ABM: A stepping stone to the customer

Need to improve your customer relationships and internal alignment? David De Smedt found a solution in the form of account-based marketing. He shares his experience with the strategy.

David De Smedt, European marketing and communications manager at packaging business DS Smith, admits it may sound strange, but ABM was on his bucket list. When he decided to tick it off, he found a lot could be learned from those who had come before him.

Now, having travelled a fair distance on his own ABM journey, David is ready to give back some advice at this year’s B2B Marketing Conference in London on 8 November. Molly Raycraft caught up with him to get a taste of what’s to come.

What encouraged you to start ABM?

David: After about two months with DS Smith, my marketing director called me up to her office and asked what our plan was for ABM. To be honest, I hadn’t the slightest idea. But I instantly called a few ABM experts in my network and we started coming up with a plan. After a weekend of hard work – and a lot of research – I convinced management of my plan in 10 minutes. That’s when the real work begun.

You say ABM is a stepping stone. But where is it leading you?

Better relationships with your clients, whatever their current status. It also leads to better alignment within your own organisation. For us, ABM has proven to be a more precise and effective way to get our message across, especially after our sales department had bought in.

Such a close-knit partnership between sales and marketing really is quite unique.

Do you believe programmatic ABM can still retain its authenticity?

Why not? If you communicate well with the sales people responsible for the clients you’re targeting, programmatic ABM is just a way of scaling up. In our case, when people around the company started picking up on the success of our pilot programme, they were excited to try it with their clients too. Of course, we always told them that it would require a lot of internal collaboration, but so far no one has backed out.

Where do you stand on using technology in ABM?

For now, we’ve been using the platforms and tools that we already had. They turned out to be quite compatible. Essentially, I think that strategy should drive technology, not the other way around.

What’s the best way to choose ABM accounts?

Whatever you do, you should know people will challenge your choices throughout the process. That’s why you need to discuss it with all the stakeholders. A good account depends on your business goals, but also on the people that you will have to work closely together with. Ultimately, if you do well, more accounts can be added quite easily.

David’s tip for the start of your ABM process:

Clearly define and document your goals. They will be the anchor point for everything you do. Make sure you can always go back to them when you’re lost. Don’t panic if the sales targets change along the way. Talk to sales and adjust your messaging. All is not lost.

Your conference session will cover how ABM will be used to improve existing client relationships. Does that take long?

It doesn’t have to! It doesn’t have to be expensive either. During the exploration phase of our programme, we tested a number of tactics to improve client relationships. The one we were most excited about – a quite expensive event – turned out to be less effective than anticipated.

The reason? Our sales department hadn’t yet bought in 100%. A much more personal booklet, on the other hand, struck the right chord with the client and gave our company a face.

My conclusion? If you want to strike fast and with accuracy, keep it simple.

Can ABM work for everyone?

It might, but ABM is not magic. It does force you to take a good, hard look at the relationship between your company and its clients, as well as the cooperation between marketing and sales. That alone – and the prospect of working on those relationships – should make you very excited indeed.

What was the biggest mistake you made in your ABM?

Impatience. After I had the go-ahead from my management, I wanted to start communicating as soon as possible. Thankfully, a few of my close colleagues held me back and convinced me of the importance of a solid strategy based on our targets’ needs. After all, that’s the key to a successful ABM campaign.

Are the decisions you make on accounts based on data, or is it just common sense?

In contrast to social media and inbound marketing, I think data is less important for ABM. You need to rely on the people who are actually in contact with your accounts to gauge the results of your campaigns.

ABM is much more emotional, and that’s a good thing, since I see it as an integral part of the entire customer experience.

ABM at DS Smith

DS Smith is a big corporation with 37 different countries and around 28,500 employees but David says they operate like a start-up. Having received buy-in from the board, its ABM programme is now delivering results.


For David the key to success has been the direct and personal approach they have taken with the strategy. This has required heavy cross-departmental cooperation.

Don't miss David speaking at The B2B Marketing Conference

David's session 'From ice-cold to white-hot: how to use ABM as a stepping stone' will be running at 2.40 - 3.10.

And don't miss our other breakout speakers for more tips to take back to the office.

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ABM: A stepping stone to the customer