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Chief Digital Officer: Hot new tech title or flash in the pan?

Enterprises are tapping CDOs to monetize digital assets, but how will these new execs interact with IT? And will the hiring trend hold?

By Todd R. Weiss
July 29, 2013 06:00 AM ET
CDO

Computerworld - There's a new C-level executive -- the Chief Digital Officer (CDO) -- in the boardroom, charged with ensuring that companies' massive stores of digital content are being used effectively to connect with customers and drive revenue growth.

At first blush, an executive title that includes the word "digital" would seem to encroach on IT's territory. Not so, observers say -- but that doesn't mean tech leaders don't need to be prepared to work closely with a CDO somewhere down the line.

Gartner last year reported that the number of CDOs is rising steadily, predicting that by 2015, some 25% of companies will have one managing their digital goals, according to analyst Mark P. McDonald. (See also CDOs by the numbers.)

While media companies are at the forefront of this movement, McDonald says, all kinds of organizations are starting to see value in their digital assets and in how those assets can help grow revenue.

"I think everybody's asking themselves whether they need [a CDO] or should become one," McDonald enthuses. "Organizations are looking for some kind of innovation or growth, and digital technologies are providing the first source of technology-intensive growth that we've had in a decade."

What CDOs bring to the table

While the CIO and the CDO are both concerned with digital information, their responsibilities diverge sharply.

"The role of IT in the past has been to procure and secure IT equipment for the company, lock [data] up and bolt it down," says Jason Brown, the CDO for trade show and event management company George Little Management. "Whereas with digital content, you want to get it out to the world so the rest of the world can see it and access it. I don't care about Exchange servers, Web servers or any of that stuff," continues Brown, who was hired in September 2011 as George Little's first-ever CDO, reporting to the company's CEO. (Previously he worked as a vice president of digital media for what is now events and media company UBM Canon.)

"I'm interested in building products that can be monetized," he says. "Companies need to look at their products and see areas where they can make money digitally." (For details, see Digital assets defined.)

Organizations including Sears, Starbucks, Harvard University, the City of New York and many others have hired CDOs, says David Mathison, founder of the Chief Digital Officer Club, where current and would-be CDOs can find training, job opportunities and more. Their goal? To improve efforts in digital content promotion, a motive shared by CDOs from Forbes, Columbia University and elsewhere, who described to Computerworld how they go about helping their companies take advantage of their large digital resources.

CDOs by the numbers

According to estimates from CDO Club founder David Mathison, the top three kinds of companies hiring CDOs today are advertising agencies, publishers and broadcasters, while the biggest growth is being seen in the non-profit sector and state and local governments.

David Mathison
David Mathison

"When I started tracking this two years ago, there were 75 CDOs worldwide in major organizations," says Mathison, who curated the first-ever CDO Summit last February. "Today there are hundreds -- more than 300 at most recent count."

Mathison started tracking CDOs in August 2011 while working at the search firm Chadick Ellig, and he has continued his analysis via conversations and interviews with corporate executives and by reviewing hundreds of resumes and online profiles.

That research, plus data from CDO Club members, indicates that salaries for a Chief Digital Officer range from $89,000 to $600,000, depending on the business sector and location, with the median falling between $250,000 and $300,000, he says.



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