Slack Barshinger, a b-to-b integrated marketing communications agency in Chicago, joins the ranks of other Windy City b-to-b agencies that have reached their 20-year mark within the past year (including Colman Brohan Davis and Movéo Integrated Branding).
In the following interview, Gary Slack, chairman-chief experience officer of Slack Barshinger, discusses how the b-to-b marketing world has changed over the past 20 years and the challenges facing the industry in these turbulent times.
BtoB: What was your vision in starting the agency 20 years ago?
To launch the nation's first integrated marketing communications (IMC) agency exclusively serving b-to-b marketers and perhaps one day assume [Bill] Marsteller's mantle as the nation's top b-to-b agency brand. I'd grown up in Omnicom's Porter Novelli unit, which was more a marcom agency than a PR firm at the time, so I was ready to add the “I” and focus squarely on b-to-b, a niche that Marsteller had abandoned and that I felt was ripe for new leadership.
BtoB: There are several b-to-b agencies that were founded 20 years ago in Chicago. What was going on in the business at that time?
I think that others, like me, must have looked around and noticed the surprising dearth of b-to-b agencies in a market that should have been—and today has become—b-to-b central. Back then, there were more and better b-to-b agencies in Milwaukee, but with our help Chicago has more than caught up. In fact, Chicago's stature as a national b-to-b center has led a number of other agencies to set up, or talk about setting up, shop here.
BtoB: What do you consider some of the key turning points in the b-to-b business over the past two decades?
For starters, the emergence of the concept of integrated marketing communications in the late 1980s, followed by the growing use and maturity of sophisticated database marketing techniques in the early 1990s. The next turning point was the rise of the Internet, whose influence began to be felt in the mid-1990s and today is finally mainstream. Along the way, we've benefited from the introduction of CRM systems, SEO/SEM, e-mail software, a whole host of marketing and sales automation software and tools, word-of-mouth marketing, improved experiential marketing techniques and, more recently, online communities and social and professional networks.
BtoB: How has b-to-b changed creatively?
It has come light years forward in 20 years. Most of the credit goes to today's better-trained b-to-b clients, who are asking for bolder, more emotional, more attention-getting ideas and work. More clients these days have an IMC mentality, which drives them to marry their own good business judgment with what customer testing says will best resonate with the marketplace. As a result, we're seeing more path-breaking work that does a better job than at any time in the past of connecting with b-to-b audiences.
BtoB: How is the current financial crisis impacting your clients' marketing plans for the remainder of the year?
I actually see current events as a potential boon for us, as many marketers likely will be seeking outside help to strengthen their sales pipelines and gain customers and market share from weaker competitors. So, knock on wood, right now most Q4 client budgets look quite solid and, in some cases, may be augmented before the year is over. While the industry could see some marketers scale back, as of today we've only seen one such signal and since April have had our most successful new-business run in several years.
BtoB: Are the fundamentals of the b-to-b marketing business sound?
Yes, for the most part. But there are still too many marketers out there whose CEOs think investing in early-stage awareness is for sissies, and that their sales forces can do it all or that one touch via the Internet will immediately generate a lead or sale. I'm also very concerned about the future of PR. With some b-to-b marketers cutting advertising while stepping up PR pitches to magazine and Web editors for editorial support, how long can vertical industry media, which have been a b-to-b marketing mainstay for years, continue as viable businesses and communications pathways?
BtoB: How do b-to-b agencies need to evolve to be successful during these turbulent times?
We need to be able to demonstrate clearly and powerfully how, compared to both in-house agencies and outside consumer agencies, dedicated b-to-b IMC agencies can more predictably and cost-effectively deliver a b-to-b client's desired results. To do that, we need to keep building out our digital capabilities and developing bigger ideas and creative platforms. We need to get even better at brand building, audience targeting, taking clients to face-to-face events and account-based marketing. We also need to get ever better at helping clients measure marketing performance. It's all about performance, and we've got to demonstrate, day in and day out, that we're integral to their success. M