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The Influencers

Why Your Chief Digital Officer Is Failing

INFLUENCER: Your CDO isn't enhancing your company's tech, writes ALLOY's Donnie Garvich

Why Your Chief Digital Officer Is Failing

A year ago, millennials officially surpassed baby boomers as America’s most populous living generation. For brands that have been slow to adapt to the rise of digital technology, this news should have been a wake-up call. For the first time ever, the nation’s largest consumer group grew up with the internet. Technology is how they experience the world.

One year later, the sad reality is that most companies still struggle to deliver real value to their customers in the digital sphere. Too often, firms are hampered by traditional silos that separate their marketing and technology departments, preventing them from creating truly meaningful digital experiences. They deliver products that either bore consumers with their simplicity or alienate them with their uselessness. The ground lost to competitors is unlikely to be made up.

Companies hoping to bridge that divide have placed their faith in a range of solutions, from the advent of creative technology divisions to rise of the chief marketing technology officer. One solution that started making waves about six years ago was the invention of the chief digital officer. This person would keep one foot in the marketing division and the other in technology, acting as a sort of conduit for innovation. With equal fealty to each discipline, the CDO would provide a third, mediating viewpoint that would flout internal divisions and keep everyone focused on the future. 

A great idea, in theory. But as the guy who is often called in to figure out why a company has stalled on the path to digital maturity, I have witnessed the unfortunate reality it can produce. Too often, the CDO position becomes an excuse for chief marketing officers to put off making technology core to their culture, and for chief technology officers to wash their hands of marketing concerns. Expecting one person, or a small internal team, to navigate those political and consumer minefields simply proves unreasonable. After years of watching the position fail to pay dividends, many CEOs are now reconsidering the position altogether.

As an alternative solution, many companies have tried folding their technically skilled employees into their CMO organisations. Presumably this would boost the marketing department’s technical chops, but these moves often frustrate teams, which now have members who speak completely different languages and struggle to communicate. At the same time, it cannibalises talent from a technology organisation already struggling to meet expectations. A half decade after the CDO explosion, marketers and technologists are further apart than ever before.

In hindsight, it becomes clear why the CDO position so often fails to change a company’s digital fortunes: It is based on the flawed assumption that good tech will result from greater collaboration between your marketing and technology divisions. In reality, now more than ever, each department has its separate and vital role to play, and those roles can be compromised when collaboration—rather than innovation - becomes the objective. 

The age when it made sense to incentivise your technology and marketing teams to work in tandem is over. Today, when more and more of your users can’t imagine a world not suffused with technology, employees must think similarly, regardless of who they report to. What brands need is marketing departments that are immersed in technology - not insulated from it by an internal mediator. The same goes for technology departments: They must be constantly focused on how their product is experienced by the user, whether it be their father, grandmother or barista. The answer is not to bring two disparate disciplines closer together, but to reimagine each division in the customer’s image.

That may sound easier said than done. What company wouldn’t love a marketing department steeped in digital tech? Fifteen years ago, it was the premise of many a CEO’s pipe dream. The difference is that now, when digital natives outnumber everyone else in the workforce, there’s no excuse not to wake up and make it real.




Donnie Garvich is VP of Product Development ALLOY