As we approach 2020, the role of the B2B CMO is changing dramatically. How can brand and marketing agencies evolve to better serve them?

DeSantis Breindel is proud to host Huddle, an annual educational and networking opportunity for select B2B marketing leaders. Each year, to ensure that our programming is compelling for our guests, we embark on a “listening tour,” interviewing past and potential attendees about their roles’ pain points and priorities for the next six months to a year. We also ask about how they see their role evolving, and what skills will be necessary for them to successfully fulfill changing expectations.

This year, our learnings were helpful for scheduling our Huddle speakers and workshops, leading us to focus on content creation and content marketing. However, these discussions also confirmed many of our hunches about how agencies must adapt to better serve B2B marketing leaders. Our contacts revealed that in a market demanding expertise both deep and broad, true partnership between clients and agencies has never been more important. For agencies to deliver this level of partnership, they must do more than offer platitudes; they must fundamentally rethink their functions, processes, and focal points.

Fewer spec sheets, more storytelling

Stories are what people remember…but  don’t know that B2B is doing a really good job with that.  Like we just talk in such a professional clinical practical way, and we need to crack the code on storytelling for B2B. – Carrie Grapenthin, Global CMO, Lincoln International

The message was clear from CMOs: the future of B2B marketing is based more in storytelling and less in product marketing. How can a chemical company show its impact through video? How can a law firm’s case studies be compelling reads? More and more companies are taking a page from software marketers, presenting their offerings as comprehensive platforms instead of discrete products or services. As such, brands are asking for overarching stories and messages that focus on higher-order benefits rather than product specifications.

The marketing people aren’t the subject matter experts. How do we help experts and support them in writing? How do we create good content, because some of the subject matter experts aren’t dynamic and engaging?  – Melanie Finn, Managing Director, FTI Consulting

Fostering company-wide storytelling savvy is particularly valuable in professional services, where demonstrating the knowledge of experts is important. As such, establishing an internal content creation process can be a B2B company’s best choice for ensuring a steady stream of blogs, videos, webinars, podcasts, and white papers to support the brand.

Getting such a program off the ground is a large undertaking; it involves editorial strategy, writing and speaking training, template creation, media relationships, CMS optimization, and more. A reliable outside agency will be crucial to most companies as they develop this capability, since good advice requires deep knowledge of the brand and innovative thinking about activate it.

B2B storytelling isn’t limited to content, however. Look and feel, client service, technology, user experience, the customer journey: all of this is part of the story a brand tells about itself. The transition from spec sheets to storytelling isn’t a painless one. It involves a cultural and operational shift — employees across the company must learn to think about their work in terms of how it benefits clients. To help companies improve B2B storytelling, here are four important ways that agencies need to evolve.

1. From telling to training

“Now, I’m being elastic more up and down than in the past, when I was stretched across  a lot of different initiatives but stay at a strategic level.” – Carrie Grapenthin, Global CMO, Lincoln International

CMOs are comfortable operating at a high level: floating in between many projects, offering advice, feedback, and vision, but by-and-large leaving the execution of those initiatives to more junior staff. Now, however, marketing leaders are finding that they are expected to have more “on-the-ground” knowledge, particularly about digital tools and strategies that may not have been standard during their formative years. This shift is a reflection of the trend toward more horizontal organizational structures and scrum-based processes.

“Most of our leads are generated through organic search. So our S.E.O. has really improved over the last year and a half and we’re very, very conscious of maintaining a highly effective S.E.O. program.” — Gary Davis, VP, Communications, First Capitol Consulting

Working closely on traditional marketing deliverables such as messaging and positioning may not be a challenge for CMOs, but many find it difficult to develop their skills in emerging areas such as SEO, marketing automation, and digital ad-buying. This is one area where agency partners can evolve to bolster their side of the partnership.

Today’s B2B agencies need to have offer expertise on a wide range of digital marketing tactics. Not only can clients can fulfill many needs with a single trusted vendor, but this relationship can also empower clients to implement and make decisions about digital solutions. Agencies can take the time to educate and train clients on new technology, as well as be available for last-minute or spur-of-the-moment consults. Because true partnership doesn’t just provide a solution — it provides clients with the know-how to confidently leverage, evolve, and justify them.

Agencies can also add value through their own content. While agency thought pieces have typically focused on higher-level trends, there is a place in today’s marketplace for more skills-based education. Actionable webinars, speaking engagements, and special events demonstrate a willingness to help build a client’s toolbox of tactics.

2. From discrete engagements to ongoing relationships

“Getting actual continued benefits from the brand refresh is a big priority for us.” – Lisa Olney, CMO, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann

For years, we’ve known that the “big brand reveal” is just the beginning of a brand activation. Without a plan to meaningfully roll out the brand and engage employees around it, there’s a fair chance it won’t catalyze the desired transformation. Major change requires ongoing activation and optimization of the corporate brand, marketing, and culture.

This a long-term project that can be a heavy lift — especially in B2B branding, where marketing teams are typically smaller than in B2C counterparts. Being able to delegate some of the work to others, whether an agency or colleagues from outside of marketing, can ease the burden. An ongoing, supportive agency relationship can provide the additional resources to help a brand refresh succeed.

