New BMA chief spells out challenges facing marketers

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Kirby Strickland, president of Strickland & Co. Advertising, last week took the reins as international chairman of the Business Marketing Association at the annual BMA conference in Chicago.

Strickland has 24 years of b-to-b agency and marketing experience and has been a BMA member since 1983. He most recently served as vice chairman of the BMA. Previously, he served as regional VP, chapter president and VP-programming.

He founded Strickland & Co., based in Charlotte, N.C., in 1993, providing integrated marketing communications services for b-to-b companies. His clients include the National Electronics Distributors Association, industrial distributor McJunkin Corp., Apollo Valves and S&D Coffee.

Last week, he spoke with BtoB about the challenges facing b-to-b marketers and his vision for the BMA.

BtoB: Now that the economy is bouncing back, how are b-to-b marketers responding?

Strickland: First of all, not all parts of the economy are rebounding. There are industry segments and geographic areas that are still trying to pull out of the slump. Businesses that serve the manufacturing sector, for example, can tell you it's still pretty tough out there. The situation has improved but it's still a little soft, and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future.

That being the case, there is still tremendous pressure to contain costs. Marketers are spending to launch new initiatives, but they are trying to do more with the same amount of money, or in some cases, less money.

BtoB: Are they changing their marketing strategies in any significant ways?

Strickland: There's a greater focus generally on maximizing share among most-valued customers and customer groups. There is more effort spent defining those groups and developing tactics to reach them specifically.

With existing customers, we're seeing more incentive and affinity programs to build greater penetration and stronger ties to the marketer.

For tightly defined customer and prospect groups, I think we'll continue to see increased use of direct mail, e-mail and very vertical trade publications, along with new interactive initiatives to build targeted customer communities.

BtoB: What are the key challenges for b-to-b marketers?

Strickland: There are four. One is to keep abreast of the changes in our profession. There are always new techniques, new approaches, new attitudes, new alliances and new priorities that we have to be able to understand and address.

The second is the "brain drain." Right now, our profession seems to be made up of senior people with a lot of experience and expertise, and younger people just starting out in their careers, but there are not a lot of people in the middle.

Third, in the course of doing our jobs, I think our main challenge is to differentiate our companies or our clients' companies from the competition and to protect margins. We're constantly under pressure to reduce costs and measure results, and that forces us into long cycles of short-term promotional activities.

And that brings us to our fourth challenge: Metrics and cost control are parts of daily life for marketers now, but we also have to lead the conversation in the C-suite back to the value of investing in the brand.

BtoB: How can marketing executives make marketing a priority in the C-suite?

Strickland: To make marketing a bigger topic in the C-suite, we need to show corporate executives how what we do leads to cost reductions, increased productivity and higher market capitalization, and we need to be able to report to them how we are doing in those regards.

It sounds simple, but there's a Catch-22: Gathering the information needed for that kind of reporting usually requires another substantial investment of time and money. A company has to understand the value of marketing to be willing to invest in tracking and reporting systems.

BtoB: What are your goals for the BMA?

Strickland: I want to see us return to a higher profile in the business marketing community. We'll continue campaigns begun over the past year to raise the awareness of the BMA and our training and educational opportunities.

I also want to see us strengthen the relationship between the international board and the chapters. Most of our strengths and resources are located at the chapter level. We want to do everything we can to make our chapters more successful.

BtoB: What are some of the key initiatives for the BMA this year?

Strickland: This year, we'll begin offering online training, testing and certification for business marketers. We'll start out focused on marketing communications and hopefully expand into other areas, such as product management or pricing.

We hope to establish one or two traveling seminar programs, as well.

We'll continue our efforts in research and marketing thought leadership, digging into major issues we all have to deal with, and presenting our findings to the business community.

We'll increase our efforts to raise the awareness of the association and its members and continue to raise the value of marketing in the business-to-business arena.

All that's easier said than done, of course. It's going to be an exciting and challenging year.

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