Making data smarter, from the UK’s “silicon suburb” and beyond
Meredith Amdur isn’t very often at a loss for words. But ask her what she’s passionate about in her career, and she pauses. Her path to becoming CEO of Rhetorik Solutions, a data analytics company headquartered outside of London, has taken a rambling tour of some of the world’s foremost companies. Finally she answers, “I think, ultimately, I do look at the world through the lens of a consultant. Like, ‘OK, so what’s the problem? What are we going to do?’ And you don’t have a lot of time — you have a week, two weeks, a month, and you have to become an expert like that.” She snaps her fingers. As she parses the question, it’s clear she’s thinking out loud — a classic trait, according to former colleagues.
“I don’t think I took a deliberate path from TV, telecoms, and video game industries to search engines, big data analytics, and recruiting solutions,” she says, mentioning some of her earlier fields, all of which were going through major transitions at the time she joined. “The only thing they have in common is that they were [facing] thorny strategic problems.”
If problem solving is your passion, then a dream job is joining DirecTV at a time when Netflix was beginning to remake how viewers watch television. Or becoming a general manager for strategy at Microsoft when Americans were abuzz about the iPhone. One might even venture to say that seeing Amdur join your company ranks might be further evidence of a disruptive time in your industry.
Amdur has a reputation for leading with an optimistic outlook and expecting high standards. Some of her closest business associates are people she met years ago, and more than one of her former employees have called her their favorite boss.
“She understands technology. She’s a very smart person. And she can look at something that is not working well but that maybe has some good bones and think about how you can create value from that,” says Mindy Mount, former CFO for online services at Microsoft, who hired Amdur to head the division’s strategy team.
Mount recalls a time when Microsoft was looking to develop their “embedded business” — where Windows operating systems are included in machines that aren’t PCs. Amdur came up with the idea of linking a series of devices all running Windows. Take soda machines, for example: Rather than having a delivery company guess when to restock, the machines could notify delivery trucks when the drinks were running low, saving the company from sending the truck on unnecessary rounds. Today this type of idea is part of the “Internet of things” revolution, but Mount points out that Amdur developed this concept almost 10 years ago, long before “IoT” became part of the technology conversation.
“It’s not that she’s just a good strategy person. It’s that she has a very keen business and commercial instinct,” Mount says. “I think her attention to detail, willingness to get into the details, and her high level of energy is what allows her to not just develop these conceptual ideas and see where these opportunities are, but to actually go in and make them happen.”
“Meredith’s attention to detail, willingness to get into the weeds, her high level of energy are what allows her to not just develop these conceptual ideas and see where these opportunities are, but to actually go in and make them happen.” — Mindy Mount, former CFO for online services at Microsoft
When Amdur took the helm of the U.K.-based company Rhetorik Solutions last year, it marked a career homecoming of sorts. Born and raised outside of Washington, D.C., with an undergrad degree from the University of North Carolina, Amdur moved across the Atlantic in her early 20s to study politics and economics at the London School of Economics. She stayed in the U.K. for 11 years — long enough, at that time, to qualify for a British passport. She worked first as a business journalist and analyst and then co-founded her first company, Baskerville Communications, which produced a subscription-only B2B newsletter focused on the technology and data industry.
“In the late ’90s, we were tracking the massive growth of GSM phones around the world on the market, and that was so valuable that all the investors and banks would buy our databases,” she says. “The biggest growing market in the world was mobile and 3G wireless telephony, and we owned all the data.”
Amdur still sees herself, in some ways, as a business journalist. “I always liked having facts and figures. Not just writing stories but also collecting intelligence and detecting underlying historic and predictive trends,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I always had a sense that that would, over time, become even more valuable.”
Now she’s doing so on a grand scale.
In May 2017, Amdur joined a multinational group of investors to buy out Rhetorik. They had been looking for an opportunity to get involved in data analytics, possibly by creating a fund that would invest in several business data companies. But when they came across Rhetorik, they saw a chance to jumpstart their plan.
Rhetorik is based in Wokingham, the “silicon suburb,” as Amdur calls it, about an hour’s train ride from London. Founded in 1994 to supply technology companies and telecom vendors with intelligence to improve their marketing and sales, the company is now being led by Amdur through a makeover akin to starting afresh — a “restart.” With Rhetorik’s new infusion of investment, Amdur and her team plan to broaden and deepen its offerings beyond Europe through more sophisticated artificial-intelligence-driven tools focused on emerging technologies, like cybersecurity. They recently announced expansion to Asia.
