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BMA Conference 2014 report: it’s time to get emotional

Just back from a whirlwind three days at the BMA (Business Marketing Association) conference in Chicago – entitled this year ‘Where B2B’s going’. For a B2B officianiado/obsessive, like it’s my business to be, it’s an unmissable event, not just for the quality of the content and speakers, but for the networking, socialising (with 1000 people in attendance, you’re bound to find someone that you like) and general topic-immersion opportunities. Where else in the world can you hear senior marketers from the likes of GE, Cisco, Accenture and Airbus plus others all in the same place? The answer is no-where.

Added to that, Chicago is simply lovely city to visit – it manages to combine the grandeur and bustle of big-city America, but with a slightly more laid back mid-Western charm and air. The historic Hilton Hotel where the event took place was adjacent to Millennium Park, which is a stunning place for a pre or post conference walk, and the locals seem to love an English accent… so what’s not to like?


So what was the content like – and more importantly, what did I learn? With two and a half days of formal conference sessions on offer (beginning at 8am, incidentally, for the early risers staying in conference the hotel), and a mixture of session formats, there was something for everyone… although inevitably that means some sessions didn’t quite come off – there is still a degree of lottery booking speakers. That said, the quality was generally high, and there were a liberal smattering of well-known authors and consultants as speakers to complement the big brands marketing supremos to give the agenda and delivery real clout. 

As usual conference organiser and host Gary Slack, CEO of Chicago agency Slack & Co, together with the BMA National team, had done a fantastic job pulling together a diverse and eclectic line-up and making sure it all came together on the day. The standout speaker was Gary Vaynerchuk of Vayner Media, who could probably give the UK’s own Scot McKee a run for his money in terms of the number of four-letter words used in his presentation per minute. Besides that (or perhaps because of this) his session was fantastic, full of excellent anecdotes and genuine personal passion about how digital is transforming marketing… and how we’ve got to wake up and get onboard. The only downside was that, to me at least, his B2B credentials were a bit shaky – I don’t recall a single B2B example quoted, and it weren’t for the fact that he was name checked by Linda Boff from GE for the work his agency has done with them, I would have left assuming he was a B2C interloper.

Amongst many other highlights, Jay Baer told us about Youtility and how we all need to be useful, Tim Washer from Cisco showed us how we can use comedy, there was a new and compelling take on storytelling from Jonah Sachs and finally Steve Young introduced us to the delightful but archaic world of Industrial Musicals from the 50s-70s (I’m taking personal credit for this one, having introduced him to Gary Slack, after hearing his co-author on the BBC.)


But the central theme, which kept cropping up again and again, was Emotion in B2B, and the role of the brand in delivering that. The scene was set in Google’s pre-conference address, leveraging research done with the CEB which showed that value based messages don’t really cut through – it’s the emotional ones that do. Oh, and by the way, did you know that B2B customers generally have more emotional relationships with brands than consumers do? It’s true, they have the research to prove it.

The topic was round off nicely in particularly evident in Karen Walker of Cisco’s presentation, where she debunked the metrics myth and the overwhelming focus on that which we’ve seen in recent years. Instead of ‘if you can’t measure it, don’t do it’ we should think now in terms of ‘if you can’t make them feel it, don’t do it.’ It’s a quite a profound shift. As Johnny Hyde of Burns Marketing summed it up for me, it’s as if last year’s discussion about content marketing has taken us so far, we now need to understand what it means to people.

It’s a message that seemed to resonate with everyone in attendance, and one that I’m personally delighted to get behind. I’m writing this blog at Chicago Airport, happy but elated after a very productive and enjoyable few days. Getting to Chicago for three days at the end of May isn’t cheap or convenient for Europeans, but it’s absolutely worth it. Hope to see you there next year.