Blog | Robert Davis 05.07.18

B2B marketing agencies and the big martech squeeze

What's the role of the B2B agency as clients systemize every element of their B2B marketing?

If you’re a B2B marketing agency, you must be feeling it – the ever-increasing pressure on your business.

From the left, it’s clients building out their tech stack and growing the staff and skills to put a tightly integrated marketing system to work.

From the right, it’s the push against your offerings as systems of practice like SiriusDecisions come into place, offering strategic frameworks, research, templates and lots more to help marketing leaders “make better decisions, execute with precision and accelerate growth.”

Frameworks, templates and consulting services aren’t anything new, but Sirius has been able to assemble these elements into a very compelling package that promises to help you to integrate... well, just about everything.

In addition to organizing and aligning marketing activity from strategy to execution, Sirius took on some long-broken pieces of the mix; for example, re-integrating the awareness layer, largely left behind during the rise of martech culture, and equally importantly, addressing the chronic, festering misalignment between sales and marketing.

Sirius engineered lots of inefficiencies out of the system and built in transparency and top-to-bottom accountability from the outset. The promise of a modern, technocratic era of B2B marketing was apparently fulfilled.

What’s next for the B2B marketing agency?

By now we should be used to the idea that services we incubate and grow will migrate in-house to the client’s team. Lots of clients buy their own search and make tons of content. A few years ago, I visited a brand to find that they’d remade the lobby of their space as a glass-walled video studio and were rotating their senior thought leaders through it to manufacture new video content every day. That’s a pace that’s hard for an agency to keep up with, and not a great use of our creative capabilities.

But there are other times when the shifting tides can feel more like the calm before a tsunami of change. We’ve been invited into a number of reviews over the past couple of years that were essentially invitations to submit a creative theme for the coming year that would be executed internally – and that could essentially be answered with a library of selected stock photos and a theme line. That’s when you start to wonder what your future looks like. But those were worst-case examples, and there are loads of great clients out there adopting systems of thinking and execution who still need the best parts of what we do.

So what’s a B2B marketing agency to do?

As I see it are a couple options available. Lots of agencies will continue to build value by being better than their clients at pieces of the integrated puzzle. As we’ve all experienced, there aren’t many clients with the time, money and staff to get good at all of this stuff.

So agencies on this path build skills and get certified on the technical elements of the stack. More and more frequently, they pay for subscriptions to SiriusDecisions as well, so they can plug into the thinking and planning. As B2B agencies we’ve all dedicated some part of our brainpower to continuing to learn, and this is one more step in that journey.

But there’s another role for us, and it’s an important one. We have to step up to defend the thing that defines us best: creativity.

The missing element in modern B2B marketing

SiriusDecisions marketing materials tell you about the eight keys to success with marketing campaigns. The list spans a set of activities that range from segmentation analysis to building a campaign dashboard. What’s missing?

The idea. That big, engaging, exciting idea that lives at the center of all of those tactics. The idea that has the power you need to blow right past “well organized and relevant” to get to “original and emotionally engaging.”

Don’t get me wrong; this is no argument for a return to some mythical golden era of B2B brand creativity. There have always been good and bad examples. It’s just that we’ve now reached a tipping point in the evolution of B2B marketing and advertising, embodied in a peculiar paradox: the very systems that make B2B marketing more efficient are more likely to be used to engineer out the creativity that can help make it more effective.

What exactly do I mean by that? Well, by integrating everything, we’ve created the ideal conditions to make the most of really big ideas. Ideas that can align advertising to content to conference and face-to-face experiences and add something unique and powerful to each setting.

But that’s less likely to happen than ever. Don’t kid yourself – this system is going to fight back against challenging ideas. It’s far easier to plug in a stock photo and pre-approved value statement from the digital asset management system than it is to support the time and insights to fuel a truly rich exploration of the best unifying ideas for your brand.

You can pursue handling the campaign integration and offering the Big Idea – and some agencies are doing just that. Or you can just try to be the idea agency, and there should be a role for you to that if you’re really good at what you do.

But just getting good at the systems? I think that’s likely to leave you working in the absence of the best and biggest ideas – and competing with your client to do what you do at the lowest cost. You can try it if you want.

Personally, I’m holding out for the ideas big enough to power the whole stack.

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