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B2B Is Dead. Long Live Human Relevance.

A year ago, I traveled to historic Berlin to deliver the most important speech of my 30-year career. This great city, of course, was the scene of JFK’s “Let them come to Berlin” speech and Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” address. I had no pretensions that my remarks at a B2B Europe Conference would be either historic, if even memorable. But I did know that I had come to Berlin to declare the death of the category of marketing communications to which I had theretofore dedicated my entire professional life.


“B2B is dead,” I told the several hundred gathered there. It gave me no particular pleasure to do so. I had founded a B2B agency in the American Midwest in 1981 and not only built my firm through the years into the world's largest, but also championed the importance, distinctiveness and prospects of those professionals who market goods and services to other businesses. Friends in the industry took to referring to me as “Mr. B-to-B”; many still do.


But my offense against my own kindred was that I was to be the one to declare the party over. B2B is dead. Kaput. The discipline of reaching, persuading and engaging business decision-makers changed irrevocably when people began carrying their own telecommunications and computing power on their person. “Being at work is no longer a place, but rather a state of mind,” I told the audience last December. “The individual has replaced the firm as the organizing principle of business-to-business marketing,” I added. Human relevance is now the foundation of marketing to business decision-makers, and it is mostly terra incognito for those still lingering round the grave of B2B.


I have spoken to hundreds of audiences over the course of my career, written dozens of articles for publication and websites like this one, served on the boards of several important industry associations. But nothing I have ever said or done has been seemingly more influential than what I said on that fateful trip to Berlin in 2010.


When I returned to the U.S., almost immediately I was drawn into a widely covered public debate with our competitive peers, at least one of whom argued that we aren't doing anything appreciably different than we ever have, only with different tools. I suggested he stay his present course in the hope and with the confidence that he would soon no longer be one of our competitive peers.


As we say in Appalachian foothill region from whence I originate, “We kicked a hog in the tail,” though I really wasn’t trying to be just the agent provocateur. I really, genuinely believed then, as I do now, that what we have known as B2B is dead, behind us. A passion for a new paradigm, a NeoB2B, has gone viral.


Nowhere was this confirmed to me more obviously than as I visited with clients and prospects throughout 2011. Our agency was named earlier this year as advisor to Forbes Media, the venerated U.S. general business publisher, for its Chief Marketing Officer Practice. My job has been to visit face-to-face and counsel with over 150 senior marketing executives in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. With virtual unanimity, they have repeatedly affirmed the demise of B2B.


“There is no longer any such thing as B2B,” one told me. Another observed, “Work-life balance is a myth; it’s just life.” Yet another claimed, “Business decision-makers are just a different kind of consumer.” It seems that world-class marketers everywhere have awakened to the fact that today we are communicating with living, breathing human beings with aspirations, spirits and emotions. Oh, it’s undoubtedly true we’ve always known that business-to-business, at the end of the day, was person-to-person. But what the world’s savviest marketers seem to have appreciated quickly is that personalization was the last best practice. Humanly relevant ideas are the new best practice.


No longer is it enough to understand the requirements of a person in a job title to be successful in influencing that person to make a purchase consideration. No longer is it enough for an advertising planner to get into the head of a business decision-maker. With the amplified voices and the new organizational empowerment of these humans at work, successful marketers must get into their hearts. This venue is softer, more humane, more empathetic and, dare we say it, more loving.


People have been rendered numb by the demands of this new, flat-world economy: incessant messaging, high-performance pressure, overexposure, loss of privacy. It’s been said, “They love brands, but hate advertising.” In a day gone by, a person in employment would be pummeled by the day’s labor, and then retreat to the sanctuary of home to rest and regroup. Now, work follows them wherever they go, and they’ve become insensate to commercial messaging.


The only way we’ll revive them is with humanly relevant ideas that respect their humanity and ignite their hearts. That’s the new frontier in which we’re passionately focused.