‘We’re Boring Ourselves’: Mark Choueke on Better B2B

6th January 2022

 “ Every time you’re brave in an organization something changes within you. You suddenly realize how much agency and influence you’ve got, and so does everybody else. ”  

Mark Choueke discusses a ‘bravery-as-a-strategy’ mindset in B2B. Choueke’s experience includes three years as editor of Marketing Week, business correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph, and 20 years in content, marketing and communications. He’s currently Marketing Director of the referral marketing software company Mention Me, and recently wrote a book on B2B marketing called ‘Boring2Brave’. 

Can we talk about the pain points in B2B Marketing? 

“If you’re a B2C marketer with the right budget, you can make yourself a household brand. In B2B that level of penetration is a lot harder to achieve.” 

B2B doesn’t have a built-in ‘universal’ broadcast channel like television or the national Press. There are tonnes of marketing and media channels to choose from but you can see them all as carriers rather than guaranteed amplifiers of your message and content. 

It’s quite possible, even if you’re careful, to blow the opportunity of getting your great content into the hands of your target audience. 

Don’t get me wrong, B2C involves precision marketing, and proper segmentation and targeting, but it benefits from having 50% of its budget available to some broadcast channels with enormous reach. Even just the act of sticking the right kind of provocative copy with the right image onto the inside of page 2 of any national newspaper works… if it’s controversial enough it’ll get you some great PR. So, if you’re a B2C marketer with a budget, you can make yourself a household brand. In B2B that’s a lot harder to do. 

How have you successfully addressed this pain point? 

“This approach brought meetings to our client because they put their product aside and built a community rather than just trying to sell something.” 

I’ve often worked with teams and partners to bring success by building communities around a shared mission as opposed to a hard sell. 

I’ll give you an example. I co-founded a B2B agency called Rebeltech, where a very small prospective client approached us – just three guys – and said they had a product that was a ‘better version of Google Maps’. I asked them why it mattered. And they explained that poor ecommerce delivery – that last mile of the journey – was costing the economy billions every year.  

Our client was interested in PR to help get them meetings but lacked a substantial budget. They were also trying to target about seven different roles within the right kinds of businesses because, as it happens, rarely does the same function own the last mile from one business to another.  

I suggested that rather than spending time and money going outbound to each of these stakeholders, my client created a way to bring these people in – to attract the bees with a honeypot. The way this gets done is to be seen leading the tackling of a hard-to-solve and universally felt industry challenge.  

We built a community of problem solvers that started, very simply, with inviting 25 key stakeholders to a breakfast. This included anyone involved in the last mile landscape including brands and big retailers such as M&S and Waitrose, logistics and delivery firms and various technologies. 

We helped them acknowledge their common problems and asked them to address the key issues in a shared discussion. They ended up having some incredible arguments and rows that morning. 

When it concluded I announced that they’d all be invited to become the 25 inaugural members of the new Last Mile Consortium. Each received a link to the private exclusive LinkedIn group and every day from then on, we shared new and relevant content in the group. Conversations started to take place. Those first 25 members became 50, 50 became 75 and over the next few months something incredible happened. 

The client signed deals with Domino’s and British Gas and one of the biggest delivery logistics companies in the country. At the same time, university academics and retailers from all over the globe started seeing my client as the ‘go-to’ guy for all questions to do with the last mile. We received requests for intros, and requests for invitations to our next event. 

The group is still going and it’s a nice way to do business because you’re literally meeting people, either online or offline, all the time. We know that sales in B2B is all about meetings- meetings are currency: 100 meetings might generate 10 demos which might get you one or two large deals. 

This approach brought meetings to our client because they put their product aside and built a community rather than just trying to sell something.  

What is some non-intuitive advice you would offer B2B marketers? 

“You can over measure to the point of making bad decisions.” 

I once worked for a company that, before I arrived, had produced a brilliant paper that showed 75% of the AB tests that we do result in false positives or negatives. This is specifically because we measure results too soon or too regularly. 

