by Thomas Macaulay

Ascential CIO Sean Harley on technology strategy and guiding media company through its successful IPO

Jan 16, 2018
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

Ascential CIO Sean Harleyhad a busy 2017. The media company continued to build on its successful February 2016 IPO and the CIO orchestrated the development of the Ascential Operating Platform, which provides the capabilities to quickly release new products such as Coloro, a new digital colour platform for the fashion and creative industries.

Harley is responsible for all the business systems and technology infrastructure at the FTSE 250 business-to-business media company, ensuring that the company can market, sell and fulfil its range of products effectively.

“Our products enable businesses that sell to consumers to make better decisions effectively, and that ranges from insight through to events through to festival delivery across our group,” Harley explained to CIO UK in Ascential’s Soho offices.

This group includes the Cannes Lions festival, trade magazine Retail Week, advisory and business services firm MediaLink, and fashion forecasting service WGSN.

The fashion mood boards on the walls of the Ascential meeting room show that traditional methods for predicting trends at WGSN remain important, but insights driven by technology such as the Instock big data analytics platform have a growing influence on retail decisions.

“We use that application to make better decisions around design trend forecasting and what ultimately goes in the shops, and that will range from what you might class as boutique retailers through to high street retailers,” he says.

Ascential Operating Platform

Ascential has offered further support to the fashion industry with the recent launch of Coloro, a 3D platform that decodes colour as the human eye sees it to improve colour decisions made by fashion and textile professionals.

Coloro was developed with the Ascential Operating Platform (AOP), a system Harley implemented in 2016 to help the company roll out products to customers as easily and as consistently as possible.

Ascential runs a lean organisation and builds the majority of its products internally. The AOP is designed to make the process of releasing new products straightforward and repeatable whether they are added through acquisitions or developed in-house like Coloro.

“It’s a new venture that we’re going to the market with and it had to be quick, slick, and low cost because it’s almost like a startup within our enterprise,” says Harley.

“We had to think in that way, and we used the principles of AOP to help us deliver that quickly to the market.”

Although Ascential is a B2B company, the products rolled out by the tech team find inspiration in the consumer space.

Data analysis shows that the more people interact with the company’s products, the less likely they are to stop using the services. Understanding how this works helps drive account management activities and future sales opportunities across the Ascential brands.

“Apple’s not a subscription-based product at all, but every time a new iPhone comes out everyone has to have it,” Harley says. “Because of how easy it is to consume, how quick it is to get and familiarise yourself with it, the customer experience is probably the slickest in the industry. We aspire to make all of our products like Apple products in terms of how easy they are to consume and do business with.”

Ascential’s technology strategy

Harley’s strategy for adopting emerging technologies is to balance the benefits of the disruptive with the more traditional systems that are at the core of the business.

“It’s about understanding where that balance sits,” he says. “Sometimes we’re very good at it, sometimes we’re not so good at it but it’s almost a pendulum where you have to work out where you best sit at a given time.

“Clearly if you’re trying to do something new or if you’ve acquired a company that has different technologies or if you’re looking to enhance some of your existing products or platforms that you’ve got, that’s the time for change. So that pendulum will swing one way or another.”

That mentality has served him well in Ascential’s move the cloud. Harley has taken a patient approach to the transition, and now feels that the company has the maturity to take some of its on-premise principles into the cloud.

“You can’t just go into the cloud all-in,” he says. “You have to focus in on what the governance processes are – how do you manage costs predominantly – as well as the governance around cloud infrastructures.

“And just because something’s in the cloud it doesn’t mean that you have to take away some of your traditional operating procedures like patching and delivery change management. These processes still have to be a key part of that.”

Navigating a successful IPO

Ascential was known as EMAP from its foundation in 1947 until it rebranded prior to an IPO in 2016.

The IPO gave Harley and his team the opportunity to assess the aspects of the business that were reviewed for the listing. The positive results helped make the IPO a success. Ascential floated at 200p a share, giving it a market cap of around £800 million.

The value of its stock has risen steadily since then to a new high of 391p a share in January 2018.

Harley says that the preparations were a lot of work but that going through the listing was relatively straightforward.

“It was really about guiding us through,” he explains. “Going through an IPO is I think actually one of the easier pieces of the role of a CIO. The harder work is getting yourself ready for that and the direction you take.

“We focused on making sure that operationally we had been very sound and that helped us go through that process successfully. Nothing prepares you for the amount of information that you’re requested to give, although going through the process helps you formalise your internal processes and thinking.”

He advises other CIOs preparing for an IPO to focus on what’s important, which in his case were the operational aspects of the business: “The operational processes that we had put in place leading up to that and through the transition of our business over the past five years really helped us do that. And I think you have to give a level of confidence to the people that are asking the questions and potential investors that you may need along the way.”

Communications with the board and a global workforce

Harley’s job is made easier due to strong support from a technologically savvy boardroom. He bolsters communications between the executive team and the IT department through presentations to the full board and the audit committee, which gives him the opportunity to draw on their expertise.

Communication is crucial to a global business such as Ascential, whose operations cover more than 150 countries. Harley’s own team is spread across the UK, USA, Brazil, Hong Kong, Australia and mainland China.

He regularly visits each region and leads a global all-hands call every quarter to gain insight into the entire business. These are delivered via video and the recording is then uploaded to the intranet so staff can review them at their leisure whatever their time zone.

“That gives great insight and alignment across our global organisation, and we’re very transparent about what our objectives are and what current activities are going on,” says Harley, who believes that having a happy and empowered workforce is the key measure of his success.

“For me, being a successful CIO is about the people that you have within your teams and empowering them to be able to make their own informed decisions and not make decisions for them by making sure they’ve got the right enablement and the support from me at the same time.

“We focus a lot on our people, and what that delivers for us is commitment and desire and opportunity for the people to progress. In terms of culture, we’re a progressive company. We’ve got many examples of people that come in through the help desk, let’s say in a tier one role, and are now working in many different teams. It’s great to grow people and see the reward in that.”