Amdur initially planned to just invest in the company and serve on the board. But as plans came together to restart the business, its chairman and largest investor, Tim Baskerville, saw her as the ideal CEO. He’s known Amdur since the early 1990s, when they started Baskerville Communications together.
“She’s a very fast study. I’ve observed that within a few months, she could get going in a new industry,” Baskerville says. “She can apply superior strategic sense and deal with the politics, which is always complicated when you do an acquisition.” He says that he didn’t immediately think of her for the role because she isn’t an expert in data analytics. But her leadership style won the day. “Frankly, the higher level you get in business, it depends more on, in my mind, character — your attributes as a person — [than] it does on a specific technical skill set and knowledge base.”
“Meredith is a very fast study. She can apply superior strategic sense and deal with the politics, which is always complicated when you do an acquisition.” — Tim Baskerville, chairman, Rhetorik Solutions
Amdur and Baskerville are both based in Los Angeles — to the extent that Amdur is based anywhere. She travels almost every week. She’s used to managing time zones and long-haul flights, so she’s undaunted by the complicated logistics of managing a sales and research team near London and a crew of engineers and data scientists in Quebec, Canada, while also laying the groundwork for expansion in North America. As for being a relative newcomer to the industry, Amdur spins it as an asset, and there’s merit in her perspective.
“I can turn that into an advantage and say, ‘This is why I can do some good here, because I don’t have any preconceived notions,’” she says. “Sometimes a pair of fresh eyes isn’t a bad idea. And then you hire really smart people around you.”
Amdur clearly relishes being at the forefront of emerging technologies, both for the excitement and the challenges that inevitably crop up.
The European market is currently awaiting new regulations from the European Union to protect consumer privacy that will likely call for some major changes to monitor and protect how people’s data can be collected and shared. For those in the business of marketing and sales, they’re likely to be costly regulations. Companies like Rhetorik will need to help their clients comply with an array of rules governing how they store data, for instance, or whether they’re required to have a potential customer opt in to receive promotional material.
For Amdur’s inspiration, it helps that “data is having its day,” as she puts it. People recognize the power of Google’s ability to mine Web searches or Facebook’s massive stash of information volunteered by its users. But Rhetorik’s team gathers and analyzes data through the combined power of machines, algorithms, models, and an expert research team of humans to provide their clients from the IT and telecom industries with market intelligence and sales leads. And Amdur is experimenting with a new term she coined, “datatech,” which she defines as a new segment of the technology market comprised of companies that use and create software to make data smarter.
If navigating crossroads has become Amdur’s specialty, she’s quick to credit her teams for their contributions to her successful strategies, whether they are developers at Bing, a young analyst who devised a net neutrality business strategy for DirecTV, or even engineers at Xbox who coached her to boost her Gears of War score. People who have worked with her say this leadership trait is one of her greatest strengths. She cultivates a sense of ownership for the work and loyalty toward herself, because employees realize that she’ll support their ideas and give credit where it’s due.
A few days after this interview, Amdur sent an email with a few more thoughts. The question about passion had been on her mind.
“I think we confuse decisiveness with power and effective leadership. In fact, collaboration and multidisciplinary thinking — across functions, industries, and geographies — are critical to making decisions that actually stick,” she writes. Rather than relegating team-oriented approaches to “soft skills” or branding them “feminine” leadership traits (phrases that irritate her, by the way), she advocates for collaboration to be recognized as a driving force behind a strategy’s or company’s success.
“I think we confuse decisiveness with power and effective leadership. In fact, collaboration and multidisciplinary thinking — across functions, industries, and geographies — are critical to making decisions that actually stick.” — Meredith Amdur, CEO, Rhetorik Solutions
“I have a vision of a new capability and career model that is rooted in a more gender-neutral view of competencies,” Amdur says. She advocates for such qualities to be seen as important because they’re effective. But she also embraces the fact that tendencies such as being good multitaskers or more collaborative are often associated with women. Valuing these skills, therefore, “would have the added bonus of bringing women into more leadership positions.”
This vision doesn’t stem necessarily from a sense of justice toward women — though she doesn’t argue with that motivation. Through Amdur’s example and through her mentorship, she’s making the case that it makes business sense.
The modern workforce, across industries, is navigating a dramatic transition. Employees need to be able to use technology, adapt their tactics in real time, and interact with customers, rather than being tucked away in a warehouse and following a foreman’s directives. “Top-down, dictatorial mandates work in some environments,” Amdur says, “but not in the industries we’re building today, with highly skilled and more autonomous employees.”
For now, Amdur is focused on shepherding Rhetorik through its transformation. But these systemic trends — and the tantalizing problems they pose — are never far from mind.
Photo by Shannon Jensen Wedgwood