NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's a good time to be a "chief digital officer," or at least play one inside a media organization. After a brief heyday mid-decade, the concept of the CDO seemed to be in decline as the job of distributing old media -- TV, magazines, radio -- in digital platforms reverted to the heads of those business themselves.
But judging from the number of recruiters seeking names to fill such a title, the position is making a comeback. Time Inc. recently opened a search for a chief digital officer -- its first -- after former Meredith exec Jack Griffin was named CEO in August. Gannett and Clear Channel are still trying to fill their chief digital officer roles after several months of searching. Wenner Media, which hired its first chief digital officer in 2008, is also said to be recruiting, according to two people who've been approached for the job.
The role of the chief digital officer has evolved significantly since the position first cropped up on corporate organization charts. The first mention of the role in Advertising Age was when Jason Hirschhorn was named chief digital officer of MTV Networks in 2005. Hirschhorn said he suggested the title during contract negotiations with MTV CEO Judy McGrath, who didn't want to make Mr. Hirshhorn president.
"I suggested 'chief digital officer,' and she said, 'I love it,'" he said. "It's what you get when you don't get 'president.'"
George Kliavkoff was named to the same position at NBC Universal the following year. But now both MTV and NBC, not to mention Time Warner, are doing without the role.
For a while, the job was a glorified consulting gig; it involved a lot of hand-holding as media attempted to adapt to interactive platforms. Or, as Quincy Smith, an investment banker who filled the role at CBS, used to joke, fixing the boss's BlackBerry.
Still, there remains a split between those who have real operational authority and those whose job is to make their home on the bleeding edge of tech and media. Both are valid roles for a CDO. "When you're operating, you're not necessarily innovating," Mr. Hirschhorn said.
The realization now is that media itself -- even fully realized on phones, iPads or net-connected TVs -- is not a growth business. And growing will mean building or acquiring new businesses that may or may not have any connection to the media brands or formats of the past.
"The role now is morphing into a person who manages the standalone digital businesses," said Michael Wolf, former chief operating officer of MTV Networks and now founder of Activate, a management consulting firm. "The role of somebody who is in charge of infusing digital into the everyday business is less necessary."
A good example of this is Jonathan Miller at News Corp., who oversees MySpace, IGN and Rupert Murdoch's upcoming tablet-based newspaper. Mr. Kliavkoff, who oversaw an early version of Hulu within NBC Universal, is now building new businesses for Hearst like Manilla, a system for organizing online accounts and subscriptions, reporting to Scott Sassa, president of distribution and entertainment.
Similarly, Time Inc.'s chief digital officer won't have oversight of the digital versions of magazines or the digital sales team. Rather, the job is to find new revenue opportunities in digital and to oversee digital strategies for Time Inc. on a global basis.
The job at Clear Channel is replacing Evan Harrison , who announced his departure and is leaving at the end of the year; sources with knowledge say the expectation is to the hire someone who will have a vision for expanding Clear Channel's national businesses, like iheartradio, and inventing new ones. Clear Channel's newest investor and now chairman, MTV cofounder Bob Pittman, will be involved in the recruitment and selection.
Gannett's chief digital officer will likely only have oversight of its digital-only businesses, such as Pointroll, Shoplocal and Ripple6, not the digital operations of TV or newspapers, and not CareerBuilder, a joint venture with Tribune, McClatchy and Microsoft.
A spokesperson for Wenner declined to comment, but people familiar with the situation say the role is a new one at the organization, for a "visionary thinker" to help move the company in a more digital direction. Current Chief Digital Officer Steven Schwartz may move to another role within the company.
Appointing a chief digital officer can signal a company is behind, or that there is disagreement internally over strategy. Or, it can simply signal that an executive is needed to think constantly about the future without day-to-day operational responsibilities.
The faster technology moves, the faster things go from exotic to just the standard way of doing business. Ultimately, these digital businesses need operators that can make them grow, as well as those that can identify opportunities that may be years from bearing fruit.
"If you are not classically trained in the oeuvre of fast tech development, the real tasks of engineering, that's a hard thing to assimilate if you have been in the world of traditional media," said Patrick Keane, former CEO of Associated Content and a digital exec within CBS. "These are multibillion-dollar businesses, not science projects. They need people who are native to that industry and have that experience."