A glimpse of the future – what’s next for B2B marketing?

The Business Marketing Club recently hosted a debate on the future of marketing. At a boutique hotel overlooking London’s Natural History Museum, 40 B2B client-side and agency-side marketers discussed what’s next for our profession. Ahead of the debate, a fellow B2B marketer – my pal, the brilliant Gemma Davies (Director of Global ABM Strategy at ServiceNow – named Forbes’ Most Innovative Company of 2018) – and I were each asked to share our opinions on where we think things are going. This is a summary of some of the potentially-punchy things I had to say…

Given that debates are always more fun where there is a bit of disaccord, I’ll try to offer some consciously provocative perspectives. It’ll take about 5-10 minutes, during which I’ll give some modern marketing rhetoric a bit of a hard time. Please just hear me out until the end before throwing things at me – I hope my response to the question ‘what’s next for marketing’ is a measured one.

A dastardly murder

So, to begin, I’m a self-confessed Agatha Christie fan. In one of her seminal masterpieces, Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha’s renowned detective – Hercule Poirot – must try and solve the dastardly murder of a travelling American businessman – Samuel Edward Ratchett. At the end of the film, the murder investigation over, Hercule theatrically convenes the passengers of the Orient Express to reveal who the evil murderer is. But, mon dieu!, Hercule Poirot – the world’s greatest detective – confesses to being unsure who the murderer is. He presents two possible scenarios… one simple, obvious option – and one infinitely more complex and subversive option.

I’m no Hercule Poirot, but I too can see two possible scenarios for what is next for marketing. I too can foresee one simple, obvious option – and one infinitely more unpalatable and subversive scenario. I’ll present each scenario to you, and will leave it to you – the jury and the adjudged – to decide which scenario you feel is likeliest. To decide your own marketing fates.

Scenario 1: the robot, with the lead pipe, in the Boardroom

To start with the first scenario… the answer to ‘what’s next for marketing?’ is, simply, that I can see us continuing as we are. That nothing is going to change for a while.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that, behind the scenes, most of us will continue to do the unsexy, uncelebrated things that seem to work. Things like email marketing, LinkedIn marketing and event marketing. Things that don’t make the headlines but that, I suspect, consume much of our collective tactical lives. And we’ll continue to do those things to grind results out, one year, one quarter and one month at a time.

But of course, in addition to those things, we will also continue inexorably along the data-driven path we are all currently on. We’ll continue – probably at an increasing rate – with our unstoppable focus on precision targeting, progammatic advertising, ABM, personalisation, performance optimisation, marketing technology, AI and all of the other shiny, new, digital-first toys.

That, I believe, is the simple, obvious candidate for what’s next in marketing. Obvious because it’s always the easiest option to stay as you are – not to change. Obvious also because we’re are getting some level of immediate tactical response or results from those toys. They are easily measurable. So we can easily prove our worth and keep our jobs. (And they look great on our CVs too, so we can probably get new jobs if mess up the current one).

Looking at it a different way – who wouldn’t want to optimise? Who wouldn’t consider data about what prospects are and aren’t clicking on? Who wouldn’t want to focus our resources on the hottest prospects? I know that I, for one, intend to keep on doing those things (within the confines of GDPR, of course!). I think it would be madness not to consider them.

And so that, again I suspect, it the likeliest, simplest answer to our mystery of what happens next in marketing. We will continue on the path we’re already on. Mystery over. Murder solved.

Or is it? Dun dun DUUUNNNNNNNNNNNN!

Is our digital-first, scenario-1 flawed?

This is the point in Murder on the Orient Express where Hercule pauses for effect. There is a dramatic close-up of him as he stares at the protagonists – a murderer possibly sitting among them. Cue some chilling sound effects and atmospherically flickering lights.

