Leading (and learning) through uncertainty: a B2B marketing agency director’s perspective

Running a marketing department or agency is always challenging but right now, it’s the kind of challenge even marketing’s equivalent of Bear Grylls might balk at. Here, Jodie Williams, co-founder of B2B agency The Marketing Pod, gives her perspective on managing a team and meeting customer expectations through the Covid-19 crisis: what's worked so far, what hasn't - and how their team is helping clients make more agile plans for a future in which so much remains unknown.

As a leader, you’re the person everyone turns to in a crisis - it’s your job to guide your team and your customers through challenging times. But the coronavirus crisis has left businesses and leaders across the world facing circumstances we’ve never experienced before, so the last few months have been a real learning curve for us at The Marketing Pod and many other businesses too, I’d imagine.

I’ve helped businesses to market through challenging times before, such as the 2008 financial crisis, and I’ve always found that falling back on your strategy is critical - because the foundations of a good marketing strategy - customer insight, perfect positioning etc. - should always be useful. This is just as true right now - but at the same time, we’re constantly learning and adapting to the ever-changing environment.

Here’s what’s working for us:  

Rolling with the changes

The past months have affected every business - and every business person - differently. For most marketers, it hasn’t just meant a change to the usual working routines, it’s also made the everyday work of engaging with audiences much more difficult. Behaviours have changed, customer sentiment keeps shifting, and there’s so much digital content that some marketplaces are in danger of over saturation. It’s little wonder that some B2B businesses have been tempted to press pause on campaigns and wait it out - but this is something we’ve been advising our own clients not to do.

Research tells us that it’s important to keep communicating through a crisis, and that the brands that do so will come out stronger than those that don’t. But we also know that the marketing activity many B2B businesses had in plan for 2020 suddenly became less relevant or impossible to execute. So the question has been how to adjust - and in many cases, how to do that with a reduced budget and a dispersed team. It has no doubt provided some sleepless nights for many marketing leaders, just as it has for myself and Pod’s co-founder Jen. But in some ways it’s also been exciting: it’s been a time for imagination and innovation, and it’s shown us that it’s possible to achieve brilliant things on tight budgets and short timescales, provided you’re willing to be flexible and try something new. Our new mantra? Don’t pause, pivot.

Focusing on existing customers

For many of our clients, one of the key business concerns has been the lack of opportunity for prospecting. Acquisition has been much more difficult, so the potential for growth has had to be found through existing customer relationships. And growth is possible, if you get it right. By refocusing your efforts on building thoughtful and personalised customer journeys, taking a deep dive into your data and finding new ways to offer customers something that is truly relevant and interesting for them, you’re likely to boost your ability to cross-sell to your existing customers.

In keeping with this, now is also the time to take all of those creative account-based marketing (ABM) ideas you’ve had over the past couple of years and execute them. As marketers, we’re always trying to ‘cut through the noise’ - and one-to-one or one-to-few ABM is what’s hitting the spot right now. People want to feel seen, and understood. They’re possibly overwhelmed by digital marketing messages in their remote working location, or feeling over-stretched as they return to the office after weeks or months away. Only the really relevant and timely messages are going to have any impact in those circumstances, so be the business that keeps it clear, simple and genuinely useful; building loyalty by offering value and transparency.

Trying new things

I think one of the things that has kept Jen and I feeling so positive over the last few months has been that our team and our clients have been so willing to try out new things. Our team has made remote collaboration look simple, which makes us feel incredibly proud, and their flexible ‘can do’ attitude must certainly play some part in the confidence with which our clients have quickly said yes to projects that might previously have taken a little longer to get through sign-off. To other B2B marketers, I would say ‘take the leap’. Our industry is sometimes accused of being too bland or playing it too safe, but you don’t need a big budget to step away from your usual tried and tested methods. Whether you’re considering upping your social media game, investing in video, recording your own podcast, or even running a week long digital ‘on-demand’ series of expert B2B content like we recently did for Inspired Energy, now is the perfect time to try something you might never have considered before.

Looking to the future

Right now, agency and department leaders are probably focused on two divergent demands: getting people slowly and safely back into the office, and making sure their products and services are front of mind for clients as some semblance of normal business resumes. It’s a busy time. But it’s vital that alongside all of the immediate demands, marketing leaders take the time to map out their longer-term strategies, to ensure they make the very most of 2021. We’ve already started working with our own clients - some of whom have become more focused on tactics during the first half of the year - to go back to their overarching strategy, refresh their messaging, reassess their proof points and solidify their brand identity - and above all to build in the kind of creative and approval processes that enable agility. If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us , it’s that agility is a super power. Let’s use it well.

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