It’s Ad:Tech time, and once again it has me pondering the role of our most important business leaders and whether they are ‘digital enough’ to take Australia on the journey to becoming a world leading digital economy.
This year, Ad:Tech will see roughly 3,000 people venture through its doors over two days, each person searching for insight into the what the digital future holds from 80-odd industry experts… But, as I write, not a single CEO from a major Australian brand will be attending (based on tickets sold to date). This is unlike Ad:Tech in the UK and USA where a rising number of big brand CEOs attend, presumably because leadership has taken more upon itself to understand the digital dragon that can either destroy or reinvent a business.
It’s interesting that Ad:Tech and other proven forums for learning digital are so poorly attended by our own nation’s CEOs, especially when you think about the fussing, moaning and finger pointing that has gone on this past year about ‘online’- particularly from major retailers. It’s a brave CEO who would claim digital is not significant in their business, so I can’t help wonder why we don’t see more of them attend Ad:Tech – or other similar industry events – if it is as important as they allude.
So what’s going on? Perhaps the answer is that they have a team of experts to advise them on such matters and have it all delegated. It’s the CTO’s job, right? Some might argue that a CEO doesn’t even need to understand digital to do their job properly… I will beg to offer you a different opinion on that one.
Cutting to the simple truth: the vast majority of top Australian CEOs are usually among the ‘least-digital’ employees in their respective businesses. I don’t say that to offend the nation’s CEOs. I’m merely stating what they already know well themselves. They aren’t digital natives and they don’t pretend to be. Of course the problem is that the gap between the more traditional CEOs and a growing audience of digital natives is continuing to widen and, more importantly, so is the influence of digital on the bottom line.
The real problem is that this gap can affect critical decision making within businesses. No matter how smart the CEO’s assembled digital team might be, there comes a point when cheques need to be signed (analogue pun intended) by the boss. Although successful CEOs of bygone years have developed acute business instincts to get to the top job, they do not have the same hands-on experience to draw on when it comes to digital. No matter how good their team is and how amazing the digital idea or proposal, our hard-wired brains do not answer “yes” very easily to things we don’t fully understand. The easier and safer answer becomes “no” and as a result the innovation opportunity is missed (and in some cases the door is left wide open for competitors).
We are left in a holding pattern of doing things the same old way. Haven’t we already learned that in this day and age doing nothing (to save a buck) can be a more damaging than doing something and failing?
I don’t want to believe that Australia is digitally lagging 18 months behind the USA and UK like we are often told, but the truth is that we are well behind our counterparts, both on innovation and relative spend. Sadly, I think much of this problem stems from a lack of vision and understanding of digital at the top level. As it stands, there are a few small pockets of good digital thinkers at CEO level, but the vast majority are not – and some are just an embarrassment. The next five years will be the true test, as we head into a period of accelerated change and technology such as NFC brings about a paradigm change in consumer behaviour. CEOs have to embrace a digital world before their growing number of digital savvy shareholders call them out.
I’d like to see our country prosper and move forwards much faster than it currently is. We have the talent here and I’d like to see more of a pioneer spirit from our leading CEOs. It would help the rest of us believe they are taking action by seeing them openly getting their hands dirty like their counterparts in the UK and US do.
Regardless of titles, none of us can afford to stop learning about an environment that is changing each day. I’ve spoken before about the gaping void in digital education, but there’s still enough good training around for present day C-level execs to pick up the pace. Right now they are well behind. The more digital they become today, the faster we all win.
Iain McDonald, chief creative officer and founder of Amnesia Razorfish and chairman of Ad:Tech Sydney.
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