Simon Rose is a fixture at London-based PlayPhone. Now the second longest serving employee in the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region and director of infrastructure, he has seen the business mature to become part of a global media company that provides entertainment content direct to mobile consumers.
Over the past three years Rose has developed the infrastructure that has helped the business secure its firm foothold in a maturing market. It began life at the turn of the Millennium in the emerging market for ringtones and became Pitch Entertainment in 2005. Dipping its feet in social networking along the way, Pitch became PlayPhone when it merged with the US company of the same name in May 2008.
The global outfit now offers audio, video and gaming content from music labels and artists, game publishers and media companies such as BMG, EMI, Disney, Sega and Konami. It sells mobile entertainment from the web too at PlayPhone.com.
PlayPhone has international operations in South Africa, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore while PlayPhone EMEA operates in France, Norway, Germany and Spain, and has just launched in Italy. It operates in a fiercely competitive market, competing against the likes of Zed, Buongiorno and Jamster in the D2C (direct to consumer) market and Rose has been instrumental in keeping the business ahead of the game in a market where agility is key. However, he is the first to acknowledge that the challenge is ongoing.
BI's data deluge
At Pitch, Rose began work on a business intelligence implementation to analyse customer behaviour, understand the costs it incurs per subscriber, identify which subscribers are most profitable, and target marketing campaigns. This has helped the company to mitigate the effects of customer churn and minimise cost of customer acquisition, the key metric for profitability in this business. At the same time it has brought a data deluge and Rose's current thinking is focused on how best to sort and present the data.
"The faster we can make those decisions the less money is wasted and the better and faster our return on marketing spend," says Rose, adding that the sums involved range from tens to hundreds of thousands of euros.
"We can gather a large number of customers in a short time but, when you look closely at the numbers, those subscribers may not be very profitable. So it doesn't warrant maintaining a campaign in that country," explains Rose.
The company considered SAS, Business Objects and Microsoft for its BI infrastructure, and went with SAS in August 2007.
"We got involved with SAS because we really needed to improve the standard of reporting to have something a little bit more dependable and usable," he recalls. "We first bought SAS Enterprise Guide for reporting on a nightly schedule, but we wanted richer information with more granularity, so we implemented SAS Enterprise BI Server," says Rose.
Rose hooked up with Amadeus, a SAS partner. "SAS played it very well. They put us in touch with Amadeus, a small company. We were still quite small in Europe yet looking for some pretty serious BI software so to Amadeus we were an important client and they treated us as such, whereas if we were dealing direct with a $3bn company like SAS, we wouldn't perhaps have got the same level of interaction," he says.
Rose developed a mutually beneficial relationship with Amadeus as both companies sought to grow their markets.
For the database back-end, his investment banking background and time as a Sybase consultant in the City left him with only one obvious candidate.
"One of the better decisions we have made is to use Sybase IQ, a data store that offers very efficient storage and retrieval of data, and that has helped us with managing data volumes."
Rose is very much a Sybase advocate. "Low administration, high performance, medium-range expense ... we knew how to work that and, because we had the main Sybase transactional database, we went down the path of using IQ," he says.
"Because it is so efficient at storage, we can aggregate all our data into one place. It is very efficient at storing that stuff so you can buy cost-effective or low-cost hardware and still have access to as much data as you pump in there."
Flexibility has to be key for Rose, as the system that began life as a development for Pitch must now be adaptable for the international stage of PlayPhone.
"The American market is quite different to the European market which is where our focus is. In America they are still very desktop/laptop/internet-centric and not quite so enthused and motivated by the mobile phone. The iPhone has changed that a bit but until that point the American mobile wasn't really used in the same way we used it in Europe.
"In Europe, consumers are much more engaged with their handsets and so that was the key driver for us and we spent a lot of time on improving our WAP site and handset presentation technology. When the Americans came they brought a lot of web knowledge, which we hadn't really managed to get a grip on."
All in hand
While Rose acknowledges that the American tie-up has brought a new market to the firm and allowed it to grow subscribers through using the contacts and approaches of the Americans, he maintains that the mobile internet is the future.
"If you look at the number of handsets there are compared to the number of desktops, it is clear that handsets are going to win out in the end for all light content and entertainment-type content," he says.
Rose is now focused on the next step for the BI infrastructure. "Originally it was to enable faster decision making because it was taking too long to assess the performance of various campaigns, and we needed a way to waste less money. You can run a campaign for ages and then only find out at the end that you have not been making money on it. From the business perspective that was a significant driver."
However, the system became a victim of its own success. "What we have found is that as we have been using the technology to generate reports more quickly, we have ended up generating a lot more reports. At the moment we need to look at having fewer, more useful reports.
"Because we operate in so many countries and we pass data through so many operators, you need to track a number of specifics in terms of success rates for billing, delivery of messages, uptime, downtime... If you have all of that information in a table there is an awful lot there and it just becomes a blur. After a little while looking at the same report day in, day out in it is human nature to disregard something that is not showing up problems. Yet all the information is there if you take time to look through it and sift it out.
"If we cut down on the sprawl and proliferation of reports so that the obvious information is there, it will give people time to do ‘what if' questions. We need to make it easier to spend less time worrying about if it is working or not working and more about how make it better."
Rose does believe that the system could be doing more to free up the talent that is in the business to drive the business. "One country manager with a Google background has a very broad datacentric view of the world; another is focused on TV campaigns. If you can free them up so that operational is not so much a big part of the role, we do have bright people who can ask the right questions.
"We are getting very good at managing operational data, but what we are not really doing is coming up with creative approaches. I am trying to encourage that."
Managing the volume of data output needs to go hand in hand with fine-tuning data input, according to Rose. "Our biggest challenge is adding further data feeds into the system and making it meaningful. We have a good percentage of what we need - it is just feeding it into the business and making it more useful."
Rose has little relief from the challenge of being fast on his feet and keeping one step ahead of his competitors - in his spare time he enjoys the cut and thrust of fencing. That must surely stand him in good stead for a working life in the fast-moving mobile entertainment business.