Binary technology

Chief digital officers: The case for and against

23rd Jun 2016

Digital transformation is one of the most important challenges facing organisations today. But just how to tackle it, and indeed who should take responsibility for it within the organisation, is up for debate. 

In recent months, there have been a flurry of major brands appointing chief digital officers (CDOs) - including the likes of AOL, Nike and Morgan Stanley - clearly believing that a single executive having responsibility for the management of new digital touchpoints will be the panacea. 

However, in a recent survey of 1,500 companies by PwC, only 6% had appointed chief digital officer, with a third of those were hired in the last year.

So are chief digital officers the way forward? Or a dead end? MyCustomer has spoken to two experts who share differing views on the future of the chief digital officer. Read them - and share your thoughts below. 


Sanjay Dholakia, CMO, Marketo.

As the nature of our world and our interactions becomes more digital than ever before, CEOs have realised the importance of maintaining an ongoing dialogue with customers on a personal and individual level across all channels, but most importantly CEOs know that they need to engage with customers over a lifetime.

The need to take control of this transformation seemed to create a huge gap in the boardroom that had to be filled by someone with the appropriate skill set. So who can blame the CEO for feeling compelled to hire a CDO to help define a digital business strategy to make sense of it all? However, as digital becomes part and parcel of everything we do, ‘digital’ won’t be considered a standalone part of an organisation, but be ingrained across all aspects and teams.

It’s foolish to put one person in charge of something that everyone must own.

Recent months have seen a flurry of global organisations announcing the appointment of chief digital officers, most recently 25 Scottish councils coming together to hire one joint CDO. Often, as CEOs wake up to the importance of digital, the CDO role is a logical next step when scrambling to bring in someone with digital experience to manage all of the new digital touchpoints that now play a part in the customer journey.

Crucially, the missed step prior to hiring a CDO, is checking whether that person already exists within the business. According to a global survey of 499 CMOs and senior marketing executives sponsored by Marketo and conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) this year, 90% of European respondents expect to own the entire customer journey for their organisation by 2020, up from 79% who believe that today. Signalling that the marketing function already has the skills and plans to deliver much of what a CDO would be hired to do.

Much like putting your head under the covers and ignoring the importance of digital all together, hiring a CDO isn’t the cleverest or most strategic move:

  • It signals to both employees and the wider public that no one in the company really knows what to do with digital. This approach risks undermining the expertise that has evolved throughout the business and creates the perception internally that digital needs to be siloed away and solved somewhere else.
  • Further to this, as we settle into this new digital world and digital extends across all customer touchpoints, a CDO is like hiring a chief Excel officer or even a chief typing officer – it’s foolish to put one person in charge of something that everyone must own.

For anyone aspiring to become a CDO, it would be worthwhile thinking about the long-term future of the role. It’s been well documented that the measure of a CDO’s success is when the role becomes unnecessary. Therefore, any well-functioning digital company doesn’t have a need for a CDO, and therefore, in the years to come, neither should any organisation. As digital becomes inherent to all aspects of an organisation and its relationship with customers, there will be no longevity in the role or function. 


Joel Windels, VP of inbound marketing, Brandwatch.

You’ve heard the whispers that digital expertise is a must-hire in every successful company. That without digital intelligence and intelligently digital employees, your business will fail to keep up in today’s market. Despite this, there is still a hesitation in hiring digital experts. According to research from the annual Russell Reynolds Associates survey, 10% of c-suite executives confessed to still not having a digital strategy in place. Could it be that this hesitance lies in not knowing exactly who to hire?

Digital marketing offers a huge number of advantages over traditional marketing. Aside from worldwide reach to your customer base in one click, one of the most important facilities it offers is ‘countability’ and therefore accountability. If you’re not reviewing the results, crunching the numbers behind your campaigns and utilising the hugely valuable demographic and location data available thanks to digital, you’re likely to be missing opportunities.

For too long, all responses to marketing have helped shape is the next campaign, rather than a business direction.

Digital campaigns have the ability to be agile, constantly evolving and absolutely responsive. That is, if you have someone deep in the data, making recommendations on a change of tack. Obviously, this can only run smoothly alongside a creative team armed with the wit and imagination to steer things in the right direction. An indomitable force!

The sheer amount of free first party data you are able to elicit from social media mentions around your brand is astonishing. Adding this to an already stretched marketing team’s to do list, and without the specific skills to translate it into meaningful insights, will make a team resent the data rather than act on it. With the right person owning these insights, having the sapience to quickly drill down into what’s relevant, is a goldmine in understanding your customer insights as well as generating new business for your brand.

A digital expert can also help first party data make it out of the marketing team, to inspire and shape the entire business. For too long, all responses to marketing have helped shape is the next campaign, rather than a business direction. By putting someone in that neutral role, all parts of the business can utilise these insights to make their lives easier. We’ve seen this transition as customer service has translated to social media channels. In this context, data can be an incredibly important motivational tool. Sharing successes with colleagues and empowering employees with data is a great way to turn your staff into great digital ambassadors for your company.


Replies (1)

Please login or register to join the discussion.

By LinkedIn Group Member
27th Jun 2016 13:38

This comment from the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by member Howard Kaschyk.

In addition to being a way to increase readership, it is also the same as was being discussed 35 years ago. Then it was do companies need Corporate representation of the growing use of computers in the business? Today, it is an almost universal practice in medium and large businesses. I see the same for the DCO as outlined. The why is different though. With a corporate title comes responsibility. Back then the saying was, "No one gets fired for recommending IBM." Today, it is probably Facebook. With the job, comes being a scapegoat, if needed.

Thanks (0)