emma lo russo digivizer

Most businesses have a few war stories about digital marketing campaigns that fell flat or, worse, lost the company money as well as some of its reputation. Social media, in particular, can get very messy if you don’t know who you’re talking with or you lose the plot during the conversation. But the promise of digital media is just so alluring. Unlike traditional media, digital channels allow businesses to potentially track how and when a message lands with each person in a target market. Getting it right can significantly improve marketing return on investment (ROI).

“We’ve found a way to understand which content is performing best for you — at the right time for the right audiences — so you can make real-time decisions about where to spend more time or dollars,” explains Emma Lo Russo, CEO of Australian social media/digital analytics company Digivizer.

Lo Russo co-founded the company in 2010 with Clinton Larson, a data analyst she’d worked with at Macquarie Bank. Digivizer’s pitch is convincing: it won the 2014 edition of Carnegie’s Den, an Australian innovation venture capital competition hosted by asset management company MH Carnegie.

Lo Russo says some of the best advice she has received from investors is not to be distracted by short-term opportunity. “Build for scale immediately and stay focused on what will ensure your differentiation,” she says. “Back yourself and know it’s OK to face challenges as long as you are prepared to learn with them.”

Digivizer turned over more than $5m in the 2017–2018 financial year and the company has grown to 55 employees in 14 countries, including headquarters in Sydney and Singapore. Lo Russo says the next growth stage for its digital marketing offering will be driven by the SME market because those businesses may lack individual budgets, but they make up for it in sheer numbers. Additionally, smaller businesses that are smart about digital and social marketing can compete with, and possibly overtake, corporate competitors.

Digivizer

  • Turnover $5m in 2017–2018
  • 55 employees in 14 countries
  • Headquarters in Sydney and Singapore

Cloud tech and competition

Digivizer initially attracted predominantly corporate clients — including Microsoft, Lenovo and Intel — that had the budgets to go deep into digital analytics. However, the founders’ shared vision has always been to help businesses of all sizes unlock the secrets of customer data.

“We could stay in this space of serving a small number of large organisations or we could bring all the power of what we’ve learned and make that available to a much bigger market,” says Lo Russo.

Historically, the tools to collect, sort and interrogate customer data were either too expensive or too time-consuming for SMEs; even big businesses have struggled to make sense of different data sets generated by each platform. Digivizer’s data science, engineering, agency-like strategic services and R&D incentives funded a cloud-based marketing analytics platform that launched in early 2018. Lo Russo says it is priced to be affordable for every business.

“We’ve disrupted our old model by making this platform available, but the question for us was why should startups and SMEs be precluded from having their hands on the best technology? My view was, if we can get to scale in providing a solution, we can make it so affordable that it’s really a no-brainer. Our technology brought the best of everything we’ve learned over the past eight years and made it highly affordable, easily accessible and very permission-first.”

Digivizer’s expansion into Asia is being supported through partnerships with old-school analytical and advisory firms such as Deloitte, and relatively new-school, data-driven businesses such as Investible, Facebook, Google and LinkedIn.

Changing course

Lo Russo could have comfortably continued her career trajectory from marketing manager at Macquarie Bank to CEO at software powerhouse Altium and then onto another CEO role at an ASX-listed company. But at 39, she changed course.

“Everyone told me, ‘You’re an entrepreneur, a disruptor, an innovator — you need to do your own thing,’” she says. “I didn’t know [what to do] because it’s nice and comfortable when you’re earning good money, and I always imagined myself to be a good leader. To make the decision, we packed up our kids and travelled around Australia in a Winnebago for four months.”

In the early 2000s, Lo Russo had begun working on business ideas. On her frequent business trips to Asia, she noticed people would pull out their smartphones to engage online as soon as the plane landed. By comparison, Western consumers weren’t particularly excited about mobile and social commerce until after the iPhone launched. “I thought, data would be even more ubiquitous,” she recalls. “The whole social element moves power away from brands to the consumer. People make fast decisions about brands — who they follow, what they buy. I could see those digital footprints growing quickly and I wanted to harness that data.”

