Jaime Suarez
Aug 27, 2019

The extinction of the chief digital officer

The chief digital officer for a major brand argues that his position ought to be eliminated.

But perhaps not for long.
But perhaps not for long.

In a world where digital is now embedded at the center of virtually every component of business—nay, the center of the world—one might argue that the role of the Chief Digital Officer has surely passed the point of passé!

Notably, during a keynote at a recent global marketing conference in Hong Kong, Ian Rogers of the luxury brands giant LVMH took to the stage to declare that the CDO role was as good as dead, even though the CDO role happens to be his own position at LVMH (Re-affirmation: Its mine, too.)

And, Mr. Rogers isn’t alone.

A headline on the tech news site ZDNet declared a while back that we should prepare to say goodbye to the Digital Chief for good.

Well, all things considered, this is very much a story of having the right person, in the right place, at the right time. There is no one all-defining business operating model, and I personally believe that the end of the need for a CDO is simply a matter of time.

This role should eventually disappear, once digital becomes successfully integrated as a supporting component of the day-to-day ways of doing business.

And, I say this without any bias, because, as with the case of the business transformation of Philip Morris International, I see the CDO role as absolutely necessary, albeit equally, highly time-sensitive.

When I started-up the first PMI Digital Lab in 2015, it was initially a humble project team of less-than 20 people. Since then I have overseen the growth of the Lab, in terms of size and importance, to become what is today a core enabler for PMI’s transformational efforts to be a consumer-centric company.

We are unified by our digital mission, to connect PMI with legal age smokers and stakeholders at scale, in a credible way, to inform about our alternative, smoke-free products and raise awareness of our corporate mission of accomplishing a smoke-free future.

Now, let’s talk about doing business in a digital world, but, with a twist, or “twists” more accurately.

The twists I am referring to are those defined by the environment in which PMI operates; the complexities—regulatory, fiscal, legal, societal, and the skepticism around the transformation from Tobacco Company to one building its future on Science & Innovation, and all this while operating with a reputation seemingly void of consumer-centricity.

The customer journey for our combustible business was transactional. It was about going to the store, buying a pack of cigarettes, and when you finish, you repeat. There were very minimal interactions between our company and adult smokers.

If we think of the pre-digital era, brands like ours were in charge. Having a household name, a staple trust-mark with a century-old heritage was a virtual guarantee of brand positioning and customer loyalty.

The competition used to be primarily with other brands. Today, brands struggle mostly with themselves—to search for their purpose, to create better products, to reinvent, to disrupt and to crack the code and slow the scroll speed of the intended customer.

For PMI, digital is a key enabler for a successful transformation and a sustainable future.

This is why PMI Digital is today providing specialized services to the business, in areas such as data analytics, user experience across all digital channels, search engine optimization, customer relationship management and e-commerce.

Nonetheless, “we don’t know what we don’t know”, so only by efficiently collating data, gleaning it into actionable insights, we can actually shine some light on the unknown, and then make better, more informed business decisions across the entire value chain.

Importantly, digital brings the reality of scale, speed and impact. For me this is key!

Regarding efficiencies, many of our manual processes can now be automated. As an example, in the past we had to do multiple visits to points-of sale via our field force, simply to check the quality of the merchandise display. Now, using digital technology, we can validate whether our products are being properly showcased at the click of a button.

Today, just like any consumer-centric brand, we want to surprise & delight our legal age users by offering seamless experiences. One way we have moved closer to achieving this was by revamping our customer care service via digital channels.

Bottom line, we needed to deliver on what consumers expect! And, this is only made possible by embracing digital technologies.

From my learnings over the past few years, and because of the way in which we have positioned digital as an enabler at PMI, I continually remind everyone that we need to continue challenging anything that is “conventional wisdom”. If we aren’t fully embracing digital to disrupt from within, disruption will come to us!

And finally, when the time comes for the CDO role to disappear at PMI, I will fully embrace this moment with happiness, because it will signal the moment that PMI has become fully digitized.

Jaime Suarez is chief digital officer (for now) at Philip Morris International.

Campaign Asia

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