The Big Interview: Anneli Ritari-Stewart, MD of iProspect

Earlier this year, Anneli Ritari-Stewart celebrated a new personal best '“ powerlifting more than 300 kilograms via a combination of squat, bench and deadlift.
Ritari-Stewart believes the secrets of success are hard work and the constant pursuit of incremental gains. Picture: Neil HannaRitari-Stewart believes the secrets of success are hard work and the constant pursuit of incremental gains. Picture: Neil Hanna
Ritari-Stewart believes the secrets of success are hard work and the constant pursuit of incremental gains. Picture: Neil Hanna

She took up the hobby after being a highly dedicated runner, having steadily increased her distances to complete a 55-mile ultramarathon from Glasgow to Edinburgh along the canal.

Seeking out a new challenge, she was inspired by seeing female powerlifters in action, and her ambition to win best female lifter in her category at the Scottish Masters Championships was proudly realised in December after four years of training. But the activity’s benefits extend far beyond the podium.

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Progress requires relentless dedication, organisation, and taking a long-term view. “You become a lot better by just putting in the hard work and I think incremental gains over time is in some way the ethos that I take into work as well,” adding that her main focus of performance also translates from metal bar to boardroom.

Swedish-born Ritari-Stewart has since late 2016 held the role of Edinburgh managing director of digital performance marketing agency iProspect. Its clients include Diageo, John Lewis, Hilton and Santander, while it spans more than 50 countries and 4,000 staff globally, forming part of the Dentsu Aegis Network group of agencies that in turn covers 145 countries and 40,000 employees.

Ritari-Stewart says that after she was approached by iProspect and undergoing the recruitment process they showed her a film of staff wakeboarding and mountain-climbing, under its tagline of “performance: it’s not what we do, it’s who we are”.

Such a message “completely resonated”, she says, also attracted by the firm’s global reach, for example being Google’s largest client globally. “That’s really good for us in Edinburgh because it can be hard to keep up to date with innovations etc.”

The iProspect team numbers 30 in the Scottish capital out of Dentsu Aegis’s 70 in the city, and she is keen to see the firm’s Scottish headcount rise considerably. “We’re recruiting constantly,” she says, also acknowledging the much-bemoaned issue of finding staff with the right level of digital skills in Scotland. Accenture has found that roles requiring digital skills will grow by 12 per cent by 2024.

Ritari-Stewart joined iProspect from the digital agency now known as Digitas, which rebranded from DigitasLBi – formed in 2013 when Publicis Groupe merged LBi with Digitas to create a network with 5,700 staff in 25 countries.

She was latterly client partner, developing relationships at a senior level within key accounts, and forming part of the senior management team, with that group providing leadership to the wider business and 150 staff in Edinburgh,

This brought her into contact with Stephen Ingledew and Mickael Paris, and the duo, both formerly of Standard Life, were appointed chief executive and marketing director respectively at FinTech Scotland, which aims to make the country one of the leading countries for innovation and disruption in the financial services sector.

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The organisation was launched in 2017 with £250,000 Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise funding combined with financial and practical support from Edinburgh University, while a further £250,000 was provided by Scottish Financial Enterprise members.

It was announced last month that Dentsu Aegis Network Edinburgh had become a partner of FinTech Scotland, a move that included Ritari-Stewart joining the board of the organisation as a non-executive director alongside representatives from other global strategic partners, accountants Deloitte, law firm Pinsent Masons and IT consultancy Sopra Steria.

Ritari-Stewart praises Ingledew, who has also worked at senior level for Barclays, as “a real visionary… when he’s talked about what he wants to achieve with FinTech Scotland, it felt like something that we absolutely wanted to be associated with and take part in”.

Ingledew has laid out his aim for Scotland to become a top-five global fintech centre by 2020 from joint 15th in 2017, and the iProspect boss believes such an ambition is “very tangible”.

She adds that Dentsu Aegis is going to help FinTech Scotland scale up its brand globally. “We’re starting off by building their website, and then we’re going to help market FinTech in Scotland and make sure that we have a platform that caters for all the different stakeholders. We’re also going to work to help support fintech companies – both start-up and mature companies,” she adds, highlighting work with direct-to-consumer lender Ultimate Finance to help it create a new digital strategy targeted at UK SMEs.

“They had a record-breaking year so it’s been fantastic to see their journey and transformation and be very close to that,” while it is a “great cause” to help drive economic growth for Scotland, she adds. Fintech has in the last decade attracted nearly £37m in investment in Scotland, according to Scottish Government figures, while a recent report from Tech Nation found that the average turnover per technology sector employee reached £80,000 last year.

Ritari-Stewart joined internet recruitment firm Jobline in Stockholm after graduating as its fifth employee – it would later grow to 500 staff in 12 countries – and she was charged with setting up and running its UK arm.

While a daunting experience, it proved a success, and she has stayed here ever since, having previously spent time in Australia and France during her studies.

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In 2006 she moved to Edinburgh and agency-side, working as a senior strategist in travel at Bigmouthmedia, and spent ten years with the organisation through its changing ownership, becoming part of LBi. Duties included account director for Emirates, and working with Marriott in the US. But she notes that her mentor had warned her not to stay anywhere for more than a decade. A backdrop of consolidation and general change meant work never felt “stagnant” but iProspect approached her at “the exact right time”.

Under her belt was experience of looking after a vast portfolio of brands and several global projects, and she was seeking out another challenge.

Admitting to some initial nerves about taking on the MD role with two young children, she is glad she made the leap. “I’ve not looked back… I’ve been there for well over a year now and it’s been quite a journey in some ways.”

She was nominated in the leader category at the Scotland IS Digital Technology Awards 2018, saying it was “humbling” to be alongside ShareIn’s Jude Cook and the ultimate winner, Callum Sinclair of Burness Paull.

And she has plenty she aims to achieve with iProspect, with the Edinburgh office’s 30 empty seats indicative of its growth ambitions. “We had a brilliant year in terms of new business growth and when I joined the company we changed the tagline from ‘driving digital performance’ to ‘driving business performance’. It sounds like a very subtle change but actually it was a fundamental shift in the way we do things,” she says, with her role in the last year trying to bring in large new clients where iProspect was the strategic partner.

Ritari-Stewart adds that this is why the likes of Ultimate Finance were brought on board and the organisation, which shares Dentsu Aegis resources, has reeled in “strategic engagements where a big client comes to you and says ‘we’ve got this problem – we need to solve it’ or ‘we want to drive this performance – how should we do it’, and then you’ve got total oversight of their budget to design a strategy that will take them to where they needed to go.

“That’s where I’ve still got some further ambition in terms of growth, but beyond that I want to continue to develop as a leader and I think getting involved with new types of organisations like FinTech Scotland etc is going to diversify my role a bit.”

She aims to take that appointment “very seriously to make sure I bring on board a lot of enthusiasm and all of the business experience I have from having worked with so many brands globally to bring an objective view on helping to challenge and making sure that I support them in achieving their goals.”

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Additional non-exec director roles are “absolutely” on the cards, adding that while she will ponder what to do after she’s achieved her goals with iProspect, there remain many opportunities to progress within the organisation.

Returning to her sporting endeavours, she aims to break more records at her next competition in August in a discipline that requires utter concentration. “If you’ve got over 100 kilos on your back you cannot think about anything else,” she explains. “You have to just stay focused, because otherwise you won’t lift that weight.”