Q&A: Charlie Mortimer, head of new ventures, DMG Media

Charlie Mortimer, head of new ventures at DMG Media, talks about his role, and the ups and downs of setting up his current project, OnTrees, which will enable users to see all their finances on one site and help them make betters decisions and save money.

January 2011 – Present 
Head of new ventures, DMG Media (formerly Associated Newspapers)
January 2010 – June 2011 
Managing director, Allegran (pharmaceuticals company)
March 2009 – January 2010
Marketing director, Allegran
May 2008 – February 2009
Strategy manager, Associated Northcliffe Digital
December 2004 – May 2008
Consultant, OC&C Strategy Consultants

Marketing Week (MW): DMG Media owns several established publishing brands such as the Daily Mail and Metro, so what is the role of the head of new ventures?

Charlie Mortimer (CM): My overall remit is to look for the strengths we have to either launch or accelerate online businesses. We have relationships with online advertisers, we have a large audience in terms of digital and print, and there are lots of brand strengths. Those are the three things we rely on when we look for new areas to get into.

Things that have come out of that in the past couple of years include Wowcher, the daily deals site. Our employment site Evenbase also has across its business lots of insight into the vacancies that are being posted and the people who are applying for those jobs, and we built a data product out of that, which we are selling into the investment community. My current project, which takes up all of my time, is OnTrees. We are trying to build a service that helps people understand their finances across everything that they have, and then make better decisions and save money.

MW: How does OnTrees work?

CM: People can sign up to the iPhone app or go to the website, and enter the details of their bank and credit card accounts, then they see all their accounts in one place. They can start to understand how much they spend on groceries each month - not just at Tesco with their debit card, but also with their credit card, lunchtime trips to Sainsbury’s, whatever it might be.

MW: It sounds similar to the kind of application the Government is trying to encourage companies to build through its Midata programme, in order to help consumers take control of their own data. Have you considered getting involved?

CM: We’re not actively participating [in Midata] yet. We work with a third party called Yodlee, which interfaces with the banks for us – it is US-based and it powers Mint.com. We build on top of its platform. Yodlee is very active in Midata and we are taking a watching brief. How that would benefit us ultimately is in the quality and breadth of data that we could bring into our platform.

MW: What is your view on how the Midata project is progressing, in terms of companies’ willingness to let third parties use the data they hold on customers?

CM: If everyone enters into it, then it’s probably quite beneficial, but it’s classic game theory that no-one wants to be the first person to make it easy for others. Cross-selling your own products is something that’s important for most businesses, especially financial ones, and something like what we’re offering gives consumers quite a broad view of what’s available to them [which might lead to them choosing another provider].

MW: Have you had any difficulty getting banks to provide their customers’ financial data, in order to make OnTrees function?

CM: This is where we use Yodlee. It has 50 million people using its technology around the world. It works with most big banks in the US. When we were looking at this as a project, the difficult part was getting the data. The bit that really excites us is if we get the data, we can do analysis that really helps people. We were worried about that, but Yodlee is the global leader in doing this and it has taken that headache away from us. I don’t think we would have wanted to launch into this if we had to build what Yodlee has.

MW: Do you foresee banks withdrawing access to customer data, so they can provide the same services themselves without competition?

ontrees-2013-250

CM: Lloyds TSB Bank has created Money Manager. It looks very nice and works very well, but the problem is it’s only for Lloyds customers. We know there are 20 million people who do online banking, of which more than 50 per cent bank with more than one provider. Even if I optimised my Lloyds finances and knew exactly how much I was spending on groceries, it still wouldn’t help me with my Virgin credit card, so I’d never get the full picture. First Direct do have a service similar to what we are introducing, and Egg used to have one.

In Australia, the biggest banks let you bring all your data into their hubs, and you can see why it’s attractive for a bank to do that, but it’s not something that we think is on UK banks’ immediate radar. Hopefully we’ll be able to provide the overview, but also the independence. If you take the example of cross-selling a new credit card offer, we can be independent with our best buy tables. It’s quite difficult for a bank to say ‘Here’s another product [from another provider].’ That’s hopefully where we might be more attractive to consumers.

