'Chief Digital Officer' Is A Strategic, Albeit Temporary, Role

With Gartner predicting that the CMO will spend more time on IT than the CIO by 2017, some companies have been eager to adopt a chief digital officer (CDO) role in an effort to manage and accelerate digital transformation.

But is appointing a CDO a bad idea?

Yes, according to Ashley Friedlein, CEO of Econsultancy, who says: “It is essentially an admission of failure. A failure of the rest of the C-suite to be themselves digital enough, or a failure to empower the digital teams properly within the organization, or a failure of the various business functions to work together to make digital happen.”

While I appreciate witty angles and sensational headlines, this argument doesn’t make sense.  

First, it probably doesn’t matter if marketing blurs into IT, or if IT blurs into marketing. Moreover, a company is not necessarily making a mistake if it adopts a CDO to catalyze and optimize change. In fact, it may be precisely the best decision for a particular company at a given time.



There are different paths to an outcome of digital transformation, where marketing, technology and networks converge. What matters most is that these forces come together to maintain customer relevance and competitive advantage. There is no one-size mandate for every company.

Case in point: At SXSW, I had a conversation with a friend who is a former CDO of one of the world’s largest global brands. His role as centralized corporate change agent, which spanned several years, is now viewed as a success. The management believed the digital leadership role was a critical catalyst in the company’s early days of Internet adoption.

Eventually several hundred digital specialists were hired and groomed, with thousands of other brand marketing professionals also gaining high digital fluency. That’s when and why my friend championed the eventual phase-out of his standalone role. He believes this will be the evolution for most other large consumer marketing organizations. I believe this will be the path for most companies and advertising agencies alike.

That’s where Friedlein and I actually agree: “As digital touches so many parts of an organization, the only way for it to be ultimately successful is for it to be collaborative, and permeate everything.”

To all the CDOs out there: Your role is defined by a strategic interim mission to catalyze and manage digital marketing transformation. It may last several years, even the rest of your career, but probably not forever. Eventually, companies will “be digital” by default.

One thing is most certain: You are not evidence of failure. You are evidence of digital embracement.

6 comments about "'Chief Digital Officer' Is A Strategic, Albeit Temporary, Role ".
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  1. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., March 26, 2013 at 10:12 a.m.

    Great piece, Max.

    As another view on this topic, I recently wrote "A CMO, a CIO, and a chief digital officer walk into a bar...":

  2. Bruce May from Bizperity, March 26, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.

    "What matters most is that these forces come together to maintain customer relevance and competitive advantage". The right approach for adopting digital strategies and practices varies widely from one organization to the next. Finding the right blend of traditional and emerging practices requires blended expertise and a willingness to adapt. Whether that blend of expertise comes from one or more chief officers matters little as long as there is a forward thinking attitude toward evolving technologies and practices. Digital will become fully integrated eventually and special roles will certainly become standard in their own right. You hit this spot on.

  3. Steve Lundin from bigfrontier, March 26, 2013 at 10:34 a.m.

    Terrific piece --- CDO's: the soon-to-be Pet Rocks of the new millennium. Same should be said for all the "social media gurus" floating around - as SM dissolves into the entire marketing melange.

  4. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, March 26, 2013 at 4:16 p.m.

    Amen on the different paths. Bottom line is, IT is no longer a service to the rest of the company. It is getting interwoven into the fabric of every function of the company. Some IT people will never be able to adapt to this new reality. And neither will some non-IT people. Everything is getting very grey and mushy, and engineering and territorial types like to keep things in neatly described boxes. BTW, my favorite new title is "Chief Serendipity Officer".... I can't help wondering what will happen when the C-suite runs out of alphabet letters to use between the "C" and "O" and if the proliferation of C-suite titles has to do with corporate confusion.

  5. Peter Daneels from Kliento, March 27, 2013 at 3:52 a.m.

    great article as it reflects reality a lot, I would almost say unfortunately...
    I’m a strong believer technology should stay the end responsibility of the IT department and therefore the CIO. IT is complex, there are so many different choices to make, often with long term implications, therefore, it stays a job for a specialist, that specialist is an IT’er

    Unfortunately in reality, I still see many IT’ers focusing too much on technolology, very often not even knowing for who and for what they are doing what they are doing. Perhaps people in IT need the pressure from CMO and /or CDO?

  6. Walter Sabo from SABO media, April 5, 2013 at 10:37 a.m.

    Unfortunately many loser companies ask the rocket scientists who to put in the rocket rather than to just build the rocket. Rocket Scientists have no business being involved in the decisions of web design, app capabilities or anything other than laying pipe, and bring the systems to full capability to humbly serve the demands of the enterprise. And the word "humble" never seems to be in their lexicon.

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