Bringing Together the CMO and CTO

With consumer adoption of digital technologies forcing marketers and technologists to change the experiences they create for customers, both functions need to change and absorb a little of the other’s language. In this article, Razorfish provides a roadmap for not only how organizations can effectively align IT with business and marketing needs, but also how marketers can better bridge organizations.

“By 2017, the CMO will spend more on IT than the CIO.” This stunning forecast by a Gartner analyst confirms everything we know about the changes washing over a marketing world that’s rapidly going digital. From 2009 to 2010 alone, digital marketing grew by almost 7 percent, while traditional marketing decreased by almost 9 percent. We know how this shift has impacted agencies and media companies, but there’s been much less focus on what it means for the roles and responsibilities of the C-level executives charged with determining the strategy and overseeing budgets for marketing and information technology. A few years back, these were considered distinct roles. But not anymore. Now there’s a lot more IT for the CMO to allocate budget for, just as there are a lot more marketing decisions for CTO/CIOs to be involved in. Organizations need to focus on how these key officers, who often have reductive and stereotypical views of each other, can come together.

Digital marketing is what connects CMOs and CTO/CIOs. It’s no wonder that massive systems integrators (SIs) like Accenture and IBM are working hard to determine how to please marketing organizations — even harder than they worked in the past to please enterprise technology organizations. Not only is consumer adoption of digital technologies forcing marketers and technologists to change the experiences they create for customers, it’s also providing an unprecedented opportunity to target and customize digital and physical experiences. The Razorfish 5 article covering ubiquitous computing examines how every human interaction in the physical world can be digitized. And once it’s digitized, the ways we can track and connect are limitless, resulting in huge amounts of data.

Consider some of the biggest trends marketers now face: Big Data that’s increasingly driving decision making and consumer insight; algorithms that, in real-time, tell us what’s working and what’s not; and cloud computing, enabling faster and cheaper deployment. These trends have not historically been part of the marketing vocabulary. Similarly, IT isn’t used to focusing on consumer response and feedback, creativity or brand. But in order to thrive, both functions need to change and absorb a little of the other’s language. What follows is a roadmap to get there.

How does IT have to change to become the CMO's best friend? 

To bridge the gap, IT will have to make significant changes, which lean organization principles can help us better understand. We've been particularly inspired by the book, Scaling Lean & Agile Development by Craig Larman and Bas Vodde. It's a great blueprint for aligning IT with business and marketing needs, while empowering those teams through training and leadership. In many cases, this may take years. In others, Vodde says, it may take a decade. But many companies are already implementing these changes. Those that aren’t, risk being disintermediated.[1]

There are a couple key principles that organizations can integrate to effectively align IT with business and marketing needs:

Refocus all teams around consumer-facing priorities. In product management terms, this means taking your to-do lists and making sure they always circle back to consumer needs. For example, if your IT organization has a backlog called “CMS” that drives the creation of CMS features, throw it out. If that means moving changes across many smaller consumer-facing backlogs as well, then do it. This might entail changing a CMS backlog into a “build your own vehicle” backlog of features, empowering all your technologists to make changes, rather than just one small group of people. These adjustments require training, so certain tasks will take longer to perform while people get up to speed. However, business doesn't have to wait until the small group of CMS specialists is available. So, no more queues. This is where organizations like traditional systems integrators get it wrong. Large SIs and organizations think they are optimizing their staffing mix by only allowing expensive specialists to make certain changes. But what they are really creating is a small group of specialists that everyone has to wait for. No matter how many people you throw at the challenge, it'll still take longer than you want. 

Break the work into smaller batches before you release to the public. Lean organizations divide work into smaller chunks because they recognize that more manageable morsels enable learning and optimization. Smaller batches can allow for dozens of learning and improvement sessions through project lifecycles, whereas projects that try to do it all at once make learning impossible until the final review. By then, it's too late. You might have gone through the whole project with faulty estimates and without once changing priorities. Small batches drive incremental growth across organizations. By breaking long-running work efforts into smaller ones, we can release new software-driven innovation to clients incrementally, as opposed to one big annual release.

Shrink your teams. This is in order to match the smaller batch sizes just described. For years, organizations like the Standish Group have told us that projects more than $5-10 million have no chance of being delivered on time, on budget or meeting expectations. However, large SIs have convinced organizations they need larger teams, mostly because they aren't following the points above. Principles like smaller batch sizes will help bridge the marketing and technology gap because businesses can then drive priorities before projects get off track.

How does marketing have to change to become the CTO/CIO’s best friend?

