Superman Shirt OffWith 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.

This essay also ran in MediaPost.

Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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