“I’m interested not just the execution of the launch of the brand, but the living of the brand.  – Carrie Grapenthin, Global CMO, Lincoln International

Content and culture go hand-in-hand. Often when companies experience a branding project, they realize that rethinking their culture is key to revamping their brand. Defining an authentic and compelling purpose, mission, vision, and values helps not only customers, but also employees connect with corporate messaging. But authenticity is everything in this department: you’ve got to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk. Creating a purpose-driven organization requires more than handing out a glossy book or releasing a microsite. It requires showing a real linkage between rewards and values through both B2B storytelling and corporate policy.

Agencies need to be better structured to help their clients with the kind of ongoing work that represents real change. However, today’s project-based pitching and billing process is not always conducive to such a model. To encourage the kind of long-term, multi-project relationships that allow clients to build new marketing capabilities or cement a new positioning, agencies should consider more agile billing arrangements and work styles. This could mean a greater openness to retainer-style agreements or even atypical staffing decisions, such as temporarily embedding a strategist within a client’s organization. This highly engaged, deeply trusting way of working allows for continuous progress.

3. From buyer’s desires to buyer’s journey

“If I’m interested in anything it’s how to get the voice of the customer back into the organization…Starting with the customer journey and how to find those kind of moments that matter within it.” – Kathy Townend, Senior Manager, Corporate Marketing, Mitchell International

Brand strategists have always emphasized the value of research in determining buyers’ motivations and desires. This knowledge has been instrumental in developing areas of differentiation and powerful campaigns. Think of how American Express appeals to prestige, or how Nike taps into a universal desire to feel like an elite athlete.

However, as customers — both B2C and B2B — become accustomed to a huge amount of choice and an overwhelming amount of savvy marketing, experience is increasingly what sets brands apart. Many brands have appealing value propositions, but the stars are those who can deliver it at every touchpoint. We call this the brand promise: the differentiating experience that you bring to life throughout your customer’s journey.

To optimize a brand’s customer journey, it’s important to understand its current state. This requires customer journey mapping, or the creation of a detailed visual representation of the different phases of the customer lifecycle. And not just the journey of a single, imagined customer, but those of multiple, research-based personas who represent a brand’s actual — and desired — categories of buyers. This involves demographics and motivations, but also technology habits. How does the experience of those who research vendors on iPad differ from those who use desktop?

It sounds so foundational, but where I am a bit overwhelmed by the thought of changing the customer journey. Where would I even start with an organization that’s really spread out? – Lisa Olney, CMO, Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann

Creating journey maps and personas requires almost ethnographic research; strategists must shadow employees, make mock purchases, and more. The key here is that research can’t be done remotely, like it often can when looking for customer desires or white space among the competitive set. Customer journey mapping requires that agencies develop new offerings that allow for more experiential, hands-on research.

To deliver the kind of “blue sky” initiatives that create extraordinary customer experiences, agencies’ creative capabilities must extend beyond traditional graphic design and print implementation. Today, UX and environmental design are equally as, if not more important than, logos and design systems, particularly in B2B markets where buying cycles are lengthy and relationship-based. What’s more, these experiential initiatives need to be measurable, trackable, iterable. In our new economy, where metrics are marketing fuel, an agency’s best creative idea may be a dashboard or data visualization.

4. From consultant to community convener

I haven’t been that involved within the industry or across B2B and so that’s why I see a huge value in having B2B conversations. Because B2B is a different beast than B2C.– Melanie Finn, Managing Director, FTI Consulting

B2B CMOs can feel lonely. Their peer executives don’t always understand — or value — their roles, so they’re frequently justifying their work. Their teams are small. Despite, or maybe because of, the growth of online professional networking and communications platforms (LinkedIn, Slack, etc.), the leaders we talked to were enthusiastic about finding a community of B2B marketers with whom to share best practices (as well as celebrate and commiserate). But though there are many groups and publications for marketing leaders, few of them are focused on B2B.

It’s interesting to me that there’s still such a big demand for networking opportunities, or even more in demand than in five years ago, when in theory all these people have more ways to connect than ever, but they still are looking for that human interaction.   – Tony Ialeggio, CMO, Commonfund

This is where agency partners can step in, expanding their value from that of a consultant to that of a community convener. With client approval, agencies can connect B2B marketers, serving as hosts and facilitators of discussions of best practices, challenges, and aspirations. This could be through individual introductions, or through dedicated events such as DeSantis Breindel’s Huddle.

It’s no secret that agencies have more than one client at a time…so why not use that fact as an advantage for all involved parties?

B2B agencies in 2020 and beyond

Digital disruption has also disrupted CMOs: their team structures, their responsibilities, their metrics. They still may rely on agencies, but their needs have evolved. No longer do they want agencies to act like guest experts or special consultants. They want fewer discrete, project-based initiatives, and more long-term client/agency relationships. So instead of occupying marketing niches, agencies must offer more full-service capabilities. Above all, it means agencies must provide more “soft” value such as skills training and community building.

Bringing on nontraditional agency talent, offering flexible billing structures, and creating communities around B2B marketing best practices — this is how agencies will future-proof their offerings to provide indispensable client value.

To learn more about Huddle, or our integrated client services, contact us.

About the author

Dru DeSantis

Dru DeSantis is a cofounder of DeSantis Breindel. She shapes strategic brand identities and powerful brand activations from digital ecosystems to multi-channel campaigns, engaging audiences and achieving critical business objectives.

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