A bold, new dawn for B2B marketers

Though businesses are under immense pressure, business-to-business (B2B) brands are using coronavirus as an opportunity to hit the reset button on their marketing strategies and experiment with more creative, digital ways of reaching customers. However, many feel let down by their agencies at a time when they need them most.

With the global economy in freefall and consumers adjusting to the ongoing restrictions imposed on their daily lives, one certainty is marketers will be left dealing with the reverberations of the coronavirus pandemic for a long time to come.

B2B marketers are using the current disruption as an opportunity to shift away from long-held habits and focus on more effective ways of communicating with customers to drive growth. 

An upcoming B2B marketing report from alan. recently surveyed 600 UK and Ireland-based marketing leaders across the technology, financial and professional services sectors, including 175 chief marketing officers, to understand the impact of COVID-19, sentiment towards agencies and what the future holds. The key findings paint a colourful picture of the current and future state of B2B marketing. 

Feeling the pressure

In the three months to July, UK ad spend was slashed to its lowest level since records began. In line with this, alan’s report finds B2B marketers are facing an increased squeeze on both their wallets and their teams.

More than half (53 per cent) of senior marketers have suffered budget cuts since the outbreak of COVID-19, while 43 per cent noted a headcount reduction.

Unsurprisingly, this is having a direct impact on the way marketers feel. Two in five say they feel less secure in their roles compared to six months ago, while 71 per cent are being asked to achieve more with less.

In this context, one in four marketers are seeing increased scrutiny on return on investment (ROI) owing to COVID-19. This means almost seven in ten marketers are now being forced to prove ROI, with 24 per cent of those seeing it as critical to the existence of the marketing department. 

Benedict Buckland, creative director at alan, warns against the natural instinct for self-preservation in times of uncertainty. He says: “For senior marketers, it feels like one wrong spend could have significant consequences. But a fear of bad investments holds companies back from innovating their marketing strategy, something with far more damaging results for the brand and the individual.”

Seeing the bigger picture

Marketers need to make the case for a long-term view of ROI. Past economic recessions have taught us businesses that continue to invest in long-term brand building are best positioned for recovery post-recession.

Tom Pepper, Head of Marketing Solutions, LinkedIn

Despite the drive for quantifying value, B2B marketers can see the bigger picture, even despite the economic storm. Currently, the number-one focus for those questioned is brand awareness and share of voice, with 43 per cent prioritising this.

The prevailing theory is that ongoing brand investment is the only way to weather an economic storm such as a recession. According to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,  brands that invested in growing excess share of voice, or ESOV, by 8 per cent during the 2008-9 downturn, grew their market share by an average of over four-times more during the recovery phase.

Tom Pepper, head of marketing solutions for the UK, Israel and Ireland at LinkedIn, agrees that alan's data makes for encouraging reading in this case. “Marketers need to make the case for a long-term view of ROI. Past economic recessions have taught us businesses that continue to invest in long-term brand building are best positioned for recovery post-recession,” he says.

Recognition of the importance of planning for the long term is also reflected in B2B marketers’ identification of strategy as high on the agenda. Some 35 per cent see strategy as the biggest capability gap internally and it is identified as the most highly prized agency capability among 45 per cent of respondents.

Agency partners need to step up

Despite clear space for agencies to take a more active, collaborative role in defining B2B marketing strategies, it appears many are failing to deliver.

One in four respondents (26 per cent) do not think agencies understand their objectives and an alarming 42 per cent don’t believe they always act in their brand’s best interests. Unsurprisingly, in the context of these results, one in three (31 per cent) say they’re not currently getting good value for money from their agency partners. 

In a time when ROI is under scrutiny and there’s an ongoing shift towards new formats, B2B marketers are looking for their agencies to demonstrate reliability (54 per cent), trustworthiness (52 per cent) and creativity (51 per cent).

Agencies need to step up and better support their clients as they currently have a real opportunity to help marketers move forward. Of those surveyed, marketers who say their agencies understand their objectives are four times more likely to work in a marketing department that is “respected or revered”. 

What’s more, 80 per cent of the marketers who work in those respected or revered departments say agency partners are good at helping them achieve their own professional goals.

The optics of a marketing department make a difference too. The alan. study finds budget cuts are inversely correlated with the strategic importance of the marketing department in a business.

In short, good agency partners can make or break brands’ internal marketing function and that’s a crucial concern for a department currently in survival mode.

Investing in the future

The need to demonstrate clear ROI is seeing B2B brands funnel more money into digital marketing. More than half (56 per cent) of business marketers say the biggest change COVID-19 has imposed on their marketing department has been an accelerated shift to digital. 

Far from being put off, B2B marketers are embracing this enforced pivot as an opportunity to play with digital tech and put the dreaded PDF white paper to bed, with almost a third experimenting with new online formats (32 per cent). Similarly, video and webinars are named as the top two content priorities for the year ahead.

Pepper at LinkedIn says it’s no surprise to see experimenting with new, digital formats is the top priority for businesses. “This chimes with what we’re seeing on our platform, where we’ve recorded an 89 per cent increase in live streams on LinkedIn since March 2020, as members and businesses pivoted to remote working, embracing virtual events and connecting with their audiences online,” he says.

Doubling down on creative

B2B marketers are also committed to being bolder and more daring with creative and campaigns, as 30 per cent say they’re taking more risks.

Peter Bell, director of enterprise marketing for Northern Europe at Adobe, acknowledges B2B marketers have been pushed to offer more creative and digital solutions. “As marketers, we're all in the same boat here. We're all facing the same challenges. And, most importantly, we're all still learning what works in this new era in experience,” he says. 

“It's a fascinating challenge because, let's not forget, we're still facing the same core principles: customer experience, creativity and production value, to name a few.” 

Bell asserts that B2B marketers must challenge themselves to come up with new ways to realise these ambitions and deliver the same kind of stand-out experiences for customers remotely as they are used to doing in person.

However, despite B2B marketers’ best intentions, creativity is a recurring feature for respondents when asked what irritates them most at work. This is clearly an area where agencies need to take an active, collaborative role.

Collaboration is the only option 

The findings of alan’s report show agencies have several experience gaps they must close urgently to better serve B2B marketers in an uncertain climate. 

As well as getting a firmer grip on clients’ objectives, it’s time for partners to step up and showcase their value in an ROI-obsessed world.

However, despite client-side frustrations, there is significant opportunity for agencies to work closely with brands as they rewrite their marketing playbooks. 

“There is clear space for agencies to take a more collaborative role in reshaping strategy. As brands experiment with fresh formats and open themselves up to creative risks, agencies have the chance to add value where it matters most,” alan’s Buckland concludes. 

“As an industry, we have a huge opportunity to experiment and influence strategy at a time when brand building is more important than ever.”

See what marketers thought in more detail view our infographic.

Read the full digital report B2B marketing 2021. Solved.

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