A Brief History of the Chief Digital Officer in Marketing

Ah, the CDO. Depending on your industry and the size of your organization, your company may or may not have a Chief Digital Officer employed to oversee and execute digital strategy. In fact, you yourself may be the unofficial CDO as you strive to enable a more data-driven marketing culture at work, one that essentially puts digital — with regard to how your customers engage digitally and how your team works digitally — at the forefront.

The CDO role, as its been defined by the industry, has evolved since it was first started making waves in 2012. What was initially reported as a complement to the CMO has now become a hybrid between the CMO and the CIO. Here, we take a brief look at the transformation of the CDO, and what it means for marketing.  

2014: Year of the CDO

Wired asks if 2014 is "the year of the Chief Digital Officer"? The media outlet noticed digital's increasing clout and examined how CMOs were bringing technology experts into the fold, calling out the tension traditionally perceived between CMOs and CIOs. However, Wired saw a favorable relationship developing between CMOs and CDOs due to the crucial difference between digital officers and IT professionals: "Unlike CIOs, CDOs aren’t concerned with equipment or tactics of how data is moved, but rather where that data is going and how it is used." While CDOs and CMOs were still seen as separate positions, one keen observer noted that “the CDO is the CMO of the future.”

2015: Transformer in Chief

Gartner predicted that 25% of businesses would have a CDO by 2015. By this year, the CDO's responsibilities were evolving to meet the new demands of organizational strategy that placed greater importance on digital and marketing. For this reason, McKinsey labeled the role more of a "transformer in chief." One of the most important priorities for this new role was the need for speed, agility, and data. McKinsey noted that "CDOs can build strong foundations for change by creating a “spirit of digital” throughout the organization." In this position as its articulated in 2015, we see the merging of hard technical skills with the soft skills that make marketers so succesful.

2016: Goodbye to the CDO?

Despite the predication that CDOs would essentially replace CMOs, in 2016, some resistance bubbled up from CIOs threatened about job security. One industry writer explained that the separation of the CIO's job responsibilities only served to weaken the authority of tech expertise within the organization. In a sense, he argued that the CDO role was unneccessary. But CDO hirings trended upward in 2016. Forbes noted that there was no consistency in what CDOs do from one company to the next. Innovation, customer success, and establishing internal processes were at the top of the list. 


There's no doubt that CDOs are on the rise as digital becomes a top priority everywhere, from B2B companies to presidential campaigns. Based on a study from PwC, noted that 60% of all CDOs last year were hired between 2015 and 2016. But the most interesting finding was the background of these executives. "There’s not a high concentration of CDOs that have a marketing background, but we do see a strong technology background as a common denominator," a partner at PwC said. Additionally, "for the 33% of CDOs wearing two hats, the CIO is most likely the one to perform the CDO duty, while 39% of execs have a marketing, sales, or customer service background." This may be due to the fact that CDOs are often being asked to figure out the technology needs of organization, according to the study.

Whether you work at a larger company with a robust C-suite, in which a CMO can work with their CIO on specific marketing technology needs, or a small- to medium-sized company in which the CMO is more hands on with the martech stack, this brief history of the CDO tells us that ownership over data and the technology needed to harness that data are becoming increasingly important. While the CDO role continues to evolve, it's imperative that the CMO bridge the technology gap themselves through processes that enable data-driven marketing.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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