B2B Marketing – A Personal History
I have been involved in B2B Marketing for three decades and lived through multiple waves of change in this industry. Normally, I look ahead rather than backward, so I apologize in advance for a self-indulgent trip down memory lane. Looking back, I saw how B2B Marketing had changed dramatically and fast in a relatively short period. Here is my personal story of living that evolution.
How I Got Started in B2B Marketing
My first job out of college was as a junior account executive at the newly formed DMB&B in London. It was the very tail end of the MadMen Days. It was the late 80s, London was booming, and the UK advertising industry was riding high. And damn, it was fun!
I worked on classic consumer packaged goods brands like Mars and Tetley Tea. I made dozens of TV commercials, including some high-profile campaigns with some big celebrities.
Back then, B2B marketing was a backwater in the industry. DMB&B had DEC (the old Digital Computer) as a client. It was all a bit of a mystery to me. From what I could tell, the agency did the occasional obscure print ad in a few trade mags. There seemed to be a lot of activity without much to show. I knew this was an important client, but I didn’t know why. B2B Marketing seemed to be about doing a little brand awareness building, some direct mail, the annual trade show and not much else.
In 1988, I moved to Houston, Texas, and joined Ogilvy & Mather. The agency had a well-earned reputation as a great place to learn. This was my first exposure to working on a B2B account, as I was hired as an AE on the Compaq account.
B2B was not Boring-to-Boring
Compaq was the insurgent in the computer market, and we were going toe-to-toe with IBM. It was the IBM Charlie Chaplin campaign era, not long after Apple’s 1984 spot. The budgets were huge, and I was impressed with the strategic approach in how we developed campaigns. It was much faster-paced than packaged goods advertising. We produced more TV, print ads, and other tactics in a year than a packaged goods account produced in five years. This was a lot more fun than I expected.
It was exciting, but I was frustrated that we never really knew what impact we were having. Compaq’s business was exploding, but it was hard to directly link what we were doing and their success. And, when their business hit a wall, they fired Ogilvy. Advertising got little credit for Compaq’s success but seemed to get the blame when things went badly.
In the early 90s, I moved with Ogilvy to New York. Initially, I worked on some packaged goods accounts, but this seemed a bit dull. A year or so later, Ogilvy won the IBM account, and I was one of the first account executives on this vast global account. It was exciting to be back in B2B marketing, but the same issues remained.
I had no idea if anything I was doing was having any effect. We were spending millions of dollars on TV commercials and rafts of print ads in the computer trade magazines, but it was still hard to correlate anything we were doing with demand.
The Web Changed Everything
While I was working on the IBM account, I had an epiphany.
My father-in-law had given my family a PC for Christmas. This old 386-chip beige box came with a 9600 baud modem and a Netcom CD. I had never been online, and one evening I thought I would give the new thing called the Worldwide Web a whirl.
At 6 pm, I booted up the PC, put the Netcom disk in the CD Drive, and got online for the first time.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
By 3 am the next morning, I finally logged off. There weren’t many websites then, and by the time I went to bed, I had probably visited most of them. It was chaotic and hard to navigate. Most websites were corporate brochures, but it was clear that this was transformative. This could be the biggest thing in my career, and I wanted to get in early.
The Early Days of Digital B2B Marketing
Within a year, I left Ogilvy to join the interactive arm of Grey advertising. This was a small group, and we had to figure everything out. How to build a website, what an ad banner should look like, and how to advertise.
We were helping Sprint’s B2B Marketing team use online ads to get new customers. We were placing banners using a traditional ad exposure-based model. It worked well, and we could measure the impact of what we were doing using direct-marketing metrics.
One day, we had a meeting with the sales rep from Yahoo. He told us about a radical new concept called keyword ads. We could buy out a search word exclusively, and our client’s ad would appear at the top of the page whenever someone searched for that term. This sounded cool, and we asked if we could buy the terms”AT&T” and “Sprint.” No one had asked Yahoo if they could buy a competitive term before!
Sprint loved that we were sticking it to the big guy, and the ads using the AT&T search term performed well.
Two weeks later, the Yahoo rep called me in a panic. They had to renege on the deal as AT&T threatened to boycott Yahoo for letting us do this. It was frustrating as this campaign had been effective.
BTW, You may notice that this technique is familiar. This was an early instance of what is now Google Ads.
Dell the Pioneer
What Dell did in the 90s was a dramatic example of how the web transformed B2B marketing.
In the mid-90s, Dell was the hottest computer company. They had built an extraordinarily successful business by dominating the PC magazines with direct marketing ads driving to 1-800 numbers.
