Digital CMO: How to Be A Digital Leader

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Rohit Bhargava
Rohit Bhargava



Digital CMOThere is no digital department anymore.

For years, the “digital team” handled everything from building websites to managing Facebook. When digital was all about tools and destinations, hiring the right team of specialists meant everything. That world no longer exists.

Today, digital is integrated into the fabric of business, and it requires a new type of marketing leader. We are entering a new era in marketing: the age of the digital CMO.

A digital CMO can be any marketing leader who thinks “digital first,” but more importantly, she is the person who sees the opportunity to use digital tools and technology to bring together marketing, IT, operations and customer care.

Among the largest brands, there has always been an “advertising is king” mentality. The majority of marketing dollars are spent on TV advertising, while digital and social media still receive far smaller percentages of budgets. Many marketing teams still treat digital and social media as an add-on or an afterthought, but the number of professionals who are embracing the shift to a digital-first mindset is dramatically rising.

According to a recent survey of digital marketing executives, spending on digital accounts is expected to increase by 9 percent in 2013. The most forward-thinking brands and marketing leaders are already changing the way they allocate marketing budgets to more accurately reflect consumer behavior.

Fortunately, there are two types of models that are emerging as case studies for how brands are transitioning into the digital age:

  • Mobile-First Brands: These brands offer inherently digital products and often create experiences that are optimized for use with mobile platforms first and desktop platforms second. Mint, Square, Twitter and Gilt are a few examples of mobile-first brands.
  • Digital Innovator Brands: Some large, established brands have committed significant resources to studying effective digital integration: Intel has a team of anthropologists studying human behavior. Southwest Airlines has a robust social customer care team. Walmart Labs is an internal technology think tank. Dozens of brands (including Dell and Gatorade) have command center models for social listening, and Coca-Cola and Red Bull have vocally committed to a future strategy focused on delivering engaging content.

The Effects of the Digital CMO Shift

As brands shift strategy and resources toward digital, this will have a profound effect on the future of brand marketing. Four of the most notable and probable effects of the digital CMO shift will be:

  1. Behavioral Media Buying: There will be more equitable spending across multiple channels and platforms based on actual consumer behavior and deeper personalization instead of traditional spending models based solely on impressions.
  2. Merit-Based Agency Models: Agencies will receive marketing dollars based on merit as opposed to the current “caste system” that places ad and media buying agencies at the top, regardless of the value they bring compared to all other agencies.
  3. Insights from Big Data: Metrics and analytics will dramatically increase in quality and strategic value as more “big data” is used to generate actionable insights and define business value more broadly.
  4. A Community around Content: Brands will experience a shift from a “paid” model to an “owned” model, allowing them to establish long-term efforts that build platforms and communities as experiences instead of moving from one short-term campaign to the next.

Four Tips for Working with a Traditional CMO

As with any big evolution, the shift from marketing leaders to digital CMOs is not a magical event that will happen instantaneously. Many traditional CMOs will be hesitant to change how they do their jobs. Here are four tips for agency and marketing professionals to convince traditional CMOs they need to make a change:

  1. Follow the Numbers. One of the biggest advantages of digital marketing is how significantly more measurable it is compared to other forms of marketing. Use that advantage by testing and learning from the data to determine which messages are working and which aren’t.
  2. Spotlight Innovative Competitors. CMOs respond to competitive pressure, so find innovative competitors to inspire your CMO to take more open, interesting and creative approaches.
  3. Embrace Pilot Program Opportunities. Instead of bringing ideas for long-term or expensive projects, pitch pilot projects that can be completed more quickly. Then, use them as proof points to inspire further innovation.
  4. Focus on Education. Education through direct connections is probably the most important factor for long-term change and inspiration. A few ideas for learning opportunities to help marketing leaders evolve toward digital CMOs include attending industry conferences or one-on-one meetings with visionary authors or speakers.

The world is not waiting for the next generation of CMOs, who have been immersed in digital from a young age, to take the reins. Today’s leaders are adapting and evolving into digital CMOs by educating themselves on emerging technology and pushing their organizations to stay ahead of the curve.

As digital initiatives continue to gain visibility, resources and institutional support, agencies must make the case for continuing to invest in digital by showcasing how digital thinking ultimately drives real business value — something both CMOs and CEOs want to see.

Topics: Leadership

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