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Reflections on the B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum in Singapore

In late August I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual B2B Marketing Leaders’ Forum in Singapore with our Singapore-based Managing Director. It was an inspiring two days of meeting marketers and CMOs from an impressive array of insurers, software developers, real estate services firms, and benefits providers — companies such as Accenture, Autodesk, Colliers, Mercer, Red Hat — and many more.

For the uninitiated, the Forum is one of the only industry events that exclusively focuses on B2B marketing, rather than blending B2B with B2C. Since launching in 2015, it has become the largest conference for B2B CMOs in the region, according to the organisers.

I thought it’d be helpful to share three key takeaways for those of you who couldn’t be there.

I. Asia’s B2B marketers want – and need – a loud voice in the C-Suite

Don’t they have one already? Well, that’s a bit complicated.

There’s certainly a C in the CMO title, but that doesn’t mean CMOs have the CEO’s ear; or that their work has a meaningful impact on their company’s revenue growth. In other words, in some companies CMOs aren’t seen as strategically vital to the business.

Sure, effective ad campaigns and well-attended events are important. But that doesn’t mean such activities are seen to be on par with, say, the CFO’s job of hedging currencies to earn a better return on the company’s cash flows.

That’s why many of Asia’s B2B marketing leaders are now trying to play a vital role in growing revenue – and, importantly, proving why their work is directly responsible for business growth.

This call-to-action was so loud that the event’s organisers splashed it across the cover of the Forum’s programme: [The event is] Where B2B marketers become revenue generating machines, secure larger budgets, and a stronger voice in the C-Suite! That mission statement is also on the Forum’s website.

Over the course of two days, many of the featured speakers advised the audience to downplay brand building-speak, and wholeheartedly embrace ‘the language of business’ — terms such as ROI, TAM, and CAGR — in order to earn the ear of the CEO.

And it shouldn’t stop there. In fact – brace for it — CMOs should aspire to become CEOs! Renee McGowan, Mercer’s Asia CEO, gave a talk entitled CMO to CEO: CMOs at the leadership table and beyond – sharing her personal career journey, which chronicled how she managed to parlay a career as CMO into becoming the Asia CEO. The audience hung onto every word, as if her career arc was that ever elusive capital-I ‘Ideal’ – a perfect life beyond reach of most marketing mortals.

Another talk, this one from Tim Yeaton, Global CMO of Red Hat, was summarised as follows: The role of the CMO as a business leader first, marketer second, and the CEO’s trusted advisor.

Get it? I’m sure you do. If not, here it is again in capital letters — just for fun: BUSINESS FIRST, MARKETING SECOND.

n/n’s View: Truth be told, we find it slightly unnerving that marketers can’t just celebrate being marketers. The work of marketing departments is vital, even if unrecognised by the CEO. It’s a fact of life that such work often goes unacknowledged because its impact is sometimes hard to quantify, especially when compared to the dollar value of contracts signed by the sales team.

Nevertheless, the cold truth remains that business leaders in an emerging region such as Asia often perceive marketing as a cost centre because the marketing department acts like one. Some marketers don’t speak the language of business and don’t act as if they understand what’s at stake – that growing a business is incredibly hard, cash flow and new contracts provide the oxygen to make it all possible, and that costs need to stay under control, lest they sink the fragile ship.

That’s often why budget cutters don’t allocate enough money to deliver compelling campaigns, creating a vicious cycle whereby marketing efforts are underfunded and crippled at the starting gates, further cementing the perception that marketing is a cost centre.

We encounter this dilemma frequently at n/n. Sometimes multinationals approach us about highly strategic work — for example, to develop a year-long thought leadership campaign on currency hedging strategies for Asia-based CFOs. We go in strong with a compelling proposal, and everyone seems excited and ready to go. But then we learn that the client lacks senior ‘buy-in;’ and the budgets are way too small to pay for the campaign.

Eventually the client gives up and goes back to hiring freelancers for one-off pieces that are thematically and stylistically disconnected, and which ultimately fail to deliver any type of ROI. And the cycle repeats itself.

That’s why it’s essential for marketers to sell their campaigns to the C-Suite early, in language that the C-Suite respects and understands: ROI, CAGR, TAM – and perhaps most importantly – how and why the expenditure may lead to actual (rather than theoretical) revenue growth.

II. B2B marketers should focus on ‘outcomes’ instead of ‘actions’

This takeaway is a natural extension of the first – and it’s easy to remember.

What does it mean exactly? Put simply, B2B marketers need to pitch ideas internally in a way that emphasises the intended business outcome, rather than the creative vision behind the project.

