Why B2B marketers must take a stand against mediocrity

Many in the profession feel stifled by their organisations, but business leaders would be delighted if their marketers were to seize the initiative and become confident agents of positive change
Alan Power Of Provocation Featured Image

Are you a B2B marketer who feels that you’re a victim of a risk-averse corporate culture? If so, 100% of business leaders think that you should stand up for yourself. That’s according to research we’ve conducted at the alan agency, including a survey of 175 C-suite executives.

Saying that you need to stand up for yourself is neither victim-blaming nor upholding a macho culture. This is about perception – specifically, the common belief among B2B marketers that they are somehow facing insurmountable barriers created by an institutionalised aversion to risk in their organisations. 

‘Walking into the room knowing what you’re supposed to be doing happens the minute you stop asking for permission’

Rosie Guest, chief marketing and communications officer, Apex Group

Although 53% of the B2B marketers responding to our research feel that they’re working in a risk-averse company and 33% think that their firm doesn’t even understand what it takes to build a brand, the CEOs, COOs and CFOs we’ve polled are united in wanting them to take the initiative and solve such problems themselves.

All of the CEOs and COOs in the survey believe that marketers must get a grip on risk aversion, for instance, while all COOs and CFOs think that marketers need to educate others about brand-building. Their message is clear: stop making excuses, step up and hold yourselves accountable for overcoming such obstacles. 

It ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it

As a breed, marketers aren’t renowned for hiding their light under a bushel. Why are those in the B2B field seemingly more willing to do so?

Rosie Guest, chief marketing and communications officer at Apex Group, believes that they need to change a long-embedded culture.

“B2B marketers are so used to being subservient to the business in a very different way from how they are in B2C, where their work is slightly more respected,” she argues. “They need to shift from there to a more authoritative position. That means they must lead the conversation – not by asking ‘what do you want to do?’ but by saying ‘this is our marketing strategy’. It’s such a tiny difference.”

Marketers can be their own worst enemies. Their language of clicks and conversions, engagement and saliency is likely to mean little to a sales team chasing a quarterly target or a CEO looking to wow the shareholders. 

Mark Choueke is a B2B marketing director, most recently of referral firm Mention Me, a former editor of Marketing Week and the author of Boring2Brave: the ‘bravery as a strategy’ mindset that’s transforming B2B marketing. He notes that the “accepted industry metrics” for scaling up a software-as-a-service company are “often at odds with the notion of consciously investing in building a strong and special brand. Marketing strategies that start out vibrant and high in value often play out as vanilla once they’ve been run through a spreadsheet by someone who doesn’t understand marketing.”

Áine Bryn, partner and CMO at the Mercer consultancy in the UK, wonders why, given that marketers are happy to put themselves at the service of the end customer, it seems so hard for them to communicate this to the business.

“This is all about speaking to whoever is sitting in front of you if they’re the budget-holder or they can influence or veto the decision. Speak their language and ask them what they’re trying to achieve. Then show them how you can help them to achieve it,” Bryn advises.

Trade on experience

B2B marketers have somehow become afraid to innovate and come up with challenging ideas. Accountability is one thing. But, if they’re to attempt something new and different, there’ll be few (if any) tangible indications that it’s going to work. How should they marry going out on a limb this way with proof, key performance indicators, metrics and confidence?

Perhaps the key lies in that last word: confidence. As Guest says: “Walking into the room knowing what you’re supposed to be doing happens the minute you stop asking for permission.”

The irony is that CEOs want marketing to be provocative, but marketers seem to have got into a habit of craving approval. Nothing provocative ever came pre-approved.

It appears that everyone else in the organisation apart from marketers has confidence in the marketing function. Three-quarters of CFOs in our survey agree that the marketers in their companies have the skills to break down the barriers of risk aversion, for instance. 

Yet more than half (53%) of CMOs and marketing directors think that their department tends to show a lack of conviction and/or ambition. What if, after all this time, firms perceived by their marketers as too demanding or unsupportive are merely just waiting for them to take the initiative? 

If that is indeed the case, how do B2B marketers combat the fear factor and adopt a growth mindset that brings satisfaction, self-actualisation and some much-needed vim and vigour? Becoming more provocative is unlikely to be an easy ride. Business leaders do want to hear challenging thoughts, but they don’t have to shower those who deliver them with praise. The strength to plough on regardless is a muscle that marketers need to flex more. 

“If you’re good enough at your job, you’ll be able to get away with that because it usually means that you know what you’re doing is the right thing,” Guest argues. “They may not love it when they hear it, but ultimately it’s the results that show the value. That’s the difference between B2B and B2C.”

Ultimately, this is about pairing passion with pragmatism. You can be a maverick visionary and still have your company’s best interests at heart – just be sure that everyone else appreciates that. The C-suite seems happy to accept a contrarian stance and it wants marketers to be bold. But gaining the confidence to be bold is a matter of laying foundations. 

Bryn would urge any B2B marketer to “prove that you can do the fundamentals. Then they’ll let you run with all the visionary ideas. Sometimes marketing promises the Earth but can never deliver it, because it doesn’t understand what the business is trying to achieve. Marketing needs a clear understanding of what success looks like for the company. Then they are empowered to ideate and deliver.”

Be the change

Barney O’Kelly is digital marketing director at AlixPartners, a US-based management consultancy. His advice to B2B marketers would be to “find the progressives in your organisation. There are three kinds of people in a business: those who want to change, those who can be persuaded and those who don’t want to at all. Invest your energy in the two kinds who are open to change.”

O’Kelly continues: “You have to build relationships and trust with your colleagues. If you do that, they’ll have much more faith in your more outlandish ideas. Of course, you should apply good judgement. You’re not going to do something daft – or, if you are going to do something daft, you deserve to be held to account for it. But experimentation is a big field to play on in B2B marketing.”

Choueke says that, when he’s talking to any business, “I want to know: do you like marketing and does it mean something of value to you? Do you have an outcome for it to aim at? Will you let us come up with ideas or have you already decided how you want someone to do your marketing for you? If it’s the latter, I’m not interested.”

He adds: “When you’re a marketing leader, it’s incumbent on you to be inspirational – in a real partnership with your products and clients. You can have so much impact. That’s the gorgeousness of it. But you need to put the work in and have the presence and the evidence to back it all up.”

‘There are three kinds of people in a business: those who want to change, those who can be persuaded and those who don’t want to at all. Invest your energy in the two kinds who are open to change’

Barney O’Kelly, digital marketing director, AlixPartners

Research methodology

The research was conducted in August 2022. An independent fieldwork team sought the views of UK-based B2B business leaders using online questionnaires and telephone interviews. Their responses were analysed by Market Research Society-certified analysts in the research and intelligence division at alan.

Benedict Buckland is Chief Creative Officer at alan. 

Click here to read the full research report.