CBR sat down with Apple’s soon-to-be EMEIA eCommerce manager Marcus East to discuss his work at IBM, Comic Relief and what the future holds at Apple.
Marcus East’s resume as a technologist is impressive, having worked for some of the world’s leading brands – IBM, Omnicom, Comic Relief and now Apple, where he will be its eCommerce Senior Manager for Europe, Middle East, India and Africa.
He was brought in to Comic Relief two years ago as its CIO/CTO and Head of Future Media and Technology with a mandate to reorganise the charity’s IT strategy. He most recently oversaw the award-winning digital campaign for Red Nose Day 2011, which saw a record breaking £102m earned, despite the national recession. £15m of the total came from mobile phones alone.
East took the time to chat with CBR during his last week at Comic Relief, casting an eye over his legacy with one of the UK’s largest Charities and what we can expect from him in his new role with Apple.
A key focus at Comic Relief was to use technology to boost donations without sacrificing the older traditional means.
"At the most basic, any day of the year you can make a donation through our website using PayPal and Worldpay. We also worked with a company called MIG, a text message donation company, to handle SMS donations. We’ve also introduced new mechanisms, such as our iPhone app and mobile internet," he said.
"What was unusual was that on the night of Red Nose Day, because we got as high as 214 transactions per second for donations, we needed to have a special additional platform in place just for the night. We called that our ‘On the Night’ donations application, a very sophisticated Oracle/Java stack. It requires quite a big team to deploy and manage the system on the night."
"I’ve also overseen the move to cloud based architecture. Rather than having our infrastructure locked into a fixed deployment we use Carrenza. It allows us to scale up and down as needed with a great deal of flexibility. We are also fortunate to have some really strong long term partnerships with these big companies like Cisco, Oracle, HP, PayPal and Carrenza."
So how much of that huge Red nose day total was driven by these new technologies?
"On one level our new digital channels make it easier for our existing supporters to support us. More importantly, there are donations from people who wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to our messaging. The fact that we had a mobile app and a mobile website, combined with donations by premium rate text messaging, definitely helped those who have never previously donated.
Social Networks such as Twitter and Facebook have also been key drivers.
"I had to shave my head for the first time ever for Red Nose Day, and I raised about 50% more than I had anticipated using LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter activity."
What other technology projects have you overseen that required a unique approach?
"This year we have Sport Relief, which is driven by our own ‘FROST’ event registration, management and fundraising system, which we built from scratch. Sport Relief is a bit different to Red Nose Day, because alongside the night of TV and all the great celebrity activity, you have events up and down the country all running simultaneously.
"There was nothing in the marketplace that gave us the functionality we needed. We needed be able to create their own events, we need a team to moderate those, and then we need a system where people can search for an event near them by putting in their post code. We’re expecting hundreds of these events, all running on March 23.
"FROST has been a very large project for us as you can imagine. We also worked with another company called Ibuildings. It was a complete open source PHP based development using the Zend enterprise framework, and it works beautifully."
So given all these successes at Comic Relief, why are you moving to Apple?
"Apple is an amazing organisation, one that I’ve always admired. They make incredible products, and certainly I’m a big user of Apple technology. It’s a great challenge and an opportunity to use my skills in a new way."
What are the three key things you learned at Comic Relief that will be taken to Apple?
"Firstly, a really good understanding of the importance of user experience in the modern commerce and digital space. We’ve got great marketers here at Comic Relief that spent a lot of time here segmenting the different audiences we have to communicate with, and working out exactly how we get those messages to them. I feel that’s really given me a very good insight into the behaviour of consumers online.
"Secondly, efficiency. In a charitable environment you’ve clearly got to make sure every penny counts. It gave me a tight focus on budget control and making as much as possible out of what was available.
"Thirdly, at Comic Relief we’ve delivered some very significant scale in terms of our donations platform. That has given me a very good handle on the challenges we face – whether it be security, performance or scalability."
Apple’s design ethos and focus on usability has been key to that company’s success. How will you fit into that ethos?
"Ultimately computing as a utility is something that we will be talking a lot more about in the future. Not necessarily just computers, but ways we can take functionality and content to people in the places that they do need it. I think social media is a great example – I think there is a great potential to really deliver content and function to people in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter in the environments where they reside, rather than thinking of websites as destinations."
"I also think that mobile phones create a sort of ubiquitous-ness around technology, we always have the access to information, or the ability to perform transactions wherever we are. You’ve seen that with the iPhone," he said.
East is also passionate about the transformative power of technology to shape the world and tackle the social problems faced today by humanity, and earned a Masters in Management and Social Enterprise from Cambridge University to prove it.
"At a very young age I was taught to program. When I was 8 I had a teacher that bought his own ZX80 to school and he taught us to write computer programs. Once I had that figured out, and spent a few years working in the technology space, I started focusing on how technology can be used to change things.
"The problems we’re facing as a society, whether it be hunger, education or unemployment – i think technology has the potential to be a solution to any issues. But first we need to find a way to convey these complex technologies and the skills behind them to those who aren’t as comfortable with technology."
As well as being an ardent technologist, East also works as a councillor for Enfield in London. CBR asked whether there were any intentions to push into national level politics with the Conservatives.
"We’ll wait and see. I am very focused on my new role at this stage at Apple. But you never know, I’m still young enough that I could come back to politics in ten years time and still make some waves."