Don Draper teams up with the data centerJuly 19, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Marketers are joining forces with the chief information officer. It's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
By Jessi Hempel, senior writer
FORTUNE -- One of the most consistently popular health apps in Apple's iPhone App Store is iTriage. With more than 6 million downloads, it lets you research and diagnose odd rashes and sore throats, find a nearby doctor, and read about your meds -- and it's brought to you by Aetna (AET). This nifty software is perhaps the most visible example of the Hartford, Conn., health insurer's efforts to reduce visits to the doctor and experiment with new products, in turn bringing down health care costs and bolstering profits. And it owes its existence to an unlikely partnership between Aetna's chief information officer, Michael Mathias, and Robert Mead, the chief marketing officer.
A decade ago this type of collaboration was unthinkable. A company's chief marketing officer developed novel brand campaigns for key customer groups -- in Aetna's case, the employers who subscribe to its plans. Its CIO kept the company's internal computer systems up and running.
But the rules are changing. Billions of people worldwide carry mobile devices, allowing marketers to forge direct relationships with their customers -- but they need digital tools to do so. "The CMO is becoming more of a chief business officer," says Forrester analyst David Cooperstein. "Technology can help to change the relationship with the consumer."
Enter the CIO. When Fortune went looking for successful C-suite alliances for our ongoing Executive Dream Team series, we found CIOs and CMOs increasingly eager to cross-pollinate. In June, IBM (IBM) convened a meeting for these duos to talk about best practices and new ways to work together.
Mead and Mathias were among the role models at the session, in part because they've been collaborating so long. Aetna planted the seed for cooperation between its tech and marketing departments almost a decade ago. It realized it needed to communicate not just with the companies that bought its health plans but also with individuals who were using those plans. Building relationships with consumers was partly about education and prevention, but the insurer also predicted that many people would soon be picking their own health plans.
Initially the most efficient way to reach consumers -- and collect valuable data from them -- was via the web. The company began to buy up online assets, and five years ago CIO Mathias led an infrastructure overhaul, creating one central platform from which any application could access the same information. That allowed Aetna to launch consumer-facing applications like its payment estimator, a web tool that helps users figure out how much a medical procedure will cost. Aetna also made the relationship between its marketing and IT departments official by appointing a strategic adviser to act as a single point of contact between the two organizations, coordinating IT needs.
Mead, the marketing and product executive, and Mathias have grown accustomed to navigating "overlapping and coordinated responsibilities," as Mead explains. Some of this has been formalized in new job descriptions: Mathias supervises the big platforms and the underlying technology to power them. Mead oversees the Aetna Navigator platform, which hosts all the company's web-based applications. But it works so well because the two executives have an easy rapport. They often wander down to the cafeteria together for a quick check-in over lunch.
This relationship allows Aetna to move fast. Two years ago, when Aetna purchased Medicity, a company that helps medical providers gather client information stored in disparate databases, Mathias helped vet the potential acquisition and loaded one of Aetna's most complex apps onto Medicity's platform in just 10 hours.
New digital assets do more for Aetna than straight-up brand building. (In fact, iTriage and Medicity show no signs of Aetna's involvement at all.) They're becoming tools for next-generation health care providers and consumers, and could be used to test new services quickly. A health insurer doing beta testing? Sounds like the product guy and the tech guy are getting along just fine.
This story is from the July 23, 2012 issue of Fortune.