Back2Basics: B2B needs to catch a wake up
by Mark Eardley. Marketing needs to catch a wakeup call. A big one. Unless it starts pulling its weight and proving that it creates sales and protects margins, marketing runs the risk of losing even more commercial relevance than it has in recent years. Whether it’s crooked media buying, illusory digital metrics or that the kids are running the playground, the marketing function is in a bad space.
What’s gone wrong? Answer #1: The internet
As a business communications tool, the internet should have been marketing’s great ally. But, over the past 20 or so years, it’s mutated into a potent enemy. To paraphrase some wise, old words from Peter Drucker, the ’net has created an environment where focus is on the hammer, rather than driving in the nail — let alone on building the house. The ‘house’, of course, is sales, margins and long-term profitable customers.
An addiction to all-things-internet has spawned marketing mind-sets obsessed with finding ways to apply its ‘beautiful gimmicks’. It has blinded too many marketers that there is no magic wand in the tool box and there never has been.
When Drucker wrote his hammer and nail analogy in the 1973 book, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, the ’net hadn’t been conceived (and neither had a lot of today’s marketers). Nevertheless, well over 40 years ago, the doyen of management and marketing consulting recognised the dangers of an overreliance on business techniques and tools, and how this leads to losing focus on building the house:
…the emphasis is on techniques rather than on principles, on mechanics rather than on decisions, on tools rather than on results, and, above all, on efficiency of the part rather than on performance of the whole…
In short, activity has been confused with achievement. In terms of the only achievements that matter — sales, margins — ‘performance’ has become marketing’s dirty word, an old-fashioned, embarrassing taboo that must be quietly ushered from the room.
What’s gone wrong? Answer #2: Lack of knowledge and experience
“The sad truth of the matter is that we have allowed, even enabled, the development of an under-skilled, inexperienced and over-entitled workforce — to the detriment of the industry at large.” — Adrian Hewlett, Publicis Machine CEO, writing on MarkLives
To counter this overpaid lack of knowledge and experience, Hewlett is calling for marketing agencies to collaborate on establishing graduate ‘apprenticeships’ similar to those in professions such as law and accountancy. Just as articled clerks have to learn how to apply the rules of their game — over three tough years — it makes sense that admittance to the marketing profession should require the same grounding. Hewlett believes the results would improve professionalism and standards of work, as well as restoring clients’ respect and trust. It might also arrest marketing’s headlong decline into irrelevance.
Back-to-basics. In B2B especially
If there’s one area of marketing where the rules of the game apply in a literally draconian manner, then it’s B2B. It’s a discipline where the rules are as severe as the punishments for breaking them: falling sales, eroded margins and loss of market share.
Modern B2B companies confront two major challenges: commoditisation and self-sold customers.
Commoditisation — and the cutthroat pricing it demands — thrives when there is no relevant differentiation between competing offerings. When price is the only difference they see, customers buy the cheapest. It’s marketing’s job to address this challenge because differentiation is a core function in B2B: it protects margins.
Self-sold customers are a product of the internet. Twenty years ago, they didn’t exist. Here’s the ’net as the enemy… again. Beyond causing marketing’s lack of focus, the ’net has diluted the influence of professional sales teams during the pre-sales process. That’s the part of the B2B buying-decision cycle where customers identify needs, set criteria to meet them and research appropriate solutions. The internet has empowered customers to do all that online and on their own. Pre-sales now happen on the ’net.
Address that challenge
It’s marketing’s job to address that challenge, too. Ensuring that an offering is visible, credible and applicable is another core marketing task: it generates sales.
The alarms are ringing loud and clear. Marketing needs to hear them, wake up and respond with activities that create achievements.
Mark Eardley is the author, together with Charlie Stewart, of Business-to-Business Marketing: A Step-by-Step Guide (Penguin Random House), which offers practical, actionable advice on how to make marketing make money. Both he and Charlie will be speaking at the forthcoming B2B Trade Conference on 18–19 May 2017, Emperor’s Palace Convention Centre, Johannesburg, organised by Vukani Communications. Mark contributes the monthly “Back2Basics” column, covering how B2B companies and their agencies should manage their marketing, to MarkLives.com.