Recently Mike Bracken announced his resignation as Executive Director of Digital in the Cabinet Office.

He had been leading the digital transformation of UK government through the Government Digital Service (GDS), earning a CBE among other plaudits for his work. 

So what bigger digital challenge has he gone on to? He will join the Executive Board of the Co-operative Group as Chief Digital Officer, working to the Chief Executive, Richard Pennycook.

This got me thinking… Two years ago I argued why a Chief Digital Officer is a bad idea, provoking some heated debate at the time. Mike’s job change has now made me reassess my thoughts on the CDO role.

In the last few weeks I have spoken to four CDOs of sizeable businesses to try and learn more about the role and what it means for the future of digital, marketing and business more generally. The following is what I have learned…

For starters, CDOs are hot property. According to the CDO Club salaries for a Chief Digital Officer range from $89,000 to $600,000, with the median falling between $250,000 and $300,000. That means CDOs are paid more than CMOs where top earnings are around £160k according to our own Salary Survey 2015.

There are now more than a thousand CDOs globally and the number has doubled every year for the last few years. Gartner predicted 25% of businesses would have a CDO by the end of this year.

Secondly, there appear to be broadly two types of CDO. One I call the ‘Ambassador CDO’. His or her main role is to be an evangelist for digital across the business, to fly the digital flag, to inspire, educate and inform on all things digital.

This is typically a role with no P&L or little management responsibilities. You see this most often in much larger, often multinational, companies (£1bn+ turnover) where the most senior folk cannot quite let go of power but feel the need to parade digital through the corporate corridors.

The second type I call ‘transformer CDO’. This breed has real power and is set on transforming the entire business on their journey to becoming CEO.

What are the capabilities required of the transformer CDO?

The words that come up most: leadership, vision, customer-centricity, change, transformation, innovation, disruption, tech, data, culture, agile, collaboration, communication, building buy-in.

Intriguingly the word ‘digital’ rarely comes up.

The remit of a transformer CDO is typically broader than a CMO. The CDO has a more complete view of the customer experience across touchpoints beyond just marketing to include sales and service. The CDO often controls product as well as marketing. In fact the transformer CDO is almost synonymous with a Chief Customer Officer.

What if you are planning to hire a CDO?

Here are some things to bear in mind based on my conversations with CDOs:

  • Know the difference between an ‘ambassador CDO’ and ‘transformer CDO’ and be clear on which you are hiring.
  • If you are hiring a transformer CDO then you should acknowledge that you are hiring a strong contender for the successor to the CEO. You should be aware, of course, of the sensitivities of existing board members or senior management if this is made explicit.
  • If you hire a transformer CDO then it will be very hard for this role to co-exist happily for long with a CMO. Better that you have a Head of Marketing who reports to the CDO.
  • Realise that the remit of a transformer CDO is not just ‘vertical’ down through the organisation, but ‘horizontal’. Digital will permeate every single area of the business, across technology, data, culture, people, process, strategy. Digital will need to become over time part of the DNA of the business.

Chief Digital Officer is a very exciting role and it is a role that marketers can take up. However, I also believe that it will be very hard for a CMO and CDO to co-exist unless the CDO is an ambassadorial role only.

So if marketers do not step up they may find their new boss is a ‘digital’ executive, albeit one whose main agenda is not digital per se but customer-centricity and business transformation more broadly.

Want to know more about how digital is transforming brands? The digital transformation stage at The Festival of Marketing in November will see leading thinkers offer strategic advice and insight on digital leadership and frameworks. For more information and to buy tickets please visit The Festival of Marketing.