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Catherine Brien, Chief Data Officer, Guardian Media Group

Path to power

I studied maths at university, in an era long before computing power had allowed data science to be a “thing”. It was a fantastic foundation in problem solving, and at the time I could only imagine the many applications and where it would take me.


I went into management consulting and gravitated towards challenges such as understanding customer motivations and behaviour to develop better propositions or improve operational effectiveness. 


In 2016, I joined the Co-operative Group as data science director. The group was orienting around member rather than business unit, so we wanted data about our members to become a group wide asset. This was a huge cultural journey – we introduced data science as a new capability, created a joined up data environment; introduced group wide data governance and navigated the introduction of GDPR.


In 2018, I joined the Guardian as chief data officer; a new role, and part of the executive team. My role, and that of my team, is to grow audience centricity, beyond just the journalism itself so we can continually accelerate audience growth and engagement and grow value from those relationships in an ethical way. 


What is the proudest achievement of your career to date?

The highlight has always been finding the “a-ha” moments. For me, working with data has always been about bringing clarity to situations and equipping people (or systems) to unlock value, or make better decisions, faster and more simply than they could before. It’s fabulous watching this in action.


Who is your role model or the person you look to for inspiration?

Many people, particularly those with a really clear purpose and who inspire others to follow; and those who are completely comfortable with who they are, with a balance in their lives that makes them happy.


Did 2019 turn out the way you expected? If not, in what ways was it different?

2019 was broadly as expected (which might tell you I wasn’t ambitious enough in my projections). This time last year I predicted that privacy and ethics in data would be a continuing theme. 


At the Guardian we had an amazing year – continued success in our journalism, and a tremendous commercial milestone in successfully getting back to breakeven. All thanks to incredible hard work and in part the generosity and support from readers all over the world.


What do you expect 2020 to be like for the data and analytics industry?

A continuing exciting ride. One of the many themes is the continuing focus on privacy, and the respectful use of data. Browsers are increasing privacy measures; and reliance on third-party cookies is declining. This reinforces the importance of building trusted first party relationships, with the data collection and permissions that enable value creation.  


Data and technology are changing business, the economy and society – what do you see as the biggest opportunity emerging from this?

Power to those who build the richest, most trusted first party relationships with their audiences and customers.


What is the biggest tech challenge you face in ensuring data is at the heart of your digital transformation strategy?

Not really a tech challenge – but one of our key challenges is to get to know more of our audience. Most of our readers are currently anonymous, so we’re exploring ways of encouraging readers to sign in so we can learn more and deliver a better experience on our website and apps.

Catherine Brien
has been included in:
  • 100 Brands 2019 (EMEA)
  • 100 Brands 2020 (EMEA)