Note that I said that scenario 1 was the likeliest, simplest way forward. I didn’t say it’s the right way forward. I mentioned at the start that there are two possible scenarios for our mystery. The second answer is more difficult – more complex – more challenging…

Before I reveal the second possible answer to ‘what’s next for marketing?‘, let’s take a fresh look at some different perspectives and evidence that may highlight holes in the first scenario. Let’s take a look at some of the things that have started to go wrong as we follow the current path. I present 7 brief hypotheses or questions to ponder. [This is the bit where I consciously set out to provoke you, in the spirit of fuelling debate]…

1. A tidal wave of nonsense

I – and I suspect many of you – have known something has been up in B2B marketing for quite a while. There have been worrying signs and suspicious shenanigans for quite some time. Take, for example, the spurious advice (aka speculation) extolled by various gurus over the years that us B2B marketers should each have a snapchat strategy. Or a periscope, vine, 3D printing, virtual reality, QR code or voice activation strategy. The icing on that cake was this ‘top tools, tips and tricks’ list I received last year from a highly reputable B2B social media platform, which described what was hot (or not) in B2B marketing…

linkedin-graphic.png

Despite including some serious topics (eg long-form content), it clearly had a tongue-in-cheek side to it. But even so – emoji, Simon Cowell, fidgit spinners, Love Island, corporate yoga and smarketing?!!! Oh dear, oh dear. What nonsense. (Nonsense that I will return to shortly).

I may poke fun at it, but at least the above list is obvious madness. Madness that masks a darker, hidden truth…

2. We’re getting sold to

It can’t have gone unnoticed to fellow B2B marketers that, in among the niche nonsense, we’ve been inundated in particular with a constant deluge of more earnest, glowing stories and advice. Advice about the importance of ABM, AI, marketing automation, precision-targeting, marketing technology and the like. ‘What’s wrong with that?’, you may ask. Well of course you realise that the version of the world where AI, ABM, marketing automation and the like are critical to our success are versions of the world created by people that sell those products?

It all reminds me of the Don Draper quote from MadMen – “what you call love was invented like guys like me… to sell nylons”. Here’s our B2B version of that… “what you call modern marketing was invited by some tech and agency CEOs somewhere… to sell cloud solutions”.

We need to admit it to ourselves – we are all getting sold to. Us lot – marketers – are personas on a martech company’s marketing plan. We’ve all bitten into other peoples’ marketing campaigns – which may go to prove you can, in fact, bullshit a bullshitter.

We can’t and musn’t knock ourselves about falling for that stuff – it’s just part of the essential fabric of being human. We are, as a species, susceptible to all sorts of psychological phenomena with names like the availability heuristic and herd mentality. We are influenced by the crowd. We tend to attach undue attention to things that are in the spotlight. Surrounded by endless stories across all forms of media about AI, ABM and the like, we believe them to be true. And so we buy into them, not necessarily because they’re the right things for our respective businesses – but perhaps because of fear of missing out.

3. What about differentiation?

Looking at a different issue, what happens when all of us have access to the same tech, nearly identical click data, and we all have the same brand purpose? Where is the source of competitive advantage then?

There is a risk that we become so obsessed with data, technology and short-term tactical promotion, that we confuse them with having a long-term strategy to be distinctive, to grow market share and to win. Data, tech and short-term sales activation convey competitive advantage for a short period for early adopters, but that advantage may not continue in perpetuity. Data and tech in isolation have never been the answer – and they never will. As the co-founder of Wistia – Chris Savage – once said “When we all have access to the same data, it won’t be the data that differentiates us, it’ll be the art.

4. The perils of short-termism

There is a further side effect of endless focus on optimisation and instant measurement – it leads to focusing on things that generate instant gratification. “I improved this click-thru rate by 3%” or “I improved that conversion rate by 4%,” for example. And there is nothing wrong with that – but only up to a point. As I said before, who wouldn’t optimise? If it was good enough for our marketing grandfathers and grandmothers to A/B test direct response coupons in magazines and newspapers, I’m certain it’s good enough for us in the modern age.

It’s madness not to optimise, in my opinion. We should never not optimise. Optimisation and efficiency are good business. But, constant, principal focus on short-term gratification has more than likely led us to a more short-term mindset generally – evidenced through a fascination with things like growth hacking and agile marketing. Both of which often focus on reacting to change, rather than leading the market. Both of which imply that long-term sustainable growth can come from short-term tinkering and constant, quick course corrections.

The commercial reality is that a 3% improvement in LinkedIn engagement is a very different thing from earning a 3% growth in market share – which is ultimately what our Boards want. As I heard JP Hanson – CEO of strategy firm Rouser – say in a recent interview, “Long-term profit gain is only ever created by long-term strategy.”

