Digital and Data
Meet Gaby Appleton, Chief Digital Product Officer
Published: April 2021
Gaby Appleton shares some valuable insights into her 20 year career in digital product leadership, transformation, strategy and branding, and how it has prepared her for her role as Reed Exhibitions’ new Chief Digital Product Officer.
Q. Gaby, you came to digital innovation via a business rather than a technology route. How has your career path influenced your approach to product development?
A. I did a science degree at Cambridge, but I knew I wanted to work in business. Rather than take a path into banking or consulting, I spent my first six years at Procter and Gamble and Sainsbury’s working in hands-on roles in marketing and brand development, before joining McKinsey in 2004 where I realised that I thrived in a problem-solving environment. In my last three years, I helped them set up their new climate change practice. Having no real precedents to draw on we worked not only with business, but also government and non-profits to find new ways to think about and respond to the economics of climate change. That gave me a taste for what I would call mission-driven business – working in organisations that have a clear societal as well as commercial purpose.
My earlier experiences also gave me a customer-centric approach to strategy development, which I was able to employ in my next role as Director and then Head of Strategy for Elsevier in the Netherlands where I worked on the transformation of their Research and Health businesses. I quickly came to realise that the future of the business lay with digital product development and I wanted to be part of it. Oliver Dumon, Elsevier’s Chief Product Officer, was articulating a really exciting digital vision for Elsevier and was kind enough to mentor me. For the past six years I was responsible for ScienceDirect and Mendeley, global products that help researchers to discover new knowledge, stay up to date, and showcase their work.
Q. RELX has undergone a remarkable digital transformation over the last decade. What particular experiences will you draw on to drive change at Reed Exhibitions (RX)?
A. Every time I come into contact with the other RELX divisions it always strikes me that there are many more similarities than differences, and the opportunity to learn from each other is enormous. I will be looking closely at the digital innovation processes in each business, particularly product analytics, discovery and innovation, and how to bring valuable new products to new customers really quickly. There's a wide range of things that we do elsewhere in RELX that I think we can learn from relatively quickly, and that's exciting. The other advantage I have is that there is always someone in RELX who has experienced similar challenges elsewhere in the business and are willing to share their expertise. I'm already on the phone to my colleagues. Having this network of experience and expertise to tap into is of huge benefit.
Q. Before joining RX you spent six months working with NHS Test & Trace. How did that come about and what did you gain from your time there?
A. I was approached last autumn to take on the role of Product Director for NHS Test and Trace to run the contact tracing app and develop new digital tools to help combat the spread of Covid. At the time, I had no plans to leave Elsevier but felt I should be doing something to help during this period of national crisis. I am extremely grateful that RELX supported me without hesitation, to go and help out. It was one of the most intense and exciting periods of my career so far. I worked with people from all different sectors who brought incredible professional skills to the task. Everyone was focused on this single mission of combating the virus and saving lives. The pace of work and team mentality was extraordinary. The chief reward is that the NHS Covid app has now been downloaded over 22 million times and prevented over 600,000 cases of covid, and we’ve been able to do things like support digital ordering of lateral flow tests to everyone in England to help find more cases of the virus while we open up society
Q. What attracted you to join Reed Exhibitions?
A. It was a case of incredibly fortuitous timing. Having been in a digital product leadership role in Elsevier for several years I was keen to take on new challenges. I had always found the other RELX businesses interesting, so when RX announced their search for a new Chief Digital Product Officer during my secondment to the NHS, I was very happy for my name to be put forward. I was lucky in having a wonderful successor at Elsevier, who had been doing my job for six months, making it a relatively easy transition into RX for all concerned.
Before joining the company I was talking to a colleague who said to me, “one thing you will love about exhibitions is the people, they are great fun”. And it is absolutely true. Everyone has been incredibly welcoming. RX operates across many different business sectors which I also find super interesting.
Q. What excites you most about the digital opportunities ahead?
A. Covid has changed the paradigm about what digital is for and what it can do, and I am happy to be joining Reed Exhibitions at such an exciting time in its history. The pace of digital innovation here over the past year has been extraordinary, and I am really looking forward to expanding on and scaling up the great work that has already been done to keep our customers connected and help them to do business with each other. Looking ahead, I am excited by the opportunity to develop new tools and platforms that will add value to our customers’ event experiences, and enable them to interact and learn throughout the year.
Q. Women are still under represented as digital and technology leaders. What is the key to your success?
A. I was fortunate to have two wonderful senior mentors at Elsevier – our CIO and Chief Product Officer ‒ who really went out of their way to teach and mentor me. We also had top talent in many of the roles around me, who spent time sharing their expertise; and I think the culture at Elsevier is such that it encourages everyone to learn and grow, no matter their background. I am also very curious. I’m not a technologist myself, but I have always been very interested in how technologists work. I focus on building partnerships with tech leaders in order to understand how they see the world, and to come up with solutions together that meet customer needs
Q. During your career you have also found time to play Touch Rugby at World Cup level. What has it taught you about team-building?
A. I enjoyed sport at university and when I moved to the Netherlands I was persuaded to play touch rugby with the local Amsterdam team. We went on to play in the European Championships, and two World Cups – although I would add that if you want to play international sport, the best tactic is to play for a small country in a minority sport!
I have probably learned as much about team building and how to be a valuable team member from touch and various other sports as I have from my professional career. And I've translated much of that directly back into my work – for example, appreciation of the different skill sets that people have, and how to dig yourself out as a team when times get tough. You don’t build someone's confidence and ability to deliver by yelling at them in a sports team, and the same is true at work. So I've learned a lot about management and leadership through playing sport as well.