The Magic and Mayhem of the “Head of Digital” role.

Honest lessons, and 7 things you should know to be a better (and well-defined) one.


Being the Head of Digital in an agency or in a brand organization is a magical job. You’re needed, you’re important, it sounds glamourous, everyone seems to want a piece of you. Heads of Digital are sought after by integrated agencies or brands trying “to be more digital”. They need someone to start up, to champion, to figure digital out, to implement and to assimilate digital into their organisation.

What the Head of Digital really does is what us Chinese like to call “” (Bao1 Shan1 Bao1 Hai3 — cover the mountains and seas). You have to do EVERYTHING, at first anyway. You are the first into the bull pen, you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and take on a few hats. With passion, guts, humour, hard work and perseverance, you have to evangelise, sell in, manage up, manage down, educate everybody, bring in new business, grow current business. At the beginning, you are the digital brand, and the digital brand is you.

No pressure.

The truth is, the Head of Digital job is the most ill-defined job description (JD) on the advertising planet. I say that because every Head of Digital has a slightly different JD. Each agency or client organisation is structured different locally, regionally and globally. Consequently, there is no template to follow, no predecessor or mentor to guide you along specifically. Most of the time when we first start out, we fumble in the dark, it feels like we don’t know what the heck we’re doing. Some Heads of Digital I know leave after a year, through no fault of their own or their management. The reality is that advertising and marketing have to move fast, have to “digitise” like, yesterday, but very few people know how to get organisations there. To top it all off, we not only need to do it for our own organisations, but for our clients too. And the enemy of a Head of Digital, is time. We simply don’t have enough of it to make it work internally, let alone with clients. More often than not, we end up saving the client, but neglecting our own house.

It’s a hard job.

I’ve been nursing this list of tips and anecdotes for current and future Heads of Digital based on my own experience and countless conversations with friends and colleagues in the industry. If you’re looking at a Head of Digital JD, or you are already one, I hope this helps you. I was a Head of Digital for 3 years, it confused and consumed me. But I loved it and wouldn’t trade it for the world. It did take me a while to get to this state of mind.

I hope the list entertains you, inspires you, clears your head. Read it and go into your role with eyes wide open, not with fear but with passion and clarity. If you have any objections, questions, ambitions you’d like to discuss, I’m here.

1. Clarify your areas of jurisdiction and control.

Heads of Digital are meant to make changes, “digitise” the organisation. You will need to shake things up, probably make some people uncomfortable. You are going to need that autonomy to do it, so make sure you get some from your management. Make it your initial mission to discover to whom you should be selling into, how to sell ideas in and when to do it. What you’re gunning for, is clarity. Once you’re clear, you can see the known obstacles in your way (sounds like a song, doesn’t it?), you can see how to circumvent the obstacles. Clarity also focuses you, and enables you to devote time to workstreams that you have control over and can make an impact, and park others where you can’t make much difference for now.

2. Align your KPI’s with your boss and timeline them.

You need to do this almost right away after you discuss the organization’s ambition and vision with your CEO. If you haven’t, do it now. You will also need to translate your CEO’s vision into tangible, actionable chunks of action. You may end up with 7 workstreams you need to achieve in 12 months. Cut that down to aiming to achieve the first 4 in 9 months. Time-lining your KPIs gives you the power over time, making it your slave, not your master.

Again, you’re trying to get clarity between you and the boss, and to get that focus.

Don’t forget to remain adaptable with your KPI’s— you may find that over time, as you discover more about the people and process internally, you may need to re-work your goals or add new ones. Again, be clear, check these in with the boss.

3. Ask to “be in the room”

You need the access to your CEO or MD, and you need to meet regularly both in a formal setting, and outside with a glass of drink in both your hands. Your CEO or MD has the strategy, the forward thinking, and you need to be inspired by him/ her as much as he / she needs your in depth digital expertise and dreams for the bigger digital future. You’re there to make changes, and you need to recognise you can’t do it without your CEO or MD.

As my CEO used to say “Ask. If you don’t ask, you won’t get it.” He’s right, because even our CEO and MD’s are not psychics. They are not going to know what you need to get things going.

4. Find your best friends who are smarter than you, then make them your management team.

You need your gang — those whom have the same vision, the same passion, who will call you out if you suck and be there to catch you when you fall. They are your war buddies. When you’re in the line of fire as a Head of Digital, you’re are going need your buddies in the trenches with you.

Learn to delegate. Your crew are already smarter than you — trust them. Let go and let them do the job you hired them to do. (for this tip and more on how to manage Digital Natives, read my earlier article here)

5. Get ready — you’re going to be wearing 3 other hats that may not fit you perfectly.

Be okay with being a jack of 3 trades and master of management. You’re not going to be the best planner, the best project manager or the best creative. Because you’re the Team Lead, sometimes you have switch hats, jump in to be the Planner, or be the Project Director. But recognise that’s not your core strength — a Head of Digital is the best in people management — clients or your own, and digital operations.

A lot of friends in the digital business are hybrids and usually can tackle most roles thrown at them. It’s because as Digital Natives, we are incredibly adaptable. At the same time, I have seen too much confusion and heartache among us while we stumble through different lines of work, tackling everything and trying to be everyone to help everyone.

My point is — we are all gifted in certain ways, and a Head of Digital has a very specific skillset and is a hybrid. If you love planning, but somehow are staring at a Head of Digital JD, please don’t take the job. You are doing yourself and your future team a great disservice and end up wasting each other’s time. If you love planning, go be an awesome Planner, because you will end up being a mediocre Head of Digital.

6. Don’t stop learning and stay on top of the game.

I’m not saying to learn everything cos you can’t. The point is to find your crew, then delegate that learning. What you need to keep on top of, are market trends that affects your business and your clients on a macro level. My CEO would always have a copy of the Financial Times in his hands when he walked in through the office door at 8am. Knowing him, he would have read it cover-to-cover. Recently I have started to do the same, and I’m ashamed at why it took me this long to realise what those 30 minutes of reading meant to our business.

Be curious, and don’t be okay with just knowing what you know now.

7. Recognize that the measure of your success is when you’re not needed anymore

What most heads of digital and their employers don’t realise or talk about, is that give or take 3 years on, when all your heads of teams are in place, your irrelevance is the ultimate evidence of your success. When I first stepped into this role, I asked a former Head of Digital in another major global hub office for advice. He said his measure of success would be when he (as Head of Digital) became irrelevant. That is so true, as much as it is career limiting.

When your digital team is integrated, when the digital process is integrated, when everyone else stops thinking about digital and start thinking about solving a problem with an agnostic solution with social at its core, or with technology as the enabler, when your client partners don’t need you to step in to explain something “digital” to a client and can do it themselves, you know you’ve done your job.

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