5 Questions With… Scott Brinker

Scott Brinker is co-founder, president and CTO of ion interactive, one of the leading providers of post-click marketing software for advanced landing page management and optimization. He also runs his own website which covers marketing technology and how it is changing marketing strategy, management and culture.

Question 1: How do you define “digital strategy”?

“To riff on Clive Sirkin, the CMO of Kimberly-Clark, we shouldn’t be thinking of digital strategy, but rather strategy in a digital world.

Digital channels have moved from the periphery of an organization’s relationship with its prospects and customers to the very center. Customers care if their experience with us is good or bad. They don’t segment their impression of our brand into silos. If an airline’s website makes it frustrating to book a flight, that’s as bad — or worse — than surly fight attendants.

Think of the Obamacare website debacle. Independent of the merits or demerits of the Affordable Care Act, the poor digital experience of the launch had a terrible impact on public perception of the program. ‘If the website is this bad, how bad will the rest of the experience be?’ You don’t want your customers asking that question.

So to me, digital strategy is strategy in a digital world. What do our customers want? How can we deliver that to them better than the competition? The only reason to emphasize the ‘digital’ component of that at all is the recognition that digital technology is deeply entwined in the answers to those questions. You can’t do strategy independent of the technology that impacts your environment and your capabilities.”

Question 2: You’ve been talking about the intersection of marketing and technology now for years — what do you think about the recent so-called “rise of the chief digital officer”?

“As an agent of change, I think a chief digital officer is a brilliant idea. Digital has thoroughly disrupted the interface between organizations and their audiences, and for larger companies, it’s very hard to digest all that disruption into their existing structure at the speed at which the market is moving.

Appointing a chief digital officer, independent of the existing marketing and IT organizations, can provide freedom from the past. A new digital organization can grow without the constraints of traditional marketing or IT processes. A good CDO will certainly coordinate with their CIO and CMO counterparts, but they don’t have to wait for consensus to make things happen. It’s analogous to Clayton Christensen’s solution to the innovator’s dilemma.

The challenge, however, is deciding how these roles should converge back into a unified organization. As we discussed above with strategy, it’s not feasible to treat ‘digital’ as something that’s independent of rest of marketing and IT. Once a CDO has created a successful digital organization, how does that get integrated into the rest of the firm’s holistic approach to products and customers and brand?

Different organizations will find different structures that work for them in that convergence. I don’t believe that one size fits all. However, in most scenarios I believe that either the CDO should become the CMO or the CDO should report to the CMO — kind of like a chief marketing technologist role. Treating them as separate equal executive positions for the foreseeable future strikes me as a recipe for brand schizophrenia.”

Question 3: The very existence of a CDO at a company creates conflict among the CDO, CMO, and CIO. Any advice for CEOs who have to manage this troika?

“Again, as an agent of change, I think some conflict from having a CDO in the executive mix is a good thing. While it may not be a comfortable experience for the previous executive regime, the hard truth is that in the face of this digital revolution, companies need to adapt or die. They have to be willing to break old patterns of thinking and question their entrenched behaviors and politics. A powerful CDO is a terrific elixir for accelerated evolution. But it can be a bitter elixir to swallow.

I think a good CEO will expect this, but will seek to keep the fire under control by establishing clear ground rules for the responsibilities of each role and the expectations of what will happen at the intersections. There are going to be hard calls that won’t necessarily be decided between the CDO, CMO, and CIO of their own accord, and the CEO needs to be ready for those and unequivocal in his or her decisions.

Finally, the CEO should have a plan for unifying the organization down the road. That plan may develop over time, and he or she may not want to reveal it too early. But only the CEO can bring balance to the force.”

Question 4: What kind of mobile device(s) do you have, and what are your favorite apps?

“I’m currently in the Apple camp, with an iPhone 5s, a 3rd-generation iPad, and an aging MacBookPro. That being said, I’m pretty impressed with many of the Android devices out there, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I jumped to the other side. I think it’s good to try new things. I’ve played a bit with Google Glass and the Pebble watch too. I don’t like them enough to wear them on a regular basis, but I’m intrigued by what they foreshadow.

I actually love great app-like mobile web experiences. For many companies, I want to interact with them on my mobile device on a more on-demand basis. I don’t necessarily want a native app relationship with them. That being said, I absolutely love the Fifty-Three Paper app on the iPad, especially with their new Pencil stylus. It’s been an incredibly inspiring tool for a non-artist like myself to express ideas visually.”

Question 5: What advice do you have for aspiring digital professionals?

“Keep learning and experimenting with an open mind. The ability to keep pace with change in this industry is the most valuable skill you can have. Of course, the real value is being able to fluidly map technological innovations into effective business capabilities. I favor an 80/20 rule: 80% of your effort and investment directed towards what’s proven to be effective today, and 20% of your time exploring new possibilities before they’re necessarily ready for prime time.”


For more information about Scott Brinker, visit his personal website and follow him on Twitter (@chiefmartec).

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