This isn’t about deciding on whether to focus on the short-term or the long-term. It’s about investing in both. Not hitting short-term targets is career (and cashflow) suicide and so we must focus on it, but how many of us can truly say that we’re also investing enough time in long-term brand building and differentiation?

All of which poses another question…

5. What do our Boards think?

More time focused on short-term sales activation and optimisation means less time available for things like market research, product development and brand building. At least that’s been my observation over recent years. But that poses a big question – is it coincidental that our profession’s increased focus on short-term sales activation and optimisation has come at exactly the same time as the seemingly reduced influence of Marketing at Board level? I don’t know for sure, but I fear it’s no coincidence.

The last major study I saw into that – which analysed 65,000 Board members among the S&P1500 companies – indicated that only 2.6% of those Board members have managerial-level marketing experience – and even worse – only 4% believe marketing experience is critical. There is a severe risk that marketing teams have become reduced to tactical ‘colouring-in’ departments in the eyes of our companies – not the people that companies turn to first for strategic thinking and direction. And that’s despite our training in business skills. Or should I say, despite our training in traditional business skills. Things like – low and behold – product portfolio planning, competitive positioning, pricing strategy, customer needs analysis and the like.

The language of marketing has become email marketing, ABM, CRO, virtual reality, MQLs. We use words like collateral, native advertising and hyper-contextualisation. The language of Board rooms is profit, market share, growth, shareholder value. When we talk about organic and inorganic, we mean Google search. When our Boards talk about organic and inorganic, they mean buying rivals. Referring to the earlier example of nonsense, what utter dicks would we look like if they saw marketing best-practice lists containing Simon Cowell and Love Island?

6. Planning, distractions and the wrong levers

Nearly there, just 2 final perspectives before I reach a conclusion on the future of marketing…

I’m going to return to long-termism for a moment. We know that to grow market share organically we need to get more people, to buy more often, at an optimum price. And, to grow our market share, we typically need to do all that at a rate that outperforms what our rivals are doing. It typically requires us to consistently and sustainably steal business away from named rivals.

I don’t believe that a quick agile marketing scrum is the long-term answer to sustainably stealing from rivals. I don’t think there is a growth hack to achieve it. It needs proper, long-term strategy. It requires that we understand how to minimise price sensitivity – adding more value to charge a premium over our rivals. It requires that we have a formal product development plan, built on identifying future needs – not based upon historic click data. It requires a plan to make our brands more famous and more desirable than our rivals. It means finding opportunities to create a leadership positioning in certain niches.

And of course all of that requires a real understanding of business strategy, business planning, pricing strategy and how brands actually work. I fear that us marketers are simply not getting enough training or input on that. For one thing, there is just too much distracting noise about content marketing, ABM, marketing automation and the like. I did a quick tot-up of the speaking slots at four of the UK’s biggest marketing conferences in 2018. Of the 218 speaking slots that I counted, I estimate that content, digital, data, ABM and the like accounted for over 70%. Of the remaining 28% or 29%, if you take away some excellent sessions on leadership and on sales & marketing alignment (which is also often largely about tactical, short-term sales activation), it left almost nothing on every other aspect of marketing theory and practice. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I saw someone guiding marketers on pricing strategy, for example, despite pricing being the single biggest and quickest lever we can pull to impact profit. I would place a decent bet that a minority of marketers know by what % their product profits would increase if they improved their pricing by 1%. It’s difficult for many of us to answer – particularly if we have diverse service lines – but don’t you think our CFOs would expect us to know if they are to think of us as an investment centre rather than a cost centre? And most do think of us as a cost centre.

