX. 

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The easiest way to lose a consumer’s trust is through unethical or biased marketing practices, even if they’re unintentional. To ensure that data collected by the organization is not used inappropriately, there is a need for a robust data governance framework that outlines policies, procedures, and responsibilities for managing zero-party data to build trust with customers and protect their data rights.

Your company may not have the mature data competencies and hence it’s imperative to invest in the new-age technologies that can leverage AI and machine learning capabilities to collect, store, and analyze zero-party data efficiently and securely. The key is to convert the data into useful insights that can enhance decision making process and gives better CX.

What role do you see cloud engineering playing in the future of marketing technology, and how is Merkle leveraging advancements in this area to benefit clients?  

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Data engineering has always played a massive role in MarTech. In 2024, we will see changes in how clients buy this work and the technology stack. As data grows exponentially, cloud platforms offer the infrastructure needed to store, process, and analyze vast amounts of information in real-time. This capability is crucial for delivering personalized and timely marketing campaigns. 

Merkle leverages cloud advancements to enhance its clients' marketing strategies through sophisticated data integration and transformation. Cloud-based solutions allow Merkle to unify disparate data sources to create a comprehensive view of each customer. This unified identity allows for more accurate targeting and personalization, ensuring that marketing messages are relevant and impactful. 

Merkle's strategic use of Snowflake Data Cloud for its identity management solution is a testament to its commitment to innovation.  This choice allows for unparalleled scalability and portability, empowering clients to access identity resolution within their own data environment. 

Additionally, cloud engineering supports advanced analytics and machine learning, enabling Merkle to proactively predict customer behavior and optimize marketing efforts. The scalability of cloud solutions also means that Merkle can rapidly adjust to changing market conditions and client needs without significant infrastructure investments. 

How do you balance the need for robust data analytics with the growing demand for privacy and data security?  

At Dentsu, we balance robust data analytics with privacy and data security by adhering to ISO 27001 standards and complying with GDPR and CCPA regulations. We prioritize the security of personally identifiable information (PII) through stringent practices and technical controls, including advanced encryption, regular security audits, and continuous monitoring. Our systems restrict access to critical resources to minimize data leakage risks. With a proven track record free of data breaches, we demonstrate our commitment to safeguarding confidential data while maintaining a strong information security posture. 

Moreover, on the AI front we emphasize data ethics and explainability in AI development, challenging the necessity of AI tasks from the outset and maintaining meticulous records of projects. Our diverse ethics experts provide guidance and audits, focusing on the impact of AI on power dynamics, while our Augment-ML platform promotes human-machine collaboration. By educating clients on incorporating contestability and recourse procedures, we ensure democratic and participatory system development, safeguarding data and privacy effectively.

What are some of the major challenges you anticipate in your role, and how do you plan to address them?  

With the advent of Gen AI and how quickly that field is evolving, it is important to have continuous training around AI-related topics in addition to educating teams on how we will work with AI in the future and specifically ways to engage with AI with privacy, security, and governance in mind. We need to continue to educate the industry that when using AI, you must do so in a way that in unbiased.  

What strategies will you implement to ensure the successful delivery of personalized and bespoke AI solutions for dentsu’s clients? 

AI has quickly become a board level priority and our clients want to find ways to capitalize on it in a safe and reliable way.  At Dentsu, we are looking to support our clients, by helping identify the right use cases that can have a measurable impact on business KPIs.  We are helping clients setup the right data foundation, by integrating structured and unstructured datasets. Dentsu has infused AI across our existing products and built specific products that use AI/ Gen AI to generate insights using natural language and develop the next best experiences that our client can use to accelerate their ability to realize the ROI from AI. 

How do you plan to balance the demands of your dual role, leading both dentsu’s data strategy and Merkle’s Analytics and Marketing Technology practice?  

At Dentsu and Merkle we have talented leaders and teams across our tech community so I’m looking forward to broadening the impact and working with them closely. My dual roles will naturally allow for more collaboration and integrated delivery for our clients. 

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