JT Kostman: Data plus behavioral insights deliver business value

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JT Kostman, Chief Data Officer, Time Inc.

Dr. JT Kostman believes every Chief Data Officer should be able to link what they do to a monetized or quantified outcome for his or her company. Some might think that’s a prematurely ambitious stance for someone who is only months into a newly created position.But when you’re working for Time Inc., which holds the media industry’s largest database of consumer behavioral insights, Kostman says there are no excuses for not being able to deliver immediate value to the company.

“The Chief Data Officer’s department should be revenue generating, not a cost center like IT is in many other organizations. Everything we do should advance the business. And data should drive every strategic business decision Time Inc. makes,” Kostman said.

Indeed, the company’s data assets run deep. Time Inc. is one of the world’s most influential media companies, with over 90 iconic brands like People, Sports Illustrated, Time, InStyle, Real Simple, Food & Wine and Fortune, as well as more than 50 website and digital properties, and host to more than 500 annual events. Engaging with more than 150+ million consumers monthly through its many media channels, the company holds large amounts of data that can reveal what its customers want, will share and care about.

That’s why when CEO Joe Ripp took the helm of Time Inc. in 2013, he immediately put data at the center of everything the company does. He saw a business with all the mechanisms to acquire and store customer information, but he needed a data visionary who could help the company figure out how to integrate and derive insights from its vast data wealth.

Triple-threat talent

Ripp tapped Kostman to be Time Inc.’s first CDO because Kostman brought a unique pedigree to fulfilling the company’s data mission. Kostman is both data scientist and mathematician, as well as a behavioral psychologist. Kostman’s diverse background marrying data analytics with psychology ranges from multinational corporations like Samsung, Keurig Green Mountain and AIG to the U.S. Intelligence Community and the Obama Campaign. He gets the human dimension contained in data. And he gets how to bring together Time Inc.’s many geographically dispersed analysts to build a truly world-class data science capability. This team-building talent was instrumental in helping Kostman overcome the initial cultural resistance CDOs often face when they join a company.

kostman speaks IBM CDO summit

Dr. Kostman speaks during a session at the IBM CDO Strategy Fall Summit in Boston.

“We already had some of the top analysts in the industry. But they were isolated and unchallenged,” Kostman stated. “I found and brought together pockets of talent inside the organization in places like Brooklyn, Bangalore and even Birmingham, Alabama. I discovered that some of the veteran analysts had been working at Time Inc. for more than two decades. But they hadn’t had a chance to spread their analytic wings. Part of my job was to give them that opportunity.”

Ripp believed so much in the influence of a CDO that he appointed Kostman to the company’s leadership team – a group of Time Inc.’s 15 senior editors and executives who meet every Monday morning to make strategic decisions about running the company. “Bringing data to the forefront of our biggest business decisions showed that Time Inc. wasn’t simply creating a title and façade around the importance of data,” Kostman said.

Who owns the data?

One cultural challenge Kostman had to tackle early on was territorial. In his first days on the job, CEO Ripp asked Kostman how he could help him be successful. Kostman told him unfettered access to data would be nice.

“One of the challenges CDOs face is having to walk around like Oliver Twist, bowl in hand, saying ‘Please, sir, may I have some data.’ Joe addressed that problem immediately, informing the entire organization that my office now had ‘ownership’ of all data across Time Inc. That naturally didn’t sit well with some of the prior owners of the data,” Kostman stated.

Kostman addressed their concerns first by redefining the concept of ownership. In a series of one-hour presentations that he called “Everything you need to know about Big Data,” he showed colleagues how his office wasn’t taking data away from them, but rather extracting a copy of it and helping them use it more effectively. There was nothing to give up.


Dr. Kostman leads a panel at the IBM CDO Strategy Fall Summit in Boston.

“A key point I drove home was that all of my team’s successes are by proxy. We only succeed if they succeed. My entire mandate was to ensure the success of my internal customers. They weren’t lending me a cup of sugar; they were letting me see their cup of sugar. And in seeing it I could help them derive additional value. That really changed the nature of our relationship,” Kostman declared.

Data Gestalt

But nothing allays fears better than scoring some early successes. One of Kostman’s first big priorities was integrating data from Time Inc.’s business partners and external sources to uncover remarkable new insights about consumer behavior. Time Inc. has a database of cognitive behavioral insights from more than 150 million adults in the U.S. alone, not to mention its vast international operations. This “first-party data,” as he calls it, helps Time Inc. understand who its customers are, who its media audiences are, what engages them and what moves them emotionally.

Kostman’s plan was to integrate its data with the “second-party data” of its retailer business partners, which is heavily transaction-oriented, to get a better understanding of what triggers actions and behavioral change in consumers.

“When I take my first-party data and integrate it with our partners’ second-party data, it creates a unique data Gestalt from which we can take action. It’s like that aha moment when we have the chocolate and they have the peanut butter, combining the two into something magical,” Kostman said.

While Kostman can’t reveal the details of the specific applications at this time, one example includes helping to create new ways for advertisers to reach consumers with ads supported by compelling content that they perceive as valuable rather than a nuisance.

“The right ad to the right person at the right place and time with the right content and context is a wonderful service and gives consumers something truly of value,” Kostman contends. “Our partners don’t want to waste money putting ads in front of people that don’t want them or are irrelevant to them. All the advertisers we work with believe their products can make someone’s life better, happier or more fulfilled. We want to help that outcome using data to discover the right reach, relevance and resonance to create a real opportunity for audiences.”

Kostman is also pioneering new ways to use data to improve content direction and sales. He’s exploring data-driven editorial approaches to better understand who reads Time Inc. content so that the company can meet their needs more effectively. Data is also helping the company improve newsstand placement, cover design and journalistic quality of Time Inc. products.

“What upsets people is not being listened to,” he said. “When we listen, we can change that conversation and communicate effectively with them. Data is one of the best listening tools.”

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