Questions for Scott Howe, New CEO of Acxiom

Offline and online data giant Acxiom has saddled Scott Howe, a former exec at Microsoft and Quantive, with bringing it up to speed in digital. That’s easier said than done for a 42-year-old company with client leads who have been in their jobs for a decade or more. On the bright side, Acxiom’s customers are highly dependent. (“We couldn’t fire [Acxiom] even if we wanted to,” one major banking client told Howe.) But they want more from it on digital.

Howe’s roadmap involves expanding partnerships with major online marketing players like Microsoft, Google, and Turn (where he sits on the board) and playing an advisory role in clients’ decision making regarding online data.

On Friday afternoon, ClickZ reached Howe by phone as he drove north from his company’s Downer’s Grove, IL office to meet his son in Wisconsin. Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Scott Howe: They’ve got so many offices. I’m like George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” except not nearly as handsome or as pathetically sad as he is in his personal life.

This is my life for a while… We’ve got to lock down our strategy and socialize it and operationalize it within a very technical organization. It involves a lot of evangelizing everybody in the organization to get it. You get so much momentum going that when you want to shift it all, it’s tough to move it.

ClickZ: How do you evaluate Acxiom’s success so far in digital?

Howe: This is a company that has a long legacy of working with really big clients to solve really big problems. It’s unlike things I’ve seen in the digital space. I talked to a client today that has used Acxiom for 19 years. The relationships are all like that.

The people on the business in many cases have been the client leads on a particular piece of business for over a decade. You go to client meetings. It’s not like a normal agency relationship that I’ve ever seen. It’s like two old friends sharing war stories.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on extending client relationships into digital. One client, a major bank, said to me, “We love Acxiom. We couldn’t fire them even if we wanted to. They’re so embedded in our organization, and we’re so dependent on their technology. But we want them to guide us in digital.”

We believe in the 360-degree view of organization. But we’re not ready to go there.

There are all kinds of natural online extensions from what Acxiom’s already doing with clients – essentially segmentation and personalization. In some cases those will be through our existing [tools]. In other cases, clients are saying, “Do we need a DSP (demand side platform), a DMP (data management platform)?”

[We hope to provide] not only the data but the expertise in data management. In our space right now that’s something no one can get enough.

ClickZ: So you’ll be recommending partners instead of providing solutions directly?

Howe: I sit on board of Turn. Turn has a data partnership with Experian. I don’t know why Acxiom shouldn’t have a very similar data partnership.

The message I want the industry to hear over time is that Acxiom provides data and insight that fuels all the important business and marketing decisions across the advertising and marketing ecosystem.

We’ll partner with anybody. We’ll work with Google, with Microsoft, with Apple. In some cases we already work with those folks. There’s an opportunity to extend that and help the existing industry players be more powerful.

ClickZ: How do you rate Acxiom on consulting?

Howe: We’re decent on some areas. There’s very few companies better than us at analytics for direct mail, or at segmentation and personalization.

It’s a 10 in direct. It’s a 2 in the new space. On average we’re a 6. We need to get the 2 up to a 10.

ClickZ: So is consulting a way to get there faster than to build or acquire?

Howe: Acquisitions seem to run a little bit ahead. That scares me. A lot of stuff in the online space [is fueled by] hype. Maybe we could be a piece of someone else’s capability. Anyone who needs to use data, we can help them do it.

ClickZ: What about regulation?

Howe: Where I came from in the online space, privacy regulations they’re very new and it felt like uncharted territory and everybody was trying to figure out. At a place like Acxiom, they have 30 years experience doing this. We have people in Washington. We have a chief privacy officer. They are quite involved in anything involved in database marketing and mining.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.