Driving growth through a coronavirus crisis: tips for marketers in adtech & media

By Paul Evans, a strategy and marketing consultant and former Global Head of Media at Vodafone.

I started my little B2B strategy and marketing projects business after leaving Vodafone as Global Head of Media, on the strength of my experience and insights “sitting on the other side of the desk” from adtech and media businesses for over 20 years.

I have always been a champion of marketing as both a core business function and driver of growth, and underpinning this, the central idea that evidence-based approaches should govern how we deliver this. You may or may not be familiar with Byron Sharp and his seminal work captured in the book “How Brands Grow”?

To put it bluntly, Byron called bullshit on years of misinformation and hyperbole about marketing, leaving the industry with no doubts as to what really worked as operating practice for brands. This work was based on years of validated research submissions that defined actual B2C marketing practice with real business outcomes. Gold dust that has changed how marketers think about marketing.

Now, this same evidence-based methodologies have just been applied to understanding B2B practice, actions and outcomes, with the work of two other notable and respected advertising researchers: Les Binet and Peter Field – work that you should feel confident is equally well interrogated and extrapolated.

What did they find? That B2B markets and businesses operate in a very similar way to B2C markets, with the same implications for marketing and growth.

For any CEO, CFO, CMO or member of the marketing function within adtech or media, these implications are clear and are captured as The 5 Principles of Growth in B2B by The B2B Institute – they make essential reading and shouldn’t be ignored:

  • Invest in Share of Voice: B2B brands that set their share of voice (SOV) above their share of market (SOM) tend to grow more.
  • Balance Brand and Activation: B2B brands should balance the budget between long-term brand building and short-term sales activation, with a 50/50 split.
  • Expand your Customer Base: B2B customer acquisition strategies tend to be much more effective than loyalty strategies.
  • Maximize Mental Availability: B2B campaigns that aim to increase a firm’s share of mind are the most effective, and the more famous they make the company, the better the business results.
  • Harness the Power of Emotion: Emotional messaging is more effective in the long-term, and rational messaging is more effective in the short-term.

So if this is what good looks like – if this is what we as B2B marketing practitioners should be aiming for – then what does this mean for how we should be responding to the rapidly evolving challenges that the COVID-19 virus presents us? I personally feel this is a case of both everything changing, but everything staying the same.

Marketing remains a growth driver for your adtech and media business, and the principles of growth in B2B remain assured and constant throughout changing operating conditions.

Despite the temptation to go into hibernation and cut budgets and activity, it is proven that those brands and businesses who maintain or increase their marketing efforts during times of crisis or downturn will be stronger and more relevant into recovery. Conversely, those businesses that contract their marketing communication will find it harder to get back to their previous competitive position.

There’s lots of examples to back this up, with Kantar finding that those brands that invested throughout the 2008 recession, recovered 9 x faster than those that did the opposite.

Any business leader who has instigated a retraction in operations or marketing resources right now, needs to understand that their actions – although seemingly necessary in the short-term – will make it harder for the business to bounce back when more positive conditions prevail.

But I wanted to reflect that I am not undercalling the challenging times that the marketing services industry is in right now. According to a survey conducted just last week by Marketing Week / eConsultancy, the majority of brands that we depend on for our revenues and fees are reacting to delay advertising spend, product launches, key hiring and even digital transformation investment – just at a time when they need all this most.

This is particularly true for brands in verticals like travel, entertainment and sports, and our exposure will be different dependent on audience, category or channel profile

It’s important that we recognise that this isn’t also just another recession – that these aren’t just the same market conditions. Critically too, that our marketing efforts don’t have to correlate to investment per se – that there are many different ways in which adtech and media businesses can look to drive the adoption of the principles of B2B growth as an operating framework for marketing to do more than just survive this period of change and uncertainty.

I’ve summarised some actions you might take right now, as follows:

Learning Mindset

Customer understanding is central to a marketing orientated business. It’s how you will find the key insights, ideas and permissions from the people that you are looking to create business value for.

Teads has looked to raise the value of quality news content at this time, and how brands and businesses should seek to support this – through advertising spend and better brand safety management. ClearChannel and Ocean Outdoor are using their outdoor estate to demonstrate its ongoing effectiveness, by running messages of thanks to the NHS staff that are doing such a heroic job for us all right now. In both examples, they have thought about their customers and audiences, in combination with demonstrating relevance and value within the present situation.

Clear Leadership

Being clear about what you stand for and delivering this through assertive action feels like a requirement right now. Take what you know to embody your brand values and purpose, and deliver this through a lens that inspires confidence and logic to the situation.

The way that Marriott, Levi’s, Lush and Apple have chosen to speak with empathy and commitment to both customers and employees has been admirable, leaving no room for doubt on how they intend to operate in the market right now.

A more relevant B2B example is how MediaTel has literally upended its model of operation from physical to virtual events, acting as both a service to the industry and a demonstration of their flexibility at times of change.

Long-term Thinking

A typical B2B business might have half of its marketing budget sitting in events – which have largely been cancelled or postponed right now. This investment could either drop to the bottom line or it could be repurposed, and digital marketing – in its various forms – should look to become the most likely recipient of that, given where B2B audiences and customers are right now, working from home with their laptops.

But is this a time to over-index on immediate conversion and lead generation right now – probably not. I believe we should be looking towards more of a focus on longer-term brand building activities, such as training, operational support, business insights, thought leadership, and trial of product features.

The latter I think is really interesting – what better way to show value right now, than to open up your platform for immersion and experimentation to prove value at a time of change. A small business called Subly – that offers a smart subtitling service for video content creators – has done just that, at a time where communicating clearly through digital means is important to a number of sectors, e.g. education and healthcare. Brilliant.

What’s important right now is to not go backwards – it’s a time of change, and that change – although of course in difficult circumstances – needs to be translated as relevant, confident, positive and progressive brand behaviour.

This is a time for marketing to be seen – more than ever – as an engine of business growth for B2B adtech and media in addressing its customers and audiences.

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