Amit Shah calls himself "an accidental marketer." Planning a business career, Mr. Shah got started in a very classic way, handling strategic consulting at McKinsey & Co. After stints at several startup companies, he ended up working with a group of e-commerce pioneers at Liberty Media's Provide Commerce.
Like many of his Provide Commerce colleagues, Mr. Shah eventually moved on to a leadership position at another digital business: 1-800-Flowers, where he's worked for the past five years, currently as senior VP-online marketing, mobile and social.
1-800-Flowers has been a pioneer in digital technologies. In the early days of e-commerce, founders Jim and Chris McCann leveraged evolving technologies to be the first merchant to sell on AOL in the early 1990s. Today the 1-800-Flowers product portfolio includes not only flowers, but also iconic brands such as Fannie May candies, Cheryl's cookies and Harry & David gourmet foods.
Mr. Shah is recognized as a Digital Trailblazer for his work in keeping 1-800-Flowers on the cutting edge in digital marketing and e-commerce, where the company often leads the way in testing and investing in new technologies, such as running its own display stack and employing innovative cross-device marketing and analytics. The retailer was an early experimenter in driving rigorous ROI-driven mobile commerce with mobile search and location-based targeting as well as using programmatic technology to develop deeper customer relationships.
Mr. Shah recently took time out to discuss his career path and how he stays on top of the fast-moving digital world.
Q: As a Digital Trailblazer, you're doing outstanding work to further digital marketing. Why have you chosen digital as the focus of your career?
Mr. Shah: When I started I had no idea I would end up in digital. After I completed my graduate work at Harvard, I realized I wanted to go deeper into the intersection of rigid ROI-focused marketing and that consumer "wow" experience. I got a chance to join 1-800-Flowers—they offered me an interesting role figuring out disruptive growth opportunities driven by top to bottom innovation. Modern management in the past has been largely art, with some science thrown in. But marketing today is in a very magical place, where you have this enormous intersection of currents: sociology, technology and psychology intertwined with unprecedented data to build relationships with people and not just drive transactions.
Q: Tell us about a moment in your career that was pivotal.
Mr. Shah: When I joined 1-800-Flowers in 2010, we were building our own display stack—one of a handful of brands going down this path. We wanted to run our own DSP and ad server, and develop a very robust understanding of data. Once I started seeing the results from these data-rich campaigns, I started appreciating the things we'd been working on in the back room for many years, things we had been putting in spreadsheets. I could suddenly see how data used in previously inefficient marketing efforts can provide sustained competitive advantages. Where we are today is because of our own fundamental belief that we need to keep innovating, and that goes to the DNA of who we are.
Q: Where do you turn to stay on top of what's happening in the digital world? Are there bloggers or publishers or news sites you rely on?
Mr. Shah: I do try to skim through major blogs and publications, but my go-to is more analog. First, I spend an enormous amount of time talking to entrepreneurs. We get a lot of inbound interest from entrepreneurs. I find that they have thought about problems differently than others. I talk with them about the ecosystem, the challenges we face and figuring out if we can test things to solve problems.
My second go-to is having an honest dialogue with our supporters—customers, suppliers, shipping partners. The most meaningful technology solutions are not necessarily the flashy things you read about in the news, but the incremental changes being made every day that are solving real problems. More often it's the small and incremental changes that have the true disruptive effect on business.
Q: Your company has a reputation as an early adopter of technologies and tools, whether Google AdWords or mobile search. Is it critical to jump into new technologies? Does it give you an advantage in the marketplace?
Mr. Shah: Staying on top of the newest technologies is essential to our sense of how we carry out our mission of delivering smiles and build shareholder value. More than a competitive advantage, it gives us a customer advantage. I have a poster saying that you have not succeeded if you have not failed enough.
Q: Everyone is talking about the role programmatic buying has assumed in marketing. How do you view the role of programmatic buying in reaching the customers you need to reach?
Mr. Shah: The crux of what programmatic is all about can be conceptualized across two dimensions: One allows you to cut out inefficiencies. We want to cut out inefficiency because it does a disservice to the ecosystem when you have fraudulent or bot traffic. But the second dimension of programmatic for us is that at the end of the day we are in the relationship business. Think about the kind of emotional load that we are privileged to bear through our transactions.
Programmatic allows us to go a level deeper in our customer acquisition. For instance, it's not critical for us to reach the person who is having a birthday. It's more important for us to know the five friends who are most likely to buy a gift for that person. Programmatic allows us to really reach relevant customers at scale, and it's been a very strong augmentation of our efforts.
Q: One of the strengths of the digital world is the transparency it brings to business. But how do you handle disappointed consumers who choose to post comments in public? Is there an upside to conducting those discussions in a public forum?
Mr. Shah: A lot of brands assume that we are in a world where the command-and-control model is still in place. But it's not, and with the consumer in charge, transparency is very important. We made the conscious decision at the start of 2010 to be active in new social media—that is where customers expect us to be. Our job is to deliver sometimes in a matter of hours, and it is hard to pull it off every time. There is nothing wrong with people expressing their frustration with how things go wrong sometimes. But we want customers to understand that we get a lot right and we are a caring team obsessed with service.
Q: What's your favorite new app?
Mr. Shah: It might sound clichéd, but two apps that have accentuated the interface of mobility and services are Uber and Google Now. Uber's foundation is getting to an outcome, figuring out an intermediary place where the company's needs and the consumer's needs meet and bringing it all together in a visually compelling manner. Google Now is an early look at how artificial intelligence is going to impact our digital lives and is of a lot of interest to me on multiple levels.
Q: What social network are you following?
Mr. Shah: We believe that the traditional social networks are rapidly evolving. For example, we are closely following the messaging networks like LINE and Snapchat to understand and appreciate the evolving nature of networks in general.
About the Sponsor
The Digital Trailblazers Series profiles some of the industry's most visionary digital executives—those pushing the boundaries in digital marketing. For more on this series, including intelligence and insights from Quantcast, visit the Digital Trailblazers Hub.
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