Stuck out on a paradigm without a safety net

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It sure has been a crazy few months on a number of fronts. The Asian markets crashed, shaking up the high-tech giants that in the past few years have been leading the way in b-to-b marketing. This, of course, has been putting pressure on that once-untarnished marketing and advertising sector that could do nothing but shine.

Meanwhile, consumer agencies have actually admitted they've been lax in implementing integrated marketing strategies, and they're looking to their b-to-b counterparts for lessons on what to do. (At the same time, the b-to-b agencies have been moving into high gear when it comes to creative concepts on the business ad side.)

B-to-b direct marketers are also becoming more vocal about their needs and wants, starting with last month's Direct Marketing Association annual conference. This push came as the DMA pointed to the growing power of b-to-b e-commerce, which new reports say will pass the $300 billion mark over the next four years.

Finally, amid cuts and closures at tech publishers Ziff-Davis and CMP Media, old-line industrial publisher Penton Media stepped forward and scooped up Mecklermedia, best known for its Internet World shows.

Somehow, old axioms people have accepted as truth -- like the consumer side is smarter, high-tech is where the action is, and industrial publishers aren't as savvy as the computer publishers -- are suddenly turning inside out.

I'd say it's almost a seismic paradigm shift. (Well, actually, I'd probably never say it because most people who use the word paradigm don't actually know what it means. Go ahead, ask around. You'll see.) But it's also a sign that times are changing. People, including those of us at Business Marketing, have been saying that b-to-b marketing is once again ascending. The actions we're seeing are the early warning signs of bigger changes to come -- like small earth tremors before the volcano erupts.

Of course, with change comes a shakeout. Not everyone will survive -- not everyone will want to. People love to maintain the status quo; they have a natural tendency to fight any kind of change, because it means leaving their comfort zones, however they define them. For some, switching gears means a total disruption of their way of doing business; for others, it's a momentary glitch in their thinking patterns before they move ahead to explore the unknown.

For marketing executives, this kind of change means taking risks, many of which may not pan out. It also means demanding more, not only of their staffs, but also of the outside vendors they deal with. Already we're seeing that with trade publishers, who no longer can afford to offer just print ads but must also throw in trade shows and events or research or Web sites, or anything that will enhance the exposure experience for their advertisers.

Helping to drive this high rate of change, of course, is the Internet. While some questioned the validity of our doing the second annual NetMarketing 200 in August when we'd just done the first one nine months before, the changes we found were almost phenomenal. In the first survey, Dell Computers told us it was doing $2 million a day in online orders. In August, that had jumped to $5 million-plus. At the same time, Cisco had been handling 26% of its total sales online in November 1997; by August, that had expanded to 57%.

Plus, the whole paradigm of Web business had shifted. (Yup, paradigm -- have you reached for your dictionary yet?) Rather than seeing the Web as an order-taking center, companies have begun to see it as a defining tool that's spurring them to not only re-evaluate their online departments, but their whole way of doing business. It's pushing them to reassess their customer service initiatives and the role that all employees play in that arena.

When you look at this year's Best & Brightest Media Strategists, the 12 men and women we honor in this issue, you'll see a group of people that is helping to lead this change. They're not content to sit back and do things the way they've always done them. They're exploring new media and new combinations. Some are pushing the Web to see how far it can take their clients, and they're finding that the limits have yet to be reached. Others are exploring what have traditionally been consumer media -- TV and the weekly business magazines -- because they know that while decision- makers may leave the office, they don't forget who they are and what they do from 9 to 5, or 8 to 6 or 7 to 10.

The world of b-to-b marketing is ready to change. The old paradigms are breaking up to make room for the new ones. Paradigm, incidentally, means example, pattern, "an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype," according to Merriam Webster. It's a simple concept, but it makes all the difference when yours no longer works.

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