MW: Are you confident that people will want to be presented with these offers by OnTrees?

CM: We need to find a way where we can identify areas where people want to be helped and where we can actually help them. That’s not by us saying ‘Take out a new credit card.’ It’s finding the fine line between giving someone some useful information and not bombarding them with too many messages. Last week, Moneysupermarket.com sent me around 12 emails because my car insurance was due to be renewed, but I had renewed it the week before, so that wasn’t very helpful information. But I also had a magazine subscription that needed renewing last week that I didn’t know about, and if I had received a message about that, it would have been really helpful.

Financial products is an obvious area for us, where someone is paying 25 per cent interest on a credit card and we know there are 0 per cent balance transfer offers. From a credit card company’s point of view that would be a nice person to talk to and from our point of view it would be good for the user. That’s an obvious route we could go down, but another one we have tried is around retail habits, which we know about because we can see financial transactions.

MW: What retail-based offers are you able to present to consumers?

CM: We asked people if they wanted to be part of a new rewards programme and take-up was really high. Then we said if they shop at a certain retailer, they will get rewards. For people who had never been to the retailer, we said if they spend a small amount they’ll get a voucher. For people who were regular spenders, we said they had to spend more than usual to receive a voucher. 

For new customers we were giving them £5 vouchers and a good proportion would go to the shop and spend about £20 or £30 a time. On the first visit, that’s profitable for the retailer. Those who were already going increased their spending - probably only by about £10 for that period after being given £5 - so the question we are looking at now is if they have increased their propensity to shop at the retailer.

MW: What does the usage data tell you about how people are using OnTrees?

CM: We did a closed beta in November last year with Mumsnet and the National Union of Students, because we thought that they were two quite distinct but valuable markets of people interested in finance. The feedback we got from both is what you might expect. Via Mumsnet, customers were quite interested in supermarket spend, loyalty cards and how they can budget better. Students were all about checking [the app] on their phones and [spending on] going out. They were using the site for a month. At the end of that we did questionnaires, but we could also monitor [their behaviour] because it was live.

From those trials it was very clear that there were different usage patterns and people used different features. There were certain features that we thought were great and people said they liked, but when we looked at how they used OnTrees, they never actually used them.

MW: How is this usage data helping you to shape the product’s features?

CM: An example would be the news section of our site. We thought if people want to keep up to date with their money, they would need to have latest news from This is Money, which is one of our money sites within the Daily Mail. But no-one really uses it very often. So while in the feedback people say it’s nice to be up to date with financial news, it’s not something that people are looking at - they go to different sources.

Other features on our site we should spend more time on, for example we have a categorisation engine. If someone makes a transaction, we can say whether it was a supermarket or a pub. Because it’s relatively new, it’s not 100 per cent accurate, so if you live in Parsons Green and go to the White Horse pub, it might come up as a pet shop, because if you are trying semantically to work out what the White Horse is, it’s not a bad shout. Over time, we can learn that and change the rules.

At the moment, if a certain number of people recategorise something, it will be changed forever, but we could make that cleverer so that if we know a person is good at categorising and that one person changes a category, it should be universally changed. If that layer’s wrong, then the site is not particularly useful, so that’s where we’re spending a lot of our time at the moment.

MW: What other problems does working with people’s financial data present, and how are you trying to fix them?

CM: One of the key problems we are trying to address is the double counting in financial accounts. I’m a classic example of a person who gets paid, moves money into a savings account and then back and forth between accounts throughout the month. I bank with Barclays and it tells me that my money in and money out each month is huge, but it’s the same money, which isn’t very helpful if I’m trying to work out [the totals]. It makes me look like I earn a fortune and live a high-roller lifestyle.

We’re trying to look at ways in which we can make sense of that for people by building rules around ‘twinned amounts’ going in and out between similar accounts. The computer logic you have to build for that is complicated. It’s probably something where we’ll launch an optional service and people can refine it for themselves.

