COVID-19 has Exposed another Crisis – the Creativity Gap in Marketing

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The novel coronavirus changed the world and, with it, B2B marketing as we knew it. The flurry of emails began around the first week in March as all of the anchor events, events that marketers have come to rely on as demand generation and customer marketing staples, almost simultaneously evaporated. Some moved to digital, some postponed indefinitely – all massively disrupting what had been long laid plans. Marketers were forced to pivot their longstanding strategies and adapt on the fly. This might sound simple enough, but it proved to be anything but. As such, it revealed a major problem that’s churned below the seemingly calm waters of the past decade: marketing has a major creativity gap.

The reality is that most organizations don’t have anyone in a trusted marketing leadership role who can both innovate as well as mobilize the operations of a team to fill sudden voids like the one created by COVID-19. The fact is, since the 2008 financial crisis, both marketing and the economy have enjoyed a symbiotic growth curve – up and to the right. And it’s been great. Marketing technology was the general response to budget cuts when ‘08 hit; we could pull the core functions of marketing in house, engage the buyer digitally and save money. All of this led to a digital marketing spring which has grown year over year until the present, in which a third of all marketing spending is allocated to technology.

This, however, has created a false façade. A digital window dressing that at first glance appears to point to an approach well positioned to respond to large sweeping change. After all, if we’re engaging and acquiring buyers digitally, why wouldn’t the cancellation of large events be playing right into those hands? Perhaps this could even be viewed as a cost saving benefit; maybe those large, budget heavy events can finally be cut from go-to-market motions without activating the rumor mill that is often fed by the sudden disappearance of a staple brand.

That would be true if digital was actually working. But it’s not.

Access to digital mindshare is shrinking with the passing of each year. Search and advertising have long since propped up this channel but, day by day, the space gets more crowded and much noisier. When we first took to the web as a viable sales channel, the internet was still in its infancy and buyer attention was much more accessible. A tactic like email, Pay-Per-Click or retargeting, which once yielded sweeping gains to those wielding it well, now gets lost among myriad similar messages and spam.

The first mover advantage, even when focused on emerging platforms, lasts days, maybe months where it used to be a fertile harvesting ground that marketers could rely on quarter over quarter – you see this in the cycles of platforms like Twitter, Facebook and now Snapchat and TikTok. More gimmick than strategy, hopping from platform to platform to engage un-tapped buyers is no longer a valid tactic.

The truth is, the only strategy that wins is a comprehensive one rooted in truly understanding the buyer – and for that, B2B marketers have secretly relied on face-to-face interaction to prop up their results. Eighty-four percent of CMOs cannot trace the ROI of their efforts back to business level results. That’s the impact of digital and also the reason why events have long since been the staple of marketing activities – because at the end of the day, having a conversation with a prospect is a tried and true way to create pipeline and align with sales around the activity.

And it’s gone. So, here’s what we have to do.

Recognize that Being Data Driven Drove us into Complacence

A bright spotlight has been put on the creative side of marketing that is woefully underrepresented in most organizations today. As the industry has evolved to rely on data-driven initiatives and technology, most companies have come to prioritize them over true innovation. Data is the holy grail, and creativity is secondary at best. So, organizations hire more data analysts and operational whizzes, and fewer people are brought on board to actually come up with ideas. The CMO is pushed into an analytical corner.

This has worked until now, at least to some extent, because the underlying reasons for purchase remained fairly constant. Buyers wanted to get better and become more mature, so we as marketers could count on that consistent search for “better.” And we could get incrementally better ourselves, optimize our ad spend, evolve the technical SEM of our web properties. It became a game of incremental gains.

But when shit hits the fan and suddenly you’re back to square one with nothing to optimize, these same organizations are suddenly in a very bad position. How can they come up with something new and groundbreaking, when all they’ve been doing for years is rounding the corners on the same tools in their bag of tricks? When the rug is pulled out from under them, they have to innovate. They have to immediately focus on high-priority segments and get the attention of those buyers. But how? And who can lead it? Well, not the CMO who is waiting for reports to make decisions.

Make Innovation Job One

A CMO should lead in the role of chief innovator, and there should also be distributed innovation across the organization. But given their notoriously short tenures, which speaks to the level of organizational trust they maintain, CMOs are forced to focus on proving impact quickly above all else. Since strategic innovation carries with it inherent risks, the role of CMO and the goal of innovation may be at odds. But during a time like right now, every CMO should be thinking about their fastest paths to innovation and they must be armed with the trust to ensure not every action is scrutinized as “make it or break it.”

Furthermore, companies must leverage their sales and marketing alignment. If an organization has a CRO, they also must be a source of new ideas – this extends right down into the sales organization. Feedback from the front lines has to be swift and consistent. Whatever their title may be, someone in leadership needs to take the bull by the horns and work to fill this creativity gap in the here and now. And, teams need to be prepared for upcoming changes in approach. Necessity is the mother of invention. Marketing must be ready to provide support to innovative ideas, and sales needs to be ready to run with marketing’s pivoted plans.

The new coronavirus and all its fallout caught everyone off guard. At the end of the day, the crop still must come in. Now is the time to embrace a truly agile methodology within marketing, and by proxy, sales. Big ideas that teams would have previously been afraid to surface not only need to get into market, but they need to be backed with trust. The same old thing isn’t going to work; creativity is the only thing cutting through the noise at this point.

If we prioritize that creativity and innovation in marketing and focus on being better marketers first and foremost, we can quickly reallocate our reliance on events and in-person activities to new and compelling initiatives. It’s high time to make creativity in marketing a priority again. When there’s blood on the street, buy property – think differently than the herd, and you’ll be rewarded. True innovation in marketing won’t come as the result of buying a new tool or leveraging a new channel, it will come in the same way it has since the beginning, from the mind of individuals willing to take the risk.

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