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2018: Time to back your brand, says Gary Slack

Forget the latest marketing fads, 2018 should be the year when B2B marketers invest in the fundamentals - specifically brand and data. So says longstanding B2B marketing luminary Gary Slack of Chicago-based agency Slack and Company.

Like all industries, marketing is a fashion industry, with techniques and technologies coming in and out of vogue, sometimes at an alarming rate. And in this environment, it’s refreshing to speak to someone whose perspective completely cuts through much of this short-term narrative. Gary Slack, founder and CEO of Chicago-based agency Slack and Company, and a longstanding and highly influential figure in the B2B marketing scene in the USA, is just one such individual.

Slack is celebrating three decades running his agency, riding a wave of one of the most successful years in terms of new business in its history. “Despite what I personally think about Trump, his tax cuts have unleashed lots of optimism in the economy,” he says . “It has loosened up corporate budgets, and enabled things to grow organically. It’s allowing people to do things that they’ve wanted to do for years – and that includes marketing.”

This feel-good factor is impacting on the kind of marketing that B2B companies are investing in – and in terms of Slack and Company’s clients, that means there’s a renewed focus on the brand. “When things are more uncertain, sometimes brand work takes a hit, with attention moving back towards demand generation. But continuously putting all your efforts into demand generation ultimately drives diminishing returns. Some people say that you’re either a brand agency or a demand generation agency: you can’t be both. We’ve always tried to walk the fine line between these two areas, and I believe we’re being rewarded now because we stuck to our guns.”

Slack points to the project his agency did for Choice Hotels in the past year as an example of the growing interest in brand work, building up its proposition for corporate travel managers, and showing the business market that they had a relevant proposition for business travellers. “They wanted to open up the B2B market to both build on and complement their strong heritage in B2C. It’s very comparable to the work that we did with Ebay a few years ago, building their B2B brand.”

While understanding of and interest in brand may be undergoing something of a resurgence, Gary Slack believes the same needs to happen in data – another perennial area where B2B brands have struggled over the years. “Data is always the elephant in the room. Almost every B2B company’s database sucks. Despite all the talk and all the hype, the quality is still very poor. It needs intensive investment in hygiene. And even where the quality is good, the systems don’t talk to one another creating other problems.”

He suggests that some B2B marketers are trying to ignore, or shortcut this issue. “For the past few years, marketers have started to believe that they can do everything through inbound marketing. While inbound is undoubtedly a powerful tool, the greatest opportunities emerge when you combine inbound and outbound. Outbound is proven to work, but it relies on good data. You need to leverage the best of both worlds – it’s critical to dovetail them.”

Slack is similarly unmoved by the current flavour of the month in B2B: account-based marketing, or ABM. “ABM is a stupid, stupid term. We’ve been doing what they call ABM for 20 years. There’s not much that’s new about this – it’s just marketing and sales working together more closely. The reason it’s popular is that too many B2B firms are doing too much mass marketing, and they realise they are having to work harder to make marketing work.”

It’s probably inevitable that someone so invested in great B2B marketing over so many years will have a slightly sceptical perspective on apparent revolutions in the space. Even the most fervent ABM enthusiast would agree that there’s more than a hint of the emperor’s new clothes about this topic – or that it’s anything but good news if B2B companies are starting to invest in brand. Marketing trends and technologies will come and go, but Slack and Company will keep on doing what they are best at – creating great B2B marketing.