Be braver. Be more prepared to go to market without having to measure everything, knowing that it takes time letting some work exist for a while to truly set up the long-term strength, status and appeal of a business or brand. 

Forget whether you are more data-led or more creative; whether you are more about precision or more strategic, it doesn’t matter. If 75% of the information we’re receiving is false, and we’re spending money using that information to inform our strategy, then we’re doing our jobs wrong. 

That’s not to say we shouldn’t trust in data. At Mention Me we’re heavily invested in data science and using our first party referral data to drive better marketing. But you can overmeasure to the point of making bad decisions. 

Explain to me this concept of being brave in B2B. 

“We’re boring ourselves.” 

In B2B it’s all the harder to be brave because you’re not expected to be. You’re not expected to use emotion or humor or creativity in your marketing because of that low expectation. So many B2B marketing organisations feel shielded by the expectation that they won’t produce anything interesting, heart-stopping or even eye-catching. 

In fact, if we set out all the B2B e-books in the world, and all the thought leadership white papers, and the webinars and put them all in a line, you could almost take the brand and logo off each one and not notice the difference. You wouldn’t easily be able to tell one from another in terms of tone of voice, content, style or offer because they’re all so similar, generic and boring.  

We’ve got a very, very low standard to keep and we keep ourselves ‘safe’ by doing so. 

But think about what marketers are there to do. ‘We’re the ‘Come-and-like-us’ department. That’s our job. And all we’re doing in B2B by shielding ourselves behind this curtain of low expectation is producing stuff that doesn’t interest the customer, our boss or even our own teams.  

We’re boring ourselves. 

The advantage of being a little bit brave and investing some creativity or edge or humor or even just an emotional trigger is two-fold. 

First one is you’re going to catch someone’s eye and appeal to them, and second – you’re going to be way ahead of everyone else because nobody else is doing it. 

Every time you’re brave in an organization something changes within you. You suddenly realize how much agency and influence you’ve got, and so does everybody else. And every time you’re brave in your organization, it inspires and allows others to be brave as well. 

I have seen and been part of so many bad practices marketing-wise, and a lack of bravery turned what was a pretty smart organization into a pretty stupid organization. We literally embrace stupidity by not being brave. 

Is there a point where the risk needs to be mitigated? 

“There’s a difference between protecting yourself and taking an intelligent risk.” 

If you are a company that’s unprepared to take a calculated risk, you will literally look and feel like all the other businesses out there in your market. You’ll all be using the same data to make the same tired features that do the same things. Taking a calculated risk is the only thing that’s going to help you be noticed. 

Think about why you love the brands you love. Equally, think about any person in history that you personally celebrate – any person, whether it’s Rosa Parks, John Lennon, Martin Luther King, or the guy who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Any person that society celebrates is remembered this way because they did not play by the rules. 

The only people and companies we celebrate are those that boundlessly create new practices, ideas and possibilities by doing something nobody else dared to.  

I can’t think of a single key fundamental progression in society in history and culture that didn’t require somebody somewhere to bend or break the rules a little bit. Without risk, the world just turns into a very homogenous place. 

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken? 

“I didn’t realize until I started writing the book that I am my own kind of risk taker. And when I’ve been brave enough to do it, it’s only ever worked out somewhere between reasonably well and sensationally.” 

I wrote a book that I felt needed to be out there and that was a potential risk to my reputation because it wasn’t a business book saying the same stuff as everyone else. I called a few sacred cows out. I wrote that ‘ROI can be one of the stupidest metrics by which we measure any kind of business activity.’ The argument was supported and built upon by some of the cleverest and best known marketing thinkers out there but when you write that down and you see it on paper you go ‘ooooh, that feels a bit edgy, not sure that’s going to go down too well…’  

But if you believe in something you can make it work if you’ve got enough evidence to back it up. 

I see every day as an opportunity to take a risk, that might result in something amazing. I think you need risk to be successful. And I think that bravery can be taught. 

I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can’t understand it, embrace it and lean a little bit into it.