But we find ourselves in 2021 in an entirely transformed media landscape, which begs the question: Is this role outdated? And if so, does it need to be refreshed or simply retired?
Applying the CIO role to media
Business sources like Investopedia generally define the CIO as the individual responsible for managing an organization’s assets and investments, developing growth strategies, acting as a liaison with investors, and recognizing and avoiding serious risk.
There’s not really a natural segue into the media business. If you’re talking about a media business’s greatest assets or investment, then that’s technically its people, and the head of asset management would be a human resources role. But for media buying, the greatest investment is in the agency’s media buys, which are overseen by the CIO.The evolution of the CIO in media
For many agencies today, the CIO is really an experienced television buyer. This stems from the history of media buying. In the 2000s, as the internet began to take off, agency silos accelerated. There was a group for every channel, including a print group, an outdoor team, a radio group (sometimes broken into local and national radio teams), and an internet group (or as we called it then, an “emerging media” or digital group).
But the group that invested the most money -- by far -- was the national television group. And back then whoever had the biggest budgets was the most powerful. As a result, the head of that group became the CIO. Someone had to oversee all the billings, so why not be the head of network buying?This model for appointing the CIO also satisfied the need for clout (defined as the person or group spending the most money). The best deals were given to the agencies with the biggest budgets, which made sense for a long time. And for many decades, clients were won and lost based on who could get the lowest CPMs or guaranteed a particularly low CPM.
Why this role doesn’t fit today’s media buying
The inputs that led to the creation and selection of CIOs in media historically are largely irrelevant today. Investment is concentrated in digital, and most of that money is spent with the triopoly (Amazon, Facebook and Google), in an auction designed for small businesses. The triopoly has millions upon millions of customers, most of which are small and have access to the same buying platforms as the large holding companies.
Clout, defined by money spent, is a similarly outdated notion. It doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters is experience, but mostly technology. Technology is the new currency for influence. Gone are the days of tinkering with a CPM; today real improvements are made and advantages are gained by adjusting the tech stack.
The bottom line
So what is the role today, if any, for the CIO in media buying? I would argue it’s obsolete and should retire alongside similar relics like the chief digital officer. Today, an agency’s most important assets are its talent, and our most important investments are those people and the technology we equip them with. Our roles need to represent where we truly find value and represent the media landscape of today -- not 30 years ago.