Michael Dell saw the potential of the web immediately, but even in 1998, their website was a mess. We were hired to fix this. We developed a design that simplified the buyer experience. The results were extraordinary. Within a couple of months, Dell’s online sales reached $1 million per day. This made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
Most of the sales were not transacted online and were closed by a sales rep calling a customer back, but the impact was clear. How B2B goods would be sold and marketed was being changed forever.
The Birth of The Digital Demand Engine
Going into the new millennium, I moved into digital business building. At first as a consultant for an internet consulting firm and then as my first steps as an entrepreneur. B2B Marketing was central to this, and I started two businesses that rode the next wave of B2B Marketing.
This was the early days of the CRM explosion, primarily driven by the rise of Salesforce. My first attempt at a startup was founding a CRM firm. We had our own SaaS CRM platform and positioned this as a database marketing platform. We struggled to get far with this. Salesforce was the platform of choice, and we were undercapitalized. After 18 months, we gave up and sold the assets to a B2B marketing firm.
I then teamed up with a friend, and we started a B2B marketing consulting firm focused on database management and marketing.
We were early in the new wave of B2B marketing. The industry had shifted from being heavily dependent on trade shows and direct mail to creating digitally-driven demand engines.
The “tactic du jour” was the gated white paper accompanied by mass email marketing. It was spray and pray, but it worked.
Over the next few years, these approaches were adopted by the vast majority of B2B marketers. It became the default marketing modus operandi for tech firms.
One of my passions is the use of social media. I was an early adopter of LinkedIn, but to be honest, until the last few years, I never really got the hang of using LinkedIn as a marketer.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, I became obsessed with the power of social media but mostly as a personal experiment. In this post, you can read about how sailing + social + SEO changed how I thought about marketing.
In 2012, I started a health-tech company, Practice Unite (later renamed Uniphy Health). We never had the capital to market aggressively and depended on owned and earned (i.e., lower cost) tactics to build the business. We found that the combination of good storytelling, amplified with PR and social media, got the word out and built awareness of our firm in a targeted way.
We developed a formula that worked well. Whenever we had a good customer story to tell, our PR partner pitched it to the targeted trade media. We posted about it extensively on LinkedIn, sent out emails, and our Chief Medical Officer used this for outreach in a very targeted and ABM’y way to specific accounts.
While we never had the budget to blow it out, I felt we had an outsized reach for a small firm. I didn’t realize it then but were doing an early version of ABM.
In 2019, we sold the firm, and it was time for the next thing.
A New Mission Driven by Two Passions
I returned to my first passion, B2B marketing, and combined it with my newly found passion, selling to healthcare. My mission was to help address one of the hardest things in sales and marketing: Selling to healthcare. This is why I set up healthlaunchpad.
I felt that I had unfinished business. I was disappointed that I had not marketed my health-tech business as I had wanted to. I vowed to myself that I would not let that happen with healthlaunchpad.
To that end, the first thing I did was learn how to use LinkedIn effectively. I took a course with the amazing Adam Franklin. Adam taught me how to use Linkedin and helped me shape a vision for building this new business.
Over the last few years, I have developed a model that works well for us. There are four corners to how we market:
- Content – I create something new at least once per week, and there is a deliberate strategy behind this to build authority in what we do. By the way, I also learn a lot by writing as it forces me to figure things out.
- SEO– In my work with Adam Franklin, I was introduced to fellow Texan Karen Finn, PhD, an awesome SEO pro. We worked together to develop an approach that has 10X’d our traffic.
- Social – LinkedIn is my medium of choice. I aim to post ten times per week and send 20 invitations daily. I analyze and optimize obsessively. Over the last 2 ½ years, my network has tripled, and engagement is always growing.
- Partnerships – The relationship with HIMSS has been a cornerstone of the success of healthlaunchpad. We do webinars, podcasts, and market research together. We have also developed partnerships with Bombora and HITMC.
Account-Based Marketing – The Son of B2B Marketing
The most exciting thing in B2B Marketing is how it is becoming account-based marketing (ABM). This is the future of B2B marketing. For a few companies, ABM is part of how they do business, but relatively few firms have fully embraced this. Many are on the journey, and I am as excited about ABM as I was about my first trip on the internet.
I have written about this extensively, and you can see some of this here.
Why am I so obsessed with the potential of ABM?
It just makes sense.
Rather than casting a wide net hoping to catch a random few accounts, you focus your resources more effectively on accounts that are in-market for what you do. It’s also about tailoring your messages and content to attract accounts that are more likely to be a good fit for you.
Long-term, ABM and its sister ABX are about creating long-term profitable relationships with customers who give you more business and advocate for you.
What’s not to love about that?
Thanks for humoring me on my trip down memory lane. I continue to be as passionate about B2B Marketing as when I started three decades ago. You can follow my passion by checking out our Learning Center.