Chief Digital Officer: A Eulogy for a Title

It is probable that by 2018 no company will have a Chief Digital Officer.  In fact many will wonder why it was they ever had one.

The CDO was a response by management of many manufacturing, services and agency businesses to the emergence of a set of networks, devices and protocols that created new consumer behaviors, new businesses, new media and communication experiences.

Of course those same technologies that unlocked opportunity for some vaporized the legacy models of others. Those who followed the adage that you ‘should do something that is inevitable before the inevitable does it to you’ were more likely to survive and prosper in the changing word than those that did not.

Many companies responded to change by appointing a Chief Digital Officer, and often an entire digital organization.

There are two kinds of CDO:

The first kind, the good kind, live at the heart of the business process. They are charged with infusing digital expertise into the fabric of the organization or function. They are asked the question, how and when will change would affect what we do and how can we leverage technology to execute more effectively, grasp opportunity and know what we can build, what we can protect and what we should abandon as it will become redundant? These are purpose drive driven change agents.

The second kind; the bad kind (although good people!), are set up down the hall. Either as a trophy, “it’s OK, we have a CDO so we get digital” or as a human Band Aid; “that’s OK we don’t have to think about digital because we have someone who does and when something starts to bleed she will fix it”.

The truth of course that it is no longer satisfactory to have a Chief Marketing Officer that separates digital consumer behaviors from analog, or e commerce channels from retail. It’s a division that no longer exists in the mind of the consumer so should no longer exist in the enterprise. It’s no longer appropriate for a Chief Information Officer to separate social data from survey data or scanner data from e commerce data in the pursuit of either information or insight. It is wrong to have a Chief Creative Officer who loves television but rejects YouTube and Twitter. It has become equally artificial to separate desktop from tablet from the handheld mobile device. The digital imperative is to break down old barriers not build new ones.

The demands on the organization and the C-Suite are simple, get digital or get out.

Maybe it’s here that the catalyst for both the birth and the extinction of the CDO lie. The change in everything created first by broadband and accelerated by mobility happened so quickly that entrenched business practices and thinking simply could not deal with it, and “the rapid removal of inertia from the system” (I borrow this quote from @ShekharKapur at #WPPStream event in Jaipur),”.

Put simply the speed and democratization of information has had such a profound effect on consumer behaviors, that a whole generation of managers, along the entire length of the supply and demand chain, have been intellectually shipwrecked and only a few have had the ability and presence of mind, to ride and survive the wave. Those people have digitized their own office, populated it with people with respect but not attachment to the legacy and allowed the new generation to lead as well as educate, changing themselves and creating transformational strategies at speed and a cohort of managers to occupy the C Suite of the future and increasingly the present.

So how does a Chief Digital Officer measure his success?

Simple: The faster he makes himself redundant because the organization no longer needs him the greater his contribution to the organization and the more likely he is to join the C Suite for real, as CMO, CFO, CIO or, just maybe CEO.

Rob Norman
About the author: 

Based in New York, Rob Norman is the Chairman and Global Chief Digital Officer for GroupM, the largest media investment agency in the world. Mr. Norman has held a variety of Director, CEO and Chairman roles with agencies across the media spectrum, and is currently a Non-Executive Director for BBC Global News Limited.  Follow Rob on Twitter.