Lo Russo admits moving from a big team to a startup was challenging, although she’s happier now Digivizer has a bigger team. And the rapid growth continues with the recent announcement of a collaboration with investment group Investible to help support startups with digital skills and marketing tools. “You know there’ll be a period when you don’t earn what you did before,” she says, “But you’re creating value in your company and trusting that will play out for you.”

Changing the R&D rules

Innovation comes from experimentation and that includes being allowed to learn from mistakes, notes Lo Russo. She believes the Australian federal government’s R&D tax incentives, introduced in 2011, encouraged a burst of innovation across the tech sector and improved the success rate of businesses such as Digivizer.

The program was so popular, its five-year budget exploded from $1.8b to $3b, prompting the ATO to signal, in 2017, that it would take a closer look at R&D claims from Australian software companies. In November 2018, the government announced it was slashing R&D grants, enforcing stricter compliance and making tech companies pay back millions of dollars in R&D tax incentives.

Lo Russo took a stand. “It’s access to the R&D rebate that has allowed us to create something new, which is what you need to be competitive and attractive,” she told the Australian Financial Review in December 2018, adding that Digivizer had already spent $80,000 on advice to ensure compliance with the program.

Although she was backed up by a handful of industry experts, including Daniel Petre, board member of Innovation and Science Australia and co-founder of tech-focused venture capital firm AirTree Ventures, many of her peers feared they’d be targeted for harsher ATO audits if they went public with their views.

“I’m happy to be the person who stands up,” says Lo Russo. “The amount of companies hurt by the way the government is dealing with R&D is unacceptable. Senior businesspeople have used phrases such as ‘shakedown’ and ‘money-grubber’ to describe it. When you compare the growth of Asia to what’s happening here, you realise how risk-averse we are. The policies and leadership are out of sync with what we need to do to make Australia relevant — which is investing in innovation so we can be globally competitive, grow our exports and hire more people.”

Human intelligence vs AI

Almost any business can automate data collection from multiple online touchpoints, says Lo Russo, but someone has to identify the best insights, otherwise what floats to the top could be the same as what is already there. As more companies use AI and machines to handle data, competitive advantages will come from human intelligence. “The value in an organisation has always been with the people who can identify an opportunity, weigh up risk and make a decision. That’s still the role.

When you’re looking at data, what questions have you asked of it?

Emma Lo Russo’s data insights for boards

Is your board up to speed with how data is being used in the organisation?

“I’ve spoken at many conferences where a board or C-level leader of a large organisation will say, ‘Yes, our organisation is undergoing a digital transformation,’ then admit they’re not very digitally savvy. Leaders need to set the ethics and culture for how data is used.”

What data is available?

“A lot of our discussions start with the board trying to understand what data is actually available. They need to know how it can be used by their organisation to create a better knowledge base and experience — what are the possibilities and how can they be proven?”

Have you got permission to store data?

“You need permission from anyone who has interacted with the organisation to hold any data they’ve exchanged with you. Whether they’ve visited your website or followed you on social, it’s important you’ve been clear about the way you’re using their data. It has to be permission-first. The biggest cost comes from using data you didn’t have permission to use and breaking the customer’s trust.”

How will new technologies prove their value?

“Everyone talks about AI and automation, but we haven’t scratched the surface. It’s dangerous and costly for an organisation to see every new technology as a set of projects. You can’t just test without real objectives. There needs to be accountability and transparency. New implementations have to be owned at the board level, ensuring there is the infrastructure and ability to support and test these technologies.”

Are customer experiences linked?

“Whatever journey you’re trying to model, how is it linked? Is it set up in one marketing lab so you can truly model how any one variable might affect the outcome? The marketing lab isn’t separate; it’s a continuous test-and-learn environment of how the organisation and the customer engage with each other. Anyone talking to the customer needs to consider other times they engaged with the organisation.”

How are customers treated?

“What can you do to make their life easier or better? We see amazing teams in banks or telcos who have created personalised environments allowing customers to choose what they want, when they want it, but it isn’t deployed across the whole customer experience. If you know more about your customer and what’s working, it becomes a simple model of success: do more of what works; stop doing what doesn’t.”