OPINION29 April 2014

Big Data and the rise of the CDO

From an ad market perspective, the timing of Dunnhumby’s acquisition of Sociomantic on the second-to-last day of Advertising Week Europe 2014 was, arguably, gloriously ironic.


Here was Tesco’s data subsidiary snapping up a company with analytical insights on 700 million online shoppers – and the aim now is to combine Sociomantic with Dunnhumby to create an “unprecedented” database of more than a billion consumers. Simon Hay, Dunnhumby’s chief executive, said that the acquisition will allow Tesco to improve its online marketing to offer a better experience for consumers and advertisers.

Meanwhile, across town at Advertising Week, there were widespread rumblings of discontent about Big Data. And it’s perhaps no surprise to discover that some sectors of the marketplace (not least traditional media owners) have decided that it’s time for the backlash to begin.

According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle, when an emerging technological phenomenon reaches the top of the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” this is, in many respects, an important landmark moment – but it also ushers in an interesting (and potentially fraught) new phase of development.

The Peak of Inflated Expectations

It sounds a bit like something from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, doesn’t it? Consequently, you might suspect, the next step could be a descent in the Slough of Despond. And actually, you’d be right. This is pretty much what the Gartner curve promises – though the company prefers to call this dip “The Trough of Disillusionment.”

This concept says more about hype than technology of course – and in the world of perceptions, what goes up tends to come down with a bump. However, if a new tool makes it through this trough, according to Gartner, it has every chance of making a significantly productive impact on the economy at large within five years.

And guess which technological phenomenon is currently perched precariously at the high point of the curve? It will surprise no-one to learn that Big Data crested the Gartner hype peak during 2013.
So… five years? Is Big Data progress really destined to be that slow? And are we, in the data community, bracing ourselves for a tricky period of cynicism and disappointment?

For a start, Gartner’s curve tends to reflect the disillusionment of impatient outsiders, looking in. For those working at the heart of the matter, at the cutting edge of new applications, the journey between expectation and reality is always likely to be an exciting one.

Secondly, there’s every indication that Big Data is already ahead of the curve – and if you seek real-world evidence, look no further than the arrival, in senior management circles, of a new corporate animal – the Chief Data Officer.

“It will surprise no-one to learn that Big Data crested the Gartner hype peak during 2013”

The rise of the CDO

It is a role that barely existed three years ago. Now most companies of any significance are looking to appoint CDOs. There were around 50 CDOs working in the corporate world in 2012, mainly in US companies; by the end of last year, that figure had risen to over 100; and Gartner recently estimated that 25 per cent of the world’s major firms will have appointed a CDO by the end of 2015.

So what exactly does the CDO do? And how does the role relate to other similar acronyms in the corporate alphabet soup: the CIO – chief information officer – and the CTO – chief technology officer?
Well, the CIO has been around since the 1980s and the role tends to focus on IT as it contributes to internal functionality. It’s an enabling role; a systems role. The traditional CIO job can embrace a wide range of responsibilities: source and management of data technology platforms; data protection and security responsibilities; plus significant internal operational, customer and financial reporting requirements.

The CDO’s job, on the other hand, is far more about making use of data and analytics as a front-line strategic resource and a driver of growth. Simply put: the CIO tends to face inwards; the CDO outwards. As such, clearly, the rise of the CDO has high implications for the marketing function, especially in areas where digital advertising strategies draw on an understanding of customer behaviour along the path to purchase.

Under the CDO, sales and marketing data can be fed more seamlessly into budgeting, purchasing and other forms of strategic financial planning.

Unlocking data

And the characteristics of online advertising mean that it is well positioned, compared to other forms of media, to take advantage of the innovation and incremental value that can come from Big Data when it’s successfully unlocked by companies. The need to recognise, at increasing speed, the additional (or even hidden) value in a company’s data and then develop strategies to exploit it, can be too much for many traditional CIOs – leading to bottlenecks, indecision and false starts.

CDOs can more effectively utilise data externally for the benefit of their business, by bringing more specific skill-sets and experience to bear: for instance, an understanding of marketing methods and models; or an entrepreneurial and commercial understanding of data’s value, as well as a feel for its importance to internal processes.

So, yes, this is a trend that we, at Unanimis, welcome. Will CDOs help us all make the best of Big Data? Absolutely they will. You’ll find no hint of hype fatigue here.

Steve Laws is head of data & insights at Unanimis.