7. Finally, the wrong metrics?

As a final point on some of the issues that a focus on the digital economy may have inadvertently caused, I wanted to close on marketing metrics. For a profession increasingly obsessed by data and measurement, I suspect that many of us aren’t even measuring all of the right data…

We each know that there are both lagging and leading indicators of health. Lagging indicators look at trends in what has happened in the past to let us know if our brands and companies are moving forwards or backwards. Things like sales, market share, churn rates, pitch/win loss rates, and the like. Leading indicators provide us with proxies that might hint at our propensity to deliver future revenue. They tell us whether we have a healthy upstream reservoir of profit – which is one of my favourite definitions of brand, courtesy of Tim Ambler. They include things like brand awareness, favourability and share of voice. There are other indicators – such as price sensitivity and client-satisfaction – that I’ve heard argued as both leading and lagging indicators. It doesn’t matter how you define them for the purposes of this speech – the point is that I suspect not all of us have a handle on all of those leading and lagging indicators. I’m not sure how many of us have balanced scorecards in place to aggregate those indicators. Consequently, I’m not sure how many of us report to our Boards on the importance of all of those indicators, or have 3-year plans in place to influence them. In fact, in an agile marketing era, how many of us have 3 year plans at all? As Sun Tzu said of tactics… “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. But tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”.

The point, again, is that we need both long-term strategy and short-term tactics.

Getting to the point

I’ll stop there, because I fear I’m just going to come across as a grumpy old sod (and in real life I’m only one of those things! ;-). I’ll save the lack of brand distinctiveness in B2B for another day. But, before I conclude and present my second possible scenario for ‘what’s next in marketing?’, let me quickly recap on the hypotheses and evidence I just covered:

  • we’ve let ourselves get sold to and we’ve fallen for it, hook, line and sinker
  • what we’re buying and investing our time on is possibly because of hype or FOMO – not because it’s necessarily the best thing
  • we’ve let ourselves become short-term tacticians, not long-term strategists
  • we’ve almost certainly lost some of the basic skills of our profession – such as pricing strategy and brand building
  • we’ve forgotten to measure some of the key things underpinning our long-term health
  • and we’ve possibly lost our influence at Board level because of it

I know that not all of that is true of all of us – the situation clearly isn’t as bleak as I’ve painted – but I do fear that some of it is true for several (or possibly many) of us. And so how’s all of that for our data-driven, martech enabled, precision targeting era?

Hercule’s two scenarios for B2B marketing

So as I start to wrap up, back to Hercule Poirot…. I can see two possible scenarios for what next in marketing…

Scenario 1 – The simple, easy solution: We carry on as we are, with our relentless pursuit of a digital-first, data-driven, precision-targeting agenda. Or…

Scenario 2 – The more complex, subversive scenario: We’ll blend the best of the new world and the old world of marketing. We won’t stop the best data-driven digital things we are focused on now. For example, we will continue to use tech as an enabler, and data to optimise and inform, and invest wisely in digital channels. BUT we won’t also forget the things that 40+ years of modern marketing, commercial thinking, psychology and the like has taught us up until this point. We’ll strike a better balance between short-term and long-term thinking. We’ll stop getting distracted by hype and new toys, and we’ll ask difficult questions of people selling those toys. We’ll remember that we need inbound AND outbound marketing. We’ll remember that we need brands that are known and desired by the entire-market, as well as putting enough resources into the most likely near-term sales opportunities. Because let’s not forget, Sales can target clients on their own. They can push – but they can’t as easily pull. And they certainly can’t do that at scale. They can’t build brands. That task has been bequeathed to marketing. That is one of our profession’s sweet spots. And we can’t forget our responsibility to it.

This scenario is potentially a future where we regain the confidence of our Boards by first re-educating ourselves on: how brands really work; the role of fame; how important pricing is in determining profit; what we need to do to command a price premium; how to conduct proper market research in addition to relying on observable click data; how to develop plans to eat our rivals’ lunch (and dinner); and other mission-critical aspects of marketing. And then we can educate our Boards on all of those things (before kicking their door in with completely new product ideas). Because it’s only then that we will be reconsidered as a critical part of the machinery, and the first people that CEO’s turn to for investment (as opposed to cost savings)

My personal hopes

Those are my two futures of marketing. I’m conscious that I don’t want to sound like David Cameron and bleat on about a return to traditional values – but I am going to say I hope we opt for option 2, and try and find a good balance of short-term and long-term thinking. To remind ourselves that it’s not about digital versus traditional marketing – but rather it’s all just marketing. That we partly go B2Back to the Future.

But that is for you to decide. That is what tonight’s debate is about. I’m just the warm-up act, to provide some food for thought. It’s up to you what the future holds.

All I can safely predict is that, if he was in the room, Hercule Poirot would likely say “madames et monsieurs, please don’t murder marketing”.

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