GUEST COLUMN: Ralph A. Oliva

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The past five years have been rough for business-to-business marketing. We've seen the penchant to cut, cut, cut, and the emergence of "finance and control" in charge to the extent that marketing and innovation are marginalized and distorted.

As a result, firms are leaner and meaner than ever before, with employees running two and three jobs at a time-achieving extraordinarily high levels of productivity but facing an uncertain future.

So rather than a retrospective, I'd rather talk about a wish list: Here are some things I'd like to see in the next five years.

A return to the essence of what business is all about. Business is not about pleasing Wall Street but about generating profits and the potential for profits in the future. A constant quest to build new value, a focus on the top line and emphasis on controlling costs are necessary to run a balanced business.

A focus on marketing as an engine for growth. Real growth, beyond mergers, acquisitions and cost-cutting, is about exploring new offerings and markets. From what we're seeing, the tools, techniques and talent for this exploration were hurt during the downturn. Many firms are finding little in their talent banks.

To grow organically, the way it seems all firms want to, requires new talent and competency in marketing. Not just communications, advertising and merchandising-although those will always be important-but in analyzing, sizing, segmenting, targeting and positioning.

A new emphasis on innovation. Our recent research has shown that we not only stopped investing in innovation during the downturn, we may have dismantled the innovation engines inside once-great companies.

If companies can't harvest a reasonable amount of profit, they won't be able to invest in true innovation. As we strive for "always low prices-always," we may have to get used to the fact that real innovation, the introduction of fundamental new alternatives in our lives, will be slower in coming. We need to get on with rebuilding the innovation engine across our companies over the next five years.

Getting marketing and finance into a new dialogue. Across many firms, I'm still seeing finance with arms folded, saying, "Show me the ROI," and marketing trying desperately to explain that ferreting out the ROI in business markets is one tough job. Marketing is difficult enough in an environment where the fundamental nature of each buying situation changes every quarter, customers try new "sourcing" techniques and new competitors emerge.

Measuring ROI in these situations is possible, but it's hard and costs a lot of money. Marketing and finance need to work together to find a more fundamental understanding of acceptable ROI measures. The constant demand to "show me the ROI" is not helping this discipline, or business, become better. It's just shutting marketing down.

The forging of sound approaches to measuring ROI will take a new partnership between the offices of marketing and the chief financial officer.

Centralization and decentralization in b-to-b marketing. Over the next five years, I wish firms would come to understand that it takes both.

It takes a central view to manage customer experience, build a brand and support business strategy. On the other hand, it will always take people close to the action who build sharp tools that help salespeople better demonstrate, document and harvest value.

It's been interesting to watch the pendulum swing wildly over the past 30 years. You'd think that after several cycles, management teams might say, "You know, the right answer here is probably some place in the middle." For all of us who practice b-to-b marketing and who love it, I wish over the next five years we would work together to better understand our profession, its real and potential impact on business overall, and how to make it better.

Ralph A. Oliva is executive director of the Institute for the Study of Business Markets, a global research center focused on business-to-business marketing. He can be reached at [email protected]

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