MW: What’s next for OnTrees, and how will you seek to raise awareness of the app further?

CM: At the moment we’re still going through the last bit of getting the data right. We’re looking to have a ‘version two’ around September, which will show how much someone is spending on essentials or luxury items and say here’s how much they can afford to save. At that point we will be much more proactive in our marketing.

Charlie Mortimer on…

…understanding audiences

When we’re trying to work out what we should do around new ventures at DMG Media, one of the key themes is determining if it is something that the people who have already engaged with us are going to like. We have a lot of information within our central data team around email addresses, people’s interests and their habits. Businesses like [daily deals site] Wowcher help that further. When we do go into new businesses, one of the things we would think about is what data that would then give us.

…the challenges of data

The challenge in general with data is knowing what you’re trying to achieve. Having the hypothesis of what you want to do is the difficult part, and I think as a business DMG Media is quite good at that, be it launching new businesses or introducing new initiatives. The legacy of being a publisher and focusing on what the audience and advertisers want means you are starting in quite a good place, in terms of trying to answer specific questions, rather than just having lots of data that you should be doing something with.

…sharing data across business units

We have lots of different businesses in many different fields and tying that together takes time. For any business with lots of brands, to make them sync up is difficult. From working on [consumer finance app] OnTrees, I know that banks also find it difficult to know exactly what products a customer might have across the 20 different areas they’re in. With OnTrees, we almost have better data on banks’ customers than banks have, because we’re seeing different products they have with the same bank.


Up Close

The OnTrees service

Marketing Week (MW): DMG Media launched the OnTrees financial management site less than a year ago, so how have you marketed it and what are the demographics of its users?

Charlier Mortimer (CM): It’s quite a narrow demographic. We’ve done some marketing with [sister news brand] Metro, and we get a lot of people coming to the OnTrees website through first using the app, which is on iPhone only. We have also had a few articles in the tech press. All of that means we have very affluent, quite tech-savvy, slightly male audience with a high propensity to purchase online, which I don’t think is a reflection of our target market but more a function of our marketing channels.

MW: Why has the mobile app driven so much of the overall usage?

CM: It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the Apple App Store as a discovery channel for people to use new stuff. As soon as we started getting some traction we became one of the leading finance apps and suddenly it becomes self-perpetuating, but it’s very difficult to recreate that for the website. We get good word-of-mouth for the site, but if you get good word of mouth on the App Store, suddenly you get loads of sign-ups.

MW: Do your users help you decide where OnTrees goes next and who it should target?

CM: We use our existing users to see what does and doesn’t work, but if we become too reliant on that then we’re catering to a very specific audience. We can try new features, put them in and take them out, but we can’t just incrementally change what we already have because it will lead us down a heavy-user, ‘tech’ route. We also cater to some specific groups that aren’t really what we want to do long-term. Our trial with Mumsnet was very positive, but some of the features they would want [are specific to them].

We have an overall persona that we try to focus on, which is a girl called Laura. We had a fun day working through the data around the interest areas, which involved us acting out different personas, and I was given the short straw of being Laura for the day. Some people dressed up, although I didn’t.

MW: What types of behaviour do you see among people using OnTrees?

CM: We’re seeing high levels of repeat usage. People who have logged in more than once are using it three or four times a month, and we’re getting a lot of usage through the mobile phone app. At the moment, it’s mainly people asking ‘What’s my balance?’ Personally, I check my Virgin credit card because it doesn’t have an app.

MW: What are your plans for developing OnTrees in the future?

CM: When we get the categorisation of transactions [into groceries, travel, fashion shopping, etc.] right and all the data is flowing in right, then we can start doing the stuff that helps users save money. At the moment, it’s basically a viewer for your spending, but what we really want to build is something around recommendations for how to work out your finances, saying ‘here’s where you might be able to save’ or ’here’s where you’re spending more than the average person. 

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