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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Media tech bosses talk innovation, disruption, and delivering great experiences

April 4, 2019 | By Erik Martin—Independent Journalist@Martinspired

Media businesses today juggle a lot of C-suite acronyms. When it comes to tech-related execs, there are established staples like the chief information officer (CIO) and chief technology officer (CTO). However, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of the chief digital officer and chief data officer—two titles that share an acronym but can have distinctly divergent duties. Yet all share a common purpose: using technology to aid operations, increase revenue, and outpace the competition.

In the world of digital media, those are some big responsibilities, especially today, when artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networking, and analytics increasingly perform more of the heavy lifting involved in marketing and sales. Folks in these positions are at the forefront of the new technologies and innovations implemented by a media business. Yet they often aren’t the ones you read about, as presidents and CEOs commonly get the lion’s share of quotes and media attention when such matters are reported on.

However, spend just a little time with a CTO or CDO and you quickly get a sense of how stimulating and forward-thinking their jobs are as well as how in tune they have to be with the latest tech trends that will shape and impact companies pushing content for a living. Case in point: Jess Szmajda, Axios’ recently hired CTO, who’s been brought aboard to help the enterprise build its paid product offerings. Szmajda’s got boundless energy and enthusiasm, but she’s also got a lot on her plate.

Business Driven

“I lead Axios’ tech team in building tools and advancing capabilities for Smart Brevity—our innovative storytelling format that gets to the point and tells you what you need to know and why it matters,” says Szmajda, a transgender woman and the first female CTO of a major media company. “From the forward-facing items that our audience interacts with.” These range from “Axios’ infinitely scrolling stream, newsletters, advertisements, or podcast—to our behind-the-scenes efforts, like ensuring user privacy and supporting highly performant responses during traffic surges, our tech team touches almost every part of the company.”

Not every media property is alike, however, which means that the tech chief’s role can vary, depending on the company. Take, for instance, Joe Simon, Vice Media’s recently enlisted CTO.

“My job involves being across and responsible for all technology activities, including business applications, basic and post-production infrastructure, the cloud, all things digital—like websites and apps—and our broadcast and media operations,” says Simon. “The business functions of CTOs can be extremely different. For example, we support post-production and broadcast, while another CTO may work closer with clients and be in charge of developing new technologies.”

Szmajda notes a common misconception about CTOs—that their main objective is to advance technology for technology’s sake.

“What CTOs actually focus on is finding ways to make technology work better for people. One of my personal goals throughout my career has been to try and build technology that enables and enhances human abilities,” she says. “That’s what the tech team and I are focused on as we develop and innovate Axios’ efficient and valuable way of communicating.”

Data that Delivers

A media player’s CDO, on the other hand, often has a wholly different set of duties. Consider Mike Smith, chief data officer for Hearst Magazines. He’s charged with managing strategy and ongoing development of the firm’s digital advertising operations, data capabilities, and ad product offerings; Smith also supervises CDS Global, a Hearst division that delivers outsourced business solutions across various industries.

“We help our advertisers predict their prospective customers so they can better target ads. They give us data and our data scientists study and merge it with our own collective audience data using machine learning models,” Smith explains. “My role is data-centric but in the service of sales and editorial.”

Smith’s challenges include educating the data scientists who work for him about how advertising works and trying to satisfy advertisers who expect the data richness inherent in a Facebook ad.

“Premium publishers need to hire people who can qualify the data better and serve advertisers better when it comes to their media buys,” adds Smith. “The advertiser wants to purchase your display ads but with data informing that buy. The question is, how do you charge for that?”

Disruption and Distribution

Simon, meanwhile, faces down other types of complications.

“The media industry is going through some pretty big and disruptive changes, and Vice is right in the middle of it. Audience tastes and consumption patterns are all changing, and we need to evolve with those changes—all while focusing on current and expected revenue,” he says.

While the obstacles vary by position, there’s one thing all three of these pros can agree on: The job comes with rewarding perks beyond the paycheck.

“I’m very excited about new distribution options, and I’m fascinated by the diverse and evolving consumption options for our audience. These new opportunities give us a chance to change our business model and offer new products,” Simon says.

As for Szmajda, she’s excited about the prospects of pushing her company forward—in more ways than merely technological.

“One of my favorite things about serving as CTO for Axios is the incredible runway I have to build and scale our tech team,” notes Szmajda. “I have always had a people-first mentality and an intense focus on diversity and inclusion in tech. The field is dominated by white, heterosexual men, and many people don’t see people who look like them or identify with them or think like them, making it hard to break into. Through top-notch hiring efforts and community engagement, I’m really excited to build out this team and its culture.”

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