ABM is dead, long live ABM
We look back on an international edition of The Great ABM Debate to understand what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what we need to do going forward to make the most of an account-based approach.
ABM may no longer be B2B marketing’s ‘next big thing’. But if The Great International ABM Debate was anything to go by, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon – in fact, there’s a lot to be excited about.
The event saw six ABM experts from the US and EMEA put their perspectives to the test in a classic debate covering all things ABM past, present, and future. From whether AI tools will upend how we approach ABM programmes, if the quiet spell of ABM hot news means interest has died out, and the age-old question of whether ABMers will ever stop neglecting creativity in their programmes, we’ve pulled together every key takeaway from each debate!
So, sit back and make sure you’re comfortable. Here’s what we learned, what questions were raised, and what you should bring back to your organisations.
AI WON’T CHANGE EVERYTHING ABOUT ABM, BUT IT HAS THE POWER TO CHANGE A WHOLE LOT
Any ABM practitioner working in today’s generative AI (gen-AI) world will tell you there’s a general feeling of change afoot. The tools and platforms already available to B2B marketers are already impacting how we approach our ABM programmes. But with widespread adoption still far on the horizon, what’s happening in the here and now?
Ryan Almond, Global Vertical Marketing & ABX Director at Henkel and Rhiannon Blackwell, Account-Based Marketing (ABM) Leader, Global Marketing Organisations at PwC were first up to discuss.
With great AI power comes great human responsibility
AI isn’t going to change everything about ABM but it has the potential to – at least, that was the consensus among our debaters. On the one hand, the view that AI will definitely change HOW we implement ABM programmes over time was a no-contest statement.
Everything from marketing intelligence for 1:Many, account intelligence for 1:1, content creation, personalisation, and activation in-market, and predictive/prescriptive analytics for better on-the-go decision making will no doubt be affected by the rise of AI tools. But on the other was the view that it could also undermine what makes ABM so successful: the human touch.
While AI tools can make tailored content production more efficient, there was an underlying theme of worry that automated emails and pseudo-personalised content may undermine the trust and differentiation fostered by ABM programmes – highlighting the need for a responsible, measured, and human-led approach to integrating AI.
Treat AI like you would any new tactic
ABMers love to take advantage of freshly baked tools. But whether we’re talking about cookies or AI, we need to let them sit before we dig in. Both debaters agreed that currently, there’s no one tool or platform that’s perfect for implementing ABM. We’re in a period of massive change, and large language models (LLMs), text-to-image, and even text-to-video tools are releasing new features almost weekly.
AI shouldn’t be treated as a silver bullet by any means. The key is to first look at your end-to-end ABM process, see where AI can add value, and then get your hands dirty with experimentation in a compliant way.
The panel agreed that looking at how AI can drive efficiencies in the early, very manual processive parts of ABM planning is a great place to start. However, they also noted balancing those efficiency gains with a necessary human touch to make sense of any insights is crucial. After all, as Rhiannon put it, “The last thing we want to do is find new lazy ways to do bad marketing.”
How B2B organisations will still be able to use AI to zag while others zig
The last key talking point from the session covered whether differentiation in ABM programmes is possible when organisations use the same AI tools. In one sense, the conversation reinforced Rhiannon’s view of why the human angle was so important; without it, we risk creating a homogenised clump of content. No matter what, human ingenuity, insight, and creativity bolster differentiation and help create distinctiveness in the market.
In another, we looked to a future that seems to be arriving today. Ryan flagged that with all the hype around AI tools, you’d be forgiven for thinking AI was invented in February 2023. Platforms like Demandbase have been pushing AI for years, yet it’s only become a huge talking point because of the leaps LLMs have made in the past several months.
Many B2B enterprises today are already building their own proprietary LLMs, taking first and third-party sales, product, and development data to create AI tools unique to their solution and sector. For Ryan, this will be the main arena where we’ll see differentiation in B2B over time as businesses look to balance unique intelligence gathering with efficient, distinctive content production.
THE INDUSTRY SILENCE ON ABM IS GOLDEN
ABM was the B2B industry’s posterchild for years. Every event, blog, and webinar felt like it was peppered with an account-based focus. Fast forward to today and it’s all gone rather quiet. But what does this mean for B2B’s golden blast from the past? Well… not much, as it happens…
Vanessa Schotes, CMO at Enfuce and Lisa Perry, Senior Director, Account-Based Marketing at Salesforce were next to take the stage.
ABM has reached a point of maturity
A key point both debaters supported was that ABM has reached normalisation. In the hype phase, everyone gets excited about a brand-new tactic. However, it often comes with a surface-level understanding of how it can be applied.
Now that ABM is no longer the flashy new toy of the B2B marketing world, we’re at a tipping point where others understand what and how it works – legitimising ABMers as part of the marketing organisation. In essence, it’s become a standardised part of the marketing practice.
Rather than trying to figure out what ABM is, how to get buy-in, and the ways to actually activate a programme once you had it, B2B organisations now understand how it flows into wider ways of working, how to tackle strategic accounts, and what the right levels of investment from teams across the business are to make ABM a success.
