What the Hell Is a Chief Product Officer Anyway?

Why Some Agencies Should Consider Bringing on a CPO

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"Advertising is a product, not a service." The first time I saw that line, it stopped me in my tracks. It was the opposite of much of what I'd been told, but it conveyed a pride and focus I admired. It points you in the direction of building something really useful rather than simply trying to keep people happy. And now, it feels right for an increasingly accountable environment where clients need what they buy from agencies to work well, work quickly, and provide great value for money. Even if it was written quite some time ago, it's a modern mantra.

That's why I agreed to become our agency's first chief product officer. Sure, it's an unusual title. CPOs are usually reserved for outside of the advertising, marketing and branding worlds, but we've adapted it to streamline our organization and focus it on the quality of what we sell, whether it's strategic, creative, technological, or some combination of the three.

Although this is something of an experiment, we believe it's one worth conducting, given how much the marketing world has changed. We are a "brand agency," not a pure communications agency, and companies like ours sell a lot of "product" that doesn't fall into a particular box. Creating a brand story, for example, takes a real mix of strategic and creative skills. Also, the increasing importance of technology has continued to blur lines everywhere. We advise our clients to offer a connected experience. How can we justify this unless we sell a connected product?

We're not advocating that every agency should have a CPO (we rather hope they don't). But several factors point toward the benefits of a connected "product" rather than a separation of strategy and creativity. For example, there is the increasing diversity of client problems, organizations becoming more transparent, the need for speed, and the necessity for project teams to utilize people with different skills. It's commonplace now that those factors demand integrated, flexible teams of people with the right skills working together. What's less common is to have a single person responsible for how that all comes together. Strategy should be alluring as well as intelligent, and creative work logical as well as beautiful. Many agencies strive for this, but a CPO can be a different way to achieve that goal.

In addition, our product is evolving and needs to keep doing so. Part of this job is to identify the specific things the agency could do to improve and evolve, whether it's new people, techniques, services, or ways of generating insights. Those ideas will come from throughout the company -- the CPO is just the focal point.

All of this shouldn't just be about process or functions, but about a universal attitude. A product community will have creative and strategic people at its core, but it includes everyone in the company, from finance to client service to IT. All their decisions, to a greater or lesser extent, affect the product.

We're not a tech company, a clothing brand, or even an advertising agency but, as the amount of overlap in these spaces increases, we still need pride in the product we produce. And for us, having this role signals a desire to make a special product, one that will deliver for our clients and attract people to come work with us. In a time of industry uncertainty, we see it as a good way to defend against competition and even commoditization. The more connected an agency is as a business, the stronger its offering will become.

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