The Digital CEO (Part II of our interview with Alex Clyne)

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 28 Jul 2016

…continuing our interview with entrepreneur Alex Clyne.  We had previously discussed the increasingly important role for digital in the overall marketing function, to the extent that the two words ‘digital’ and ‘marketing’ will become virtually synonymous in the future.  Our discussion then moved on to the importance of C-Suite executives learning how to ride this new marketing tiger…

How can CEOs ensure they are not left behind in this new digital world?

As a CEO, you have to understand some finance, but you rely on your FD/CFO; you have to understand some marketing but probably rely on your CMO; IT is quite possibly beyond you so you rely on the CIO.  If you come from a sales background then you are likely to favour the Sales Director over the Marketing Director; vice versa if you come from Marketing. All this is fine, but you need to continue to learn if you want to be a successful CEO.  That applies to every aspect of the job, but while in the past it may have been OK simply to get reports from the CMO/CDO/CIO, today’s CEOs need to really understand how digital is impacting on their business.  That takes time.

Crucially, quite a few current marketers (privately) don’t like the digital space – it’s accountable, it’s mathematical, it’s data driven, the customer is in charge, everything can be tracked.  If your CMO doesn’t ‘get it’, that means that he or she is quite probably not reporting what you actually need to know… but now, and increasingly in the future, you simply must begin to know far more about digital if you are to justify your existence as a CEO.

Is this practical – aren’t too many senior executives too old to learn new tricks?

If what you are saying is that age is a barrier then the answer is no, absolutely not. If anything, ‘grey hairs’ are even more important. Why? Because they have the business experience that Digital Natives don’t. Subject matter expertise and experience are important and young people (generally) don’t have them, simply because they haven’t been around for long enough to accumulate the knowledge required.  

It’s a great opportunity for older people to reinvent themselves – they are the best placed to do this as they have amassed years of relevant experience. Weld that to enhanced understanding of the importance of digital in shaping their businesses and it’s a potent mix that will really drive their companies forward.  The executive world needs to get back into the meat of the their businesses - go to your suppliers, learn what’s coming next, use your contacts and experience to re-imagine, re-shape and re-engineer the business.

As part of this learning process, accreditation is going to become more important. It’s not just a question of passing a ‘digital cycling proficiency test’. You need really in-depth knowledge. The more far-sighted organisations are already in this space. The CDO Club – which began in the USA and is now the world’s largest community of C-suite digital and data leaders – has just announced a joint partnership to provide access to an online Master’s degree in Digital Marketing Leadership with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Where does the CDO sit in all this?

In my business career I’ve seen various groups rise and fall in importance around the boardroom table.  Many years ago it was HR, and at other times IT, Sales and Marketing, etc.  Recession has led to more streamlining, but my view is that in the next 5-10 years CDO roles will have morphed into Chief Marketing Officer positions, with a far wider remit and responsibilities.

We have recently run a blog on the subject of executive-level discrimination. How much will human error – promoting the wrong people, not understanding the direction of travel, influence this new world?

What will cause problems for some will be a lack of intellectual horsepower – and also simple lack of knowledge. That’s why I stressed the importance of CEOs really getting to grips with digital.  Generally, those who reach the top of big companies are not short on grey matter, but they can’t assume that they will always stay ahead of the curve.  The fact that the railway and shipping companies once dominated the transport industry didn’t stop the air industry becoming the major player in long distance travel. The people who ran the railways thought they were in the railway business: they didn’t realise they were in the transport business. Wrong decisions have been/will be made for the right reasons because they are being made with ‘bad’ knowledge.

For example, how many CDOs are put into the ‘wrong’ roles by recruiters who didn’t understand the market – who had ‘bad’ knowledge? A major government organisation in the UK recently entrusted the recruitment of a new CDO role to a recruitment consultancy that had lots of knowledge of the public sector but not a lot about digital.  They (the recruiters) were told not to consider anyone from a public sector background (“to introduce new, dynamic, private sector blood into the organisation”), yet the chances are that the successful applicant will leave after less than a year because he or she doesn’t understand the public sector.  All in all, it was an example of how not to do it – give the job to a recruiter who doesn’t really understand digital, then tell them to ignore the section of the market that has the underlying knowledge that can be built on and developed to get things done and make a success of the job. Crazy!

On a more prosaic level, it’s like Macs supplanting visualisers in advertising. Many visualisers didn’t see the direction of travel.  They may still have known how to produce ideas on paper, but if they didn’t learn to use the technology they were soon, in the literal sense of the word, redundant.

So yes, things will go wrong, but to make sure they don’t it’s essential that you – as a senior member of your organisation – learn enough to stand toe-to-toe in the boardroom with your marketing colleagues and make sure they are using digital to benefit your business.  You have been warned!

James Dunne, exec-appointments, interviewing Alex Clyne