Chief digital officers land at Big Pharma—cue tech transformations, test innovations, corner offices

What’s in a title? In the case of chief digital officers, it's a trend. The transformative tech value-generators are all the rage these days, and the pharma industry is no exception. Tasked with bringing pharma into a new era, chief digital officers are joining drugmakers at rapid rates. Just in the past year, Pfizer and Merck named CDOs for the first time, following Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline's similar hires in 2017.

The pharmas are looking to jump ahead in digital—or at least catch up to consumer companies—by transforming traditional business practices and marketing. And in many cases, they’re raiding consumer companies to do it. Merck picked up its digital lead Jim Scholefield from Nike. GSK went for two, tapping former Walmart executive Karenann Terrell as chief digital and technology officer and former Google and L’Oreal exec Marc Speichert as chief digital officer of its consumer unit. Novartis’ Bertrand Bodson came from U.K. online retailer Sainsbury's Argos, and before that he held roles at EMI Music and Amazon.

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So why CDOs—and why “outsiders"? Traditional chief information officers have handled the technology end of pharma companies for decades. But chief digital officers have a distinctive change-agent vibe. Drugmakers realize that just developing medicines and using technology isn’t enough for today’s healthcare market. They need to deliver digital lifestyle solutions. And to do that, they need big data and analytics integration—and fresh perspective.

“When I started in this business, the person in charge of digital would be in the basement with the mainframes and the chief marketing officer was on the top floor with the cushy carpet,” said Jamie Peck, managing director at Indegene’s new digital agency iON. “But now digital has moved to the top floor too. The digital and marketing heads now need to work hand-in-hand—and with the rest of the executive team.”

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In 2019, expect even more pharma companies to name digital chiefs and likely give them more responsibilities. For a glimpse of what those tasks might be, just take a look at current buzzwords. The pharma CDO of the future will likely oversee emerging tech such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital voice assistants, and internet of things integrations as well as mobile and virtual reality.

Expect the job to evolve, too. But no matter how the title grows or changes at individual pharma companies, the role is here to stay. Digital innovation to better serve patients, doctors and other stakeholders is key to pharma's future, so CDOs are going up. And make that the top floor, please.