ITSMA Marketing Vision 2021: my Top 10 “Insanely Great” Ah Hah Moments for Marketing Leaders

You know you have been involved with something or someone special for a long time when you cannot remember the date you first started working with a colleague or team, first attended an event, or became aware of key concepts