The evolving role of the chief digital officer, and who owns what: marketing or IT?

Summary:Open communication between chief marketing and chief information officers has become a necessity, but when is a "chief digital officer" necessary?


SALT LAKE CITY -- The boundaries between digital marketing teams and IT have all but fallen in the wake of business tech shifts spawned by social, mobile and the cloud.

At the same time, the roles of the leaders at the top are also changing, and there are still many unanswered questions about who should be responsible for what in the digital age.

Based on a panel discussion on Tuesday involving three of the top executives at Adobe, the answer boils down to a simple concept: communication.

However, that's easier said than done. Even if there is communication, it's also easy to see where tension and arguments could be blocking collaboration between marketing and IT units.

One question asked during the session asked about which C-level executives might have priority -- essentially, who owns what?

Sitting next to Adobe chief marketing officer Ann Lewnes, Adobe president and CEO Shantanu Narayen quipped with a chuckle, "I'd say the CMO wins."

Now, Lewnes continued, digital marketing spending is on par with -- if not outpacing -- traditional IT spending.

Lewnes picked up by recalling that before the last few years, IT essentially owned the technology aspect while marketers requested it.

Now, she continued, digital marketing spending is on par with -- if not outpacing -- traditional IT spending.

Using the example of, Lewnes explained that there are "multiple owners" rather than just one department, citing there are marketing, e-commerce, and sales components. She added that IT also has a big hand in this. That ranges from just the basics such as a content management system to bigger priorities around security.

"We're all on the hook, and we're all working closely together to work on the same goals," Lewnes emphasized, noting those goals include increasing revenue and boosting subscription numbers.

Thus, Lewnes argued that a "triumvirate" has emerged in which everyone who used to work on social, display advertising and search now all work in one organization. At the same time, she said that IT, e-commerce, and marketing are also converging.

However, Brad Rencher, senior vice president and general manager of digital marketing at Adobe, took a more realistic stance, admitting that marketing and IT are "not all the way together" yet.

Rencher remarked that "dreaded Monday morning meetings" are often forcing these discussions to take place.

"Marketing people don't want to be IT, and IT people don't want to be marketing," Rencher commented. Still, he argued that everyone has to know what each person is responsible for, positing that technology experts now better understand the goals of the brand and business metrics.

One route some companies are taking are blending the two departments together under a single "chief digital officer." But that still might not answer debates about which employees and teams are responsible for (and have control) certain functions.

Narayen suggested that the title of chief digital officer (or anything similar) depends on "what is right for the organization."

His main point was that communication is no longer a "would be nice" sentiment but now a necessity.

The rise of the digital marketing industry

The trio of Adobe executives also briefly discussed where digital marketing is going as an industry, and how the software giant is responding.

Lewnes didn't mince words, arguing that "you can acquire your way into this category," adding that she doesn't think that legacy Silicon Valley giants "don't know anything about marketing."

Much like the brewing social enterprise wars in the last several months involving the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and, strategic acquisitions are playing a big role.

But the Adobe leaders asserted the San Jose-headquartered company's dominance in this particular sector by consolidating and rolling out its Marketing Cloud solutions ahead of the game.

Lewnes, in particular, didn't mince words, arguing that "you can acquire your way into this category," adding that she doesn't think that legacy Silicon Valley giants "don't know anything about marketing."

"IBM and Oracle are IT companies. We're not an IT company," Lewnes declared.

Rencher tried to portray Adobe as different because of its "multi-channel approach," ranging from social media to landing pages to the entire content supply chain. He argued that the other companies entering the digital marketing space don't have that.

Overall, Narayen remained more diplomatic, suggesting that digital marketing is a "multi-billion opportunity," affirming that is attracting more competitors.

As for future acquisitions on Adobe's part, Narayen wouldn't reveal much except saying now that there is the Marketing Cloud platform in place, it would be about "filling out strategy."

More coverage from the 2013 Adobe Summit on ZDNet:

Topics: CXO, Data Management, E-Commerce, IT Priorities, Social Enterprise


Rachel King is a staff writer for CBS Interactive based in San Francisco, covering business and enterprise technology for ZDNet, CNET and SmartPlanet. She has previously worked for The Business Insider,, CNN's San Francisco bureau and the U.S. Department of State. Rachel has also written for, Irish Americ... Full Bio

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