Not everyone, however, is convinced Bob Lord's hiring foreshadows a head-first dive into ad tech.
"IBM has shown little appetite for ad tech so far, other than as a partner," said Gartner research VP Martin Kihn. "I would doubt this move signals IBM is getting more serious about ad tech."
Regardless of what exactly the hiring means for IBM's future in ad tech, Lord is highly respected within that community.
"Having worked closely with Bob at AOL, I have seen his strong vision and strategic skills," said Wendy MacGregor, chief revenue officer at ad tech firm Turn, which partners with IBM. "He led important parts of the AOL transformation at a critical time."
Joe Zawadzki, CEO of ad tech firm MediaMath (which also partners with IBM) lauded the move and said, "I’m looking forward to seeing, and being part of, IBM's resurgence in digital marketing.”
As part of that resurgence, IBM might be looking to better position its marketing cloud and analytics platform against Adobe and Oracle. After all, Kihn noted, Lord was a platform builder at AOL. "Bob Lord’s hiring is a sign that IBM recognizes the growing role of the CMO and the marketing buyer in big-budget tech decisions," he said.
Constellation Research principle analyst Ray Wang also elaborated on IBM's evolution: "IBM is in a business model shift from product and services to experiences and insights," he explained. "Bob's experience with ad platforms is a great foundation for a CDO helping IBM make that transition. Bob's Razorfish pedigree also means he gets design and technology helping to foster a culture of digital artisans."
In many ways, IBM is already well on course toward building that culture. Its in-house digital agency Interactive Experience (iX) became highly acquisitive this year, and its buys include commerce specialist Ecx.io, brand-building firm Resource/Ammirati and design agency Aperto. IBM iX also recently bought Salesforce.com consultant Bluewolf.
"Bob has deep experience on the agency, publisher and technology sides and it shows," Turn's MacGregor said. "As we’ve seen, and IBM is clearly responding to this, customers are looking for partners with marketing and tech capabilities."
David Kenny joined IBM only last fall through the acquisition of The Weather Company, where he was CEO. The Weather Company's media assets were widely understood to be of secondary value compared to its data assets. Kenny is general manager of IBM's artificial intelligence platform Watson.
"We acquired The Weather Company not because we wanted a weather app," Chris Wong, an executive in IBM Commerce Marketing Solutions, said at AdExchanger Industry Preview conference in January. "We acquired the Weather Company because we knew there’s incredible data that can be gathered and used – especially with our Watson capability – around things like weather [and location]."
Bob Lord clearly understands the value of location data, having had a front-row seat at Verizon's attempts to activate its valuable mobile subscriber data – including location – within the paid media ecosystem. That opportunity was seen as a primary driver of Verizon's $4.4 billion acquisition of AOL.
Still, the hire is likely to come as a surprise to many who expected Lord to turn up as CEO of a public company. Lord himself told the Wall Street Journal that was the plan back in November, when he left AOL.
"That’s my sweet spot," he said of the CEO goal. "That’s what I really want to do."
Kelly Liyakasa and Ryan Joe contributed.