No matter whether there’s hype or not, cross-functional teams are finally starting to understand that ABM’s focus on reputation, revenue, and relationships is the foundation for its continued success. Seems like it’s less talk, more action for ABMers across the board.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Does the ‘M’ in ABM place unfair emphasis on Marketing’s role in driving success for ABM? Possibly, in Vanessa’s opinion. But she also questioned whether it really matters what we call ‘ABM’ if integrated, strategic targeting into enterprise accounts should be bread and butter for any B2B organisation.
ABM isn’t the new kid on the block anymore. As teams across departments learn that ABM success hinges on collective buy-in and integrated motions that drive traction in key accounts, the three-letter acronym becomes less of an issue if we view it as ‘great marketing’.
You wouldn’t brag about having access to the internet to your workmates (at least, we hope not. That’d be weird). It’s just there; everyone knows it works and that it’s a powerful tool when used the right way. ABM’s the same.
Now, that’s not to say there couldn’t be room for improvement. Our audience asked whether a shift to ‘account-based growth (ABG)’ could answer the potentially mismatched accountability that comes with calling ABM ‘ABM’.
Growth marketing is already helping businesses break down silos between departments to focus on a common goal of growth. And both our debaters agreed that ABG could help shift the sense of ownership away from solely Marketing. However, the idea that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it tempered opinions.
ABM has finally become a recognised tactic for driving growth. Its proven successes are why 71% of firms are increasing spend in 2023 (up 13% this year alone) and why sales teams are finally asking for ABM. This practical reality led Lisa to question why we should change something that already works and add more complexity to an already multifaceted approach – a notion we’d wager most of us would agree with.
CREATIVITY HAS ITS PLACE BUT IT SHOULDN’T BE PRIORITY NUMBER ONE
Has ABM’s hyper-structured approach killed businesses’ willingness to experiment with creativity? Does it even matter when you’ve got the right strategy in place? Or is the ABM community keeping its most exciting creative elements close to its chest?
The reality is today, B2B businesses need every little bit of cut-through they can get. It’s at the heart of how we engage audiences, after all. However, the past six to seven years have seen ABMers focus on justifying budgets to earn the investment necessary for additional work. So, where should creativity sit on ABM priority lists?
At a time when B2B creativity has more attention than ever before, Neil Berry, Global Account-Based Marketing Director at CapGemini and Sandy Walters, Global Account-Based Marketing Manager (Business Messaging) at Meta rounded off the discussions.
Is creativity necessary when ABM’s the sharpest point of the stick?
When thinking about ABM, we can all agree that the focus should be on strategy. It’s what fuels programme success, in part because of ABM’s more complex nature relative to more conventional marketing campaigns. The question is, as mirrored by Neil, whether our focus on scalability, replication, and analytics means we’re no longer pushing the boundaries we should be?
Differentiation is a crucial part of what makes ABM so successful. And while there’s no doubt strategy should shape ABMers approach to creative, reusing the same visual treatment across target accounts could potentially work against one of ABM’s key tenets: the personal connection that comes with targeted 1:1 programmes.
Yes, ABM gets your business front and centre in customers’ eyes. However, capturing the attention of your target audience is critical to any marketing programme, ABM or otherwise. Neil argued that despite having so many different creative tactics available to us as B2B marketers (be it through perennial classics like direct mail or future-facing formats like holograms and AR), we aren’t using them enough to differentiate one campaign from another.
But as Sandy pointed out, is going so far really necessary when you have the right foundational strategy in place?
How above and beyond you go is up to you
ABM is built on its past successes. It also continues to be one of the most successful routes to market in the world of B2B, with or without particularly creative activations – supporting Sandy’s view that creative should only be considered when thinking about go-to-market strategy.
For those of the same opinion, having first and third-party data and insights for target accounts lists, properly segmented account groups, sales alignment for your go-to-market approach, and building a plan with specific tactics appropriate for target accounts that provide the most revenue and relationship-building opportunities for sales are all mission-critical elements of an ABM programme. Without those, you don’t have good creative and, in that sense, even messaging would likely rank higher as a consideration.
But are they mutually exclusive? Both debaters couldn’t say. ABMers have had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they are now. Increased budgets have only come as a result of quantifiable ROI and measurable results – both of which are hard to attribute solely to creative. While you could argue that ABM needs to do better creatively, you’d be hard-pressed to disagree with those who believe it’s a luxury few businesses can afford to indulge in.
No matter where you stand, the days of proving the concept of ABM are over. ABMers no longer have to adapt their existing creative assets into ABM pilots. So, in a world where B2B is becoming increasingly competitive and increasingly focused on creativity – one where B2B buyers expect more B2C-like experiences from the brands they consider – why wouldn’t organisations want to exploit this blind spot and take the lead to stand out to audiences and competitors alike?
What are your thoughts on the key takeaways from this year’s debates? Were you left with more questions than when you started? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to send us a message via email or on any of our social channels below.
If you couldn’t catch The Great International ABM Debate live, watch the on-demand webinar by visiting the BrightTALK page here!