The outcome could be anything from acquiring new sales leads among a certain client or investor group; to earning more media visibility (which leads to more revenue); to acquiring more market share in a particular jurisdiction. B2B marketers need to define this intended outcome at the outset, and then work backwards to justify the expenditure.

So, here’s what not to say when arguing for more budget: Hello C-Suite, Down here in marketing, we all agree we should develop a campaign that addresses the impact of the trade war on the valuations of Chinese companies. It’s a really important issue attracting headlines. What do you think?

Saying “it’s really important” is not a sufficient justification. It’s too fuzzy, entirely subjective, and can’t be measured.

Much better to say: Hello C-Suite, Our firm’s commercial goal is to grow our M&A advisory business in China by 25% this year. One way we could help do that is to launch an agenda-setting thought leadership campaign targeting acquisitive CEOs, to ensure they know our bank fully grasps how valuations are impacted by the trade war. We’d measure the readership rates to make sure the campaign is reaching the right CEOs; and the marketing team will work together with the bankers to ensure that readers are converted into clients.

Now the budget keepers are nodding…

n/n’s View: We agree: the CMO pitch needs to focus on outcomes instead of actions. Being ‘interesting’ or ‘insightful’ or ‘creative’ is (unfortunately!) no longer enough. Real contributions to real business results need to follow on from expensive campaigns. Marketers need to measure campaign impact, even if the intended impact is simply to lead a particular conversation in the marketplace, or to attract more clicks on a company LinkedIn page. (Naturally, at n/n we’ve been aware of the importance of campaign measurement from the word go, as our Head of Digital outlines in this post).

In summary, nowadays the first order of business is to define the intended business outcome of a proposed thought leadership campaign; and then the second, sometimes harder task, is to craft an intellectually rigorous campaign that serves that commercial outcome without undermining the campaign’s editorial integrity.

III. B2B marketers agree content is ‘important,’ but disagree about the work involved  

Now for the final key takeaway: I can recall only one speaker who focused on the ‘E’ word. And no, that’s not E for excellence; that’s E for editorial.

This is an interesting one. The idea that content is king has become a tiresome cliché in recent years. Nevertheless, most of the speakers at the Forum agreed on this point: in the digital era traditional advertising is losing value, and quality content is its effective replacement.

However, differences emerged when it came to which aspect of B2B content marketing workflow deserves more attention and resources: Production or distribution?

Many attendees focused on content distribution, and measuring campaign impact with all types of MarTech tools and dashboards. Given the need to deliver measurable results, this is understandable. If I remember correctly, one attendee said his firm “spent about 20% of the time creating the stuff, and about 80% distributing it and measuring its impact.”

At this point another attendee said his firm was in the opposite camp, and spent most of the time creating content, with only about 20% focused on the distribution and measurement side of the equation.

Of course, there is no easy solution to this riddle. Every organisation will prioritise different aspects of content marketing workflow. And every campaign is different. Some campaigns – such as a study of the Asian currency markets — will require heavy-lifting in the content production department; others, such as Tweet campaigns, won’t. It all depends on the specific project.

Over the course of two days, much was said about brand promotion and the need to promote messages that support diversity and positive social change. But when it came to constructing narratives that convey both authentic insight and intellectual credibility? Not so much.

In other words, sometimes it seems that we all aspire to make a hit movie without discussing what ingredients are most likely to generate that outcome. How do we write a gripping script? How do we avoid tired clichés? How do we tell a story in a compelling a manner, with each scene leading to the next in an effortless flow?

Results of industry leading surveys clearly illustrate this challenge. According to Edelman’s 2019 B2B Thought Leadership Impact Study, decision makers give only 18% of thought leadership pieces high-marks for quality (i.e. ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’). That’s a statistic worth contemplating.

n/n’s View: The business of crafting insightful and engaging narratives is where creative work and corporate conservatism clash. But balancing these two forces – both creative and corporate temperaments – is the only way to produce thought leadership that generates results.

In our work at n/n, we walk this tightrope while working backward from the project’s intended ROI. For example, if the intended ROI is to generate sales leads for new products, it makes sense that focus is paid to the distribution side of the equation, and ensure the content is landing in the hands of potential buyers.

But if the intended ROI is to be perceived as a real thought leader on a major issue (in order to help sales generate new leads), then marketers need to spend a whole lot of time creating insightful and credible content. Mediocrity – or, rushing into publishing and distribution at the expense of content quality — won’t cut it.

I hope this helps those of you who couldn’t attend (a bit long, I know – but there was a lot to cover).

As for the B2B Marketing Leader’s Forum, the entire n/n team is looking forward to another industry-leading event this November. See you all in Melbourne!

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