To survive in the current economic climate, with reduced budgets, enterprises have to break down previously held beliefs and system processes. This is a fundamental change and requires both the CMO and CTO/CIOs to have complete buy-in. The CEO must also get involved if it’s really going to work. There’s enough on this subject to fill a book — and Razorfish Chairman Clark Kokich has written Do or Die, a book that covers this very topic. Below are a couple key changes we recommend for marketers in order to better bridge organizations.

Start thinking like product managers. This includes continually staying involved with digital experiences. Up until now, CMOs have lived in campaign-based worlds where image and advertisements are king. Digital, on the other hand, requires a wholly different mindset. When you launch a digital experience, that's when the work begins. It's critical that CMOs learn how to launch with less, and use real world feedback and analytics to shape priorities. Consumers are a big part of this process and they need to be heard. If the CMO isn’t listening — both directly via digital one-to-one channels like social, and indirectly via Big Data insights — someone else will.

Stop thinking in terms of old stereotypes. The classic stereotype of IT is the harried, grumpy geek you only call upon when something is broken. That generalization needs to be dropped, as does the habit of only calling on creative when a visual problem presents itself. IT is now a strategic and creative function that transcends mere troubleshooting, and IT and marketing need to start talking to each other more, in places other than just the boardroom. True change will happen through both informal and formal conversations.

Accept and include both teams. A way to do this, in organizations where the CMO and the CTO/CIO are working very closely, is to expand the ideation process to include staff from IT. At that point it’s crucial for both IT and marketing to take the time to explain to one another what it is they do.

Consider different funding models. Break down silos, set up joint investment funds and embrace failure — then learn from it and move on. This is very important because enterprises aren’t set up to do this. Instead they’re structured around budgets allocated to projects with set outcomes or deliverables. Adhering to those structures defines success or failure, so get buy-in from the CEO and accept that some projects will lead to a dead end. Allow failure, gather feedback quickly, test and learn, and do it together.

Create small teams of talented individuals that are cross-functional. One challenge for large organizations is physical proximity. Often times, departments are not only in different buildings, but also in different states. Consider centralizing departments in the same location. This could mean reviewing HR processes and practices, as well as redefining the role of your team within your organization. This echoes our recommendations to the CTO/CIO: small teams perform well and have a higher statistical chance of success.

Above all, learn each other’s languages and, in this time of austerity, learn the common language of finance and ROI. Be clear in your goals, articulate them across both groups, and be honest and open with each other.

How do agencies and systems integrators need to change?

If everything we do is digital, we need partners who can help clients manage the omnichannel digital experience. Digital natives know this and have always tried to bridge the divide. From the beginning, they forced the creative lead to sit next to the technology lead.

Systems integrators already represent the CTO/CIO, and are now trying to get closer to CMOs. They’ve been confident and secure — happy to deliver technology with a simple nod to the end user. They are partners with extensive technology and UX skills and demonstrable experience, and they see the writing on the wall. When Sapient acquired Nitro Group in 2009, they wanted to create an agency with a digital core, not a conventional business with a digital add-on. So they created SapientNitro and kept the rest of the business, Sapient Interactive, intact. Around the same time we also saw the creation of Accenture Interactive. Adding marketing and creative to traditional systems integration are the right moves. But getting huge organizations like the traditional systems integrators to understand and appeal to the unique challenges in marketing will be a challenge.

Agencies seem to be a little less aggressive, but are still adding CTO/CIO capabilities to their organizations. As mentioned above, systems integrators are working to meet CMO requirements, perhaps because there’s more urgency. Brian Walker at Forrester put it well, when Ascentium, a digital agency, purchased Cactus Commerce, a commerce systems integrator:

“[The deal] marks the beginning of something we will see more of in the near future — the combining of agency and integrator to become commerce solution providers.”[2]

Agencies are no different from their clients. They need to create a seat at the table for technologists to help mold and drive strategy, and build transactional elements into new world digital marketing experiences.

It’s an exciting new digital world for marketing and technology organizations. Great insights and great execution will come from increased respect and collaboration in the new multi-disciplinary world.

Is the CMO vs. CTO debate in your company a distraction? Contact Razorfish Global CTO Ray Velez to learn more about the Razorfish Agile offering, which can help C-level executives develop products and services faster and more efficiently.



  1. ˆ Craig Larman and Bas Vodde, Scaling Lean & Agile Development: Thinking and Organizational Tools for Large-Scale Scrum, Pearson Education, Inc., 2009.
  2. ˆ Brian Walker, Ascentium, Cactus Commerce, and the Evolution of Commerce Systems Integrators & Agencies, Forrester, September 6, 2011.

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