Why Your Next CEO Might Be Your CDO

The primary job of a CDO is to help a company become more fluent in digital channels and infuse a digital DNA into the culture of a company. The end goal is to have all departments feel as comfortable in the digital medium as with print and events.

I’ve been a Senior VP of Digital, Executive VP of Digital, and Chief Digital Officer (CDO) the bulk of my 25-year career. I’ve served in this role for B2B, enthusiast, and book publishers … and in privately-owned, private-equity-backed, and publicly-traded companies. I have always said that the “Chief Digital Officer” is merely a temporary role, so a recent article from FIPP discussing CDOs becoming CEOs caught my eye.

In a media company, I believe the primary job of a CDO is to help a company become more fluent in digital channels and infuse a digital DNA into the culture of a company … from content and production, to audience development, marketing and sales. You might even have a fully separate digital department during this transition time to help execute the strategy while the rest of the company is learning and still focused on the traditional parts of the business.

The end goal of a CDO is to have all departments and personnel feel just as comfortable in the digital medium as with print and events, and to look across all potential channels options for the best ways to serve their readers and advertisers. A company has turned the corner when the digital innovation no longer comes from the CDO and the digital department, but from the “traditional” editors, sales, production and audience development teams. If this culture transformation is successful, the responsibilities for digital will be re-integrated into their rightful departments within the company.

When this transition happens, a CDO is no longer really needed to lead digital innovation or execution. Instead, the role of the digital team changes to more of an IT function focused on customer-facing technology: hosting, web / app development, systems integration, data management, and internal user support and training. The CDO either must shift to more of an CTO/CIO role overseeing digital technology and operations or find another CDO opportunity elsewhere.

There is one other option, however … the CDO could transition into the CEO role.

If you have been a truly successful Chief Digital Officer, you have a unique perspective on the entire media company. Typically you have worked closely with the CEO and CFO and been involved with C-suite and board-level strategy, decision-making, and communication. You understand the financial and business dynamics of the company, not just for digital, but for the legacy parts of the business as well. You have a clear picture of your customer base, what drives revenue, the cost factors, the competitive landscape, and your key business partners and vendors.

You have also interacted closely with all departments of the company. You’ve learned how editorial, production, ad sales, ad operations, marketing, and audience development all work, understand how they fit together, speak the language of each department, and have heard their needs and ideas. You’ve had to communicate a vision that they understand, believe in, and can rally behind. Leadership and communication skills are critical.

But a good CDO is also so much more than just a digital technology advocate. They realize that, while digital is critically important to the future of any media company, it is only part of the picture and must fit with the rest of the business. The goal isn’t so much to drive digital specifically as it is to grow the entire business.

Given all of this, the Chief Digital Officer is perhaps more uniquely equipped to take on the role of CEO than any other person within the organization. Certainly there is even more that a CDO would need to learn to successfully make the transition. But I believe that what happened at Hearst with Troy Young taking over as CEO and Jeff Litvack taking over as CEO of AdWeek are bell-weather moments for the publishing industry. Personally, I expect to see even more examples of CDOs becoming CEOs in the coming years.

What’s Next for Marketing Careers in Digital and Multichannel? 

It’s not too early to start thinking about what is ahead for your career with 2017 quickly approaching. What skills should you improve? How can you make yourself more appealing to potential employers, or position yourself for a promotion? To provide you with some direction, I recently spoke to executive digital and multichannel recruiting expert, Jerry Bernhart.

Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC
Jerry Bernhart, Principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC

It’s not too early to start thinking about what is ahead for your marketing career with 2017 quickly approaching. What skills should you improve? How can you make yourself more appealing to potential employers, or position yourself for a promotion?

To provide you with some direction, I recently spoke to executive digital and multichannel recruiting expert, Jerry Bernhart. As principal of Bernhart Associates Executive Search, LLC, Jerry has conducted searches as well as recruited and placed top digital and multichannel marketers, with clients ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, for more than 20 years.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Michelle Robin: How different is searching for a job today than say just two years ago?

Jerry Bernhart: Two years isn’t a lot of time. There hasn’t been a dramatic amount of difference, particularly since the recession. But I can give you some examples of what is going on in the industry today.

Right now, I am wrapping up a recent search for a manager of e-commerce — a really hot segment. When this search started two months ago, I surfaced eight to ten candidates, and I lost half of them in the first four weeks because my client couldn’t move quickly enough. This shows an enormous demand for this type of person.

With another search for a CRM (customer relationship management) manager, I had candidate who ended up with four external offers plus a counter offer. For best-of-breed talent, this is what I am seeing happen often.

Robin: What is your number one tip for job seekers looking to get ahead in their marketing career?

Bernhart: Keep learning. The beauty of digital is it makes it so easy to learn online. There is so much out there and things are moving so quickly, it’s essential to stay on top of things. The day you quit learning is the day you need to quit marketing.

If I could add another thing, I would say to be open regarding location. If you’re not living in a top metro area, look at other places. There are a lot of opportunities out there and you may not find them in your own hometown because you are in a smaller market. It’s kind of like broadcasting. The top news anchors didn’t start in New York City. So for young professionals especially, go to where the opportunities are and expand your scope of knowledge and responsibilities. Do it in small steps though, so you don’t take a big hit on the cost of living.

Robin: How important is your online brand for digital marketing professionals? Do employers actually look at your personal website, social media profiles, etc.?

Bernhart: It’s critical! You should think about your personal and online brand as often as you get your haircut. Think about it, you don’t know how long you’re going to be working at your current employer. You can’t afford to ignore your brand. If you don’t know how to brand yourself, how can you brand an organization?

The first thing human resources people do, even more than hiring managers, is Google you and look you up on LinkedIn. They may have your résumés, but the problem with résumés is you can’t always believe what is on there. So, put your personal URL on your résumé.

I have lots of candidates who have side projects. You can use that as the perfect opportunity to show a potential employer what is going on. I’ve never seen it have a negative impact on someone’s candidacy. In fact, I prefer they are upfront and transparent about it.