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Adidas CIO plays to win at digital marketing

Elizabeth Heichler | Feb. 17, 2015
Jan Brecht describes how a unified tech-marketing team scored a victory at the 2014 World Cup.

Beyond digital marketing, what are some other areas where you see technology helping to grow Adidas's business?
Brecht: One is soccer in the U.S.: in the U.S. you need statistics about sports, right? Baseball is statistics-driven. So one thing we did with Major League Soccer in the U.S. is, we equipped them with microsensors, little sensors you put in the sole of your shoe, and then you can collect all kinds of on-field metrics. The point there is: wearable technology. That will also be for the person who wants to train for the next marathon, and has an individual training plan set up [aided] by the wearable technology that we offer. That's certainly a field where IT is not only enabling the business, but going forward will generate revenue because you can sell this stuff.

And, in addition to my position as CIO, I've also taken over global supply chain for the Adidas group. We're looking into synergies with IT and supply chain. The good old RFID technology -- which has been discussed for decades in most companies but almost never implemented [beyond pilot projects] - has huge potential. If you are able to track your product from the point at which it gets manufactured into the store, along the entire supply chain, there's very significant potential to decrease working capital, increase full-price sell-through, product availability, et cetera.

What is our role? The wearables area is conceptually led by a product department, because that is a product we sell, but we do all of the mobile and back-end development for it in IT. And RFID, that's IT-led. I think now we're at the price point of these RFID tags where it all of a sudden makes sense, also for lower-priced items such as a pair of shoes. We've done it, on a larger scale, with our Neo brand, and it's helped significantly to improve product availability in the store. So we are now looking at expanding that on a larger scale.

What are you looking for these days when hiring IT staff?
Brecht: Probably the biggest opportunity we have, not just at Adidas but at most companies, is to really change the decision culture to something which is data-driven. I'm the first one to acknowledge the importance of intuition, but please make sure you base decisions on data. And there you see a big difference with the companies who had the advantage of being born late enough to have that data-driven decision culture in their DNA such as Google, Amazon, Zappos, Zalando, online players. If you have a long history, that's a cultural change you have to introduce.

So back to the talent question, finding people who are data scientists is probably the most rare skill to find at this stage. What you need as a data scientist is the statistical tools, and technical knowledge, and then the key skill is to apply that to your business context. That is industry, if not company-specific. So either you take a strong business person, who is strong in an analytic way, and you train them in the statistical tools, or you take someone who trained in the statistical tools and teach them business acumen. It's extremely difficult to find both in one person outside your own company. Being able to read and understand the data, then use it for what I call predictive analytics, is probably one of the biggest opportunities that we have.


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