Digital? Everybody’s making it up, says McCann Worldgroup’s CDO


No business function has embraced digital technology as much as marketing in recent years, as the internet and mobile have presented new and exciting ways to drive brand engagement.

This has left the advertising industry facing significant pressure to help brands transform the ways in which they reach and connect with audiences. The only trouble, as McCann Worldgroup’s EMEA chief digital officer Jon Carney readily admits, is nobody has the answers.

McCann Worldgroup holds much credence in marketing circles, with megabrands Nestlé, Mastercard, L’Oréal and Microsoft among their clients. Part of Interpublic Group (IPG), one of the largest holding companies in the advertising industry, its operations span 120 countries.

>See also: The right side of disruption: why digital transformation is the new kingmaker

But even the most qualified innovators have struggled to remain on the right side of digital disruption, which has left a long line of dismantled businesses in its wake. Four in ten incumbent companies will be displaced by digital disruption by 2020, according to the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation.

‘Advertising is at a stage where nobody has the recipe [for digital],’ says Carney. ‘Everybody is making it up. It’s a fascinating space to be in right now.

‘I think we’ve all got over the idea that digital can only be done by specialist agencies with specialist knowledge, and we’re now at a time when digital, mobile and data specialisms are almost redundant because these things only really come into their own when they’re truly integrated.

‘Whether we like it or not, digital experts and the advertising industry all have to move into this new direction where nobody quite really knows what it’s about. We just need to make best sense of all the options before we try it out.’

Arrogance abates

The ‘arrogance’ that the agency will understand the digital landscape more than the client has diminished, says Carney, who admits that he has seen client briefs that have been ahead of McCann’s thinking.

Digital’s biggest challenge is its relentless pace. Back in the dotcom days – when people’s focus was fixed on the likes of Amazon and eBay – savvy experts predicted a time when businesses would be born on mobile technology, but nobody could imagine what they would look like. Ten years later, Uber and Airbnb tore industries apart.

While many businesses still haven’t quite grasped mobile, Carney believes that the mobile era is already finished and being replaced by the connected device era.

‘Let’s say the mobile era lasted six years – Eric Schmidt was on record with “mobile first” back in 2010. We’re now at a stage, and have been for at least 12 months, where on some applications, services and communications it has not been mobile-first but mobile-only.

Data flood

In the connected device era, businesses will have to take all of the learnings from the previous era – around design thinking, systems thinking and user-centred thinking – and add to that the fact that any and all devices can be connected to that consumer.

This will result in businesses building on a much richer playground, with an unprecedented number of data points to contend with.

‘It gives us – as people in various communications and digital businesses – an opportunity to be much better versions of ourselves than we ever were before,’ says Carney. ‘That’s how you embrace each era.

‘The mobile era has been fascinating in terms of how it has liberated people. There have been some great things and new businesses that have come out of that, but there have also been some horrific things.

‘The next era is about understanding the richness of opportunities and the endless limitations of data points. The different ways of telling stories for us is really exciting.’

With a number of large corporations in its roster of clients, McCann has noticed a growing trend of global brands seeking to accelerate their digital transformations by hiring directors of digital, who now influence the outputs, demands and recommendations that they must deal with.

So where does Carney think a chief digital officer and digital team should be placed in an organisation for maximum success?

‘The chief digital officer could be an ongoing strategic adviser on the options and moves that could be made by an organisation,’ he says. ‘So it’s a bit like strategic advising to the board.

‘In addition, that person could be a consultant who helps define strategy and operations around specific challenges and projects.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Carney is keen to pitch chief digital officers as the future leaders of businesses, with a ‘very specific set’ of knowledge and experiences that are increasingly relevant to the environments in which companies operate today.

There is no digital strategy, he says, only strategy in the digital world. And whoever is building strategy needs to be constantly informed about digital developments.

But isn’t digital transformation the job of the chief information officer? It’s a question that continues to cause conflict. Many CIOs feel that the role of a chief digital officer is not only unnecessary, but actively treads on their toes.

>See also: Five ways to reorganise in 2016 and embark on a digital transformation journey

For Carney, however, there is a distinct difference in the roles. The CIO is more ‘naturally operational’, whereas the digital chief is more focused on vision and strategy. ‘There’s kind of an inward-facing and outward-facing distinction there,’ he says.

It’s a common answer in digital circles, and not one that CIOs like to hear. The best CIOs, the most acclaimed will tell you, are those who are both inward and outward facing.

And in a further blow to CIOs, Carney believes that the ‘external vision’ of chief digital officers makes them more likely to move into the bigger seats.

‘Generalist CEOs, which is the majority of CEOs, have great understanding of their clients’ businesses,’ he says. ‘Chief digital officers have a great understanding of the landscapes in which those businesses operate, and I think that’s where the value of the role lies.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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