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Transformation acceleration, and the challenges for B2B Marketing Leaders

Transformation was the unintended, but highly relevant focus of our latest B2B Marketing Leaders virtual roundtable, which revealed some fascinating insights into how marketing leaders are driving and enabling change in their organisation.

Is there a word used more frequently than ‘transformation’ in B2B marketing circles these days? (Possibly ‘unprecedented’… but I’m hoping to leave the discussion about coronavirus-instigated marketing language and clichés to B2B Marketing’s topic expert David McGuire.) Over-used or not, transformation was the focus of our most recent B2B Marketing Leaders virtual roundtable, which as ever proved to be a fascinating discussion.

We didn’t set out to talk about transformation. The brief, when the event was scheduled (in the period we now know as BC – before corona), was to talk about how marketing leaders communicate with the board, and in particular, to use storytelling to drive the agenda. And while this was certainly covered, transformation trumped it as a theme for those in attendance. It was clearly more pressing on the minds of most of the attendees, and it resulted in the most interesting anecdotes.

I’ve been more cynical than most about the transformation bandwagon, but in world defined by CV19, it’s impossible to dismiss its significance. Every B2B organisation is transforming in the wake of the arrival of the virus; some faster than others; some more reluctantly than others; and some with a clearer idea of what they are transforming into than others. In all instances, marketing should be playing a significant if not driving role – and attendees to our roundtable were full of observations, advice and insights from their personal experience of this, and how they work with the board to drive it forward. Here are some of the key learnings that I took from this session.

1.  The challenger CMO

B2B marketing leaders were certainly agreed on one thing: that it’s their responsibility to challenge the board, and the CEO in particular – to tell them things that they didn’t appreciate, understand or sometimes even like. The arrival of coronavirus has made that primary function even more critical, but often even more difficult, given the general sense of stress that senior executives are under, but that makes it no less important. If there was ever a time to become a ‘yes’ woman or man, it isn’t now.

2.  Huddling helps

Delivering transformation in current circumstances is likely to demand an unprecedented level of collaboration between the exec board, with marketing included. Epic monthly meetings might come back into vogue once coronavirus has receded, but for now, shorter and more frequent catchups are likely to be more appropriate and will allow marketing leaders to adjust trajectory and maintain commitment in a context of numerous priorities.

3.  Push and pull to drive change

Change management leadership can come from within the organisation, as well as from the top – shadow boards are a good way of enabling ideas to come from 2IC roles or other non-board level personnel who may have a more nuanced view of the challenges that the organisation faces, and possible solutions for these. They can also discuss and feedback on strategies proposed by the senior team – they are likely to be a great sanity check.

4.  New role = new broom

Marketing leaders who are new in role are most likely to be better place to drive quick and decisive change than those who have been incumbent for significantly longer, and may be perceived as part of the firmament. New marketing appointees may have an unprecedented license for bold, brave and decisive thinking – it may be an opportunity of a lifetime.

5.  Channel your influence

In global companies, it’s highly likely that senior marketers (in regions at least) won’t have any direct board level engagement. In these instances, storytelling must be done via collaboration with intermediaries who do have the relevant influence. The focus must therefore be on building an appropriate partnership with that individual, as well as engaging in two way upward and downward dialogue.

6.  Personas can personify change

For a board wary or unwilling to understand or accept the message, demonstrating the impact of changes (or failure to change) on customer personas can be a really powerful way of communicating a message, and taking proposals from theoretical to reality.

7.     Keep the customer satisfied

Buzz-phrases like customer-centricity and customer-obsessed are easy to say, but the reality is more complex, and it’s unlikely that the board will have any idea of what this really means. That’s where marketing comes in and can really demonstrate its value and insight. The situation becomes more complex in the growing number of companies that have created a customer success function – there’s likely to be a turf war here, but it’s in marketing’s interests to get that resolved ASAP.

8.     Beware of searching for the ‘Goldilocks’ data zone

Data is unquestionably helpful in telling stories to the board, but having too much data can be more problematic than not having enough. No marketers attending believed that they had the right amount – one had been asked to set up a brand new ‘marketing enablement’ function to help its marketers make better use of data – both what it has and what it doesn’t yet have. The challenge marketers face is making the best use of what they have available, and wrapping narrative around it to tell a compelling story. Don’t wait for the perfect data set that may never come, or may come too late.

9.     Transformation demands continued commitment

Enlightened or responsive boards may have enabled their companies to have already made significant steps towards transformation or reorientation of the business, following lockdown. But there’s no room for complacency anywhere, and further changes will certainly be required – for example, for infrastructure investment to support changes already made or planned. Marketing’s challenge is to maintain dialogue and provide clarity to prepare the way for the further changes that almost certainly lie ahead for everyone.

10.  Execs must embody transformation

If the company needs to change (and what company doesn’t these days?) the board’s actions are critical in delivering that change. They must embody it, in both words and actions. Lip service will be incredibly transparent, and undermine the best strategy and communications plan.

About the B2B Marketing Leaders programme

B2B Marketing is running regular roundtables to help CMOs, marketing directors, VPs and other B2B Marketing Leaders to navigate the coronavirus crisis and prepare for what comes next. For more information on the programme go to our website.

If you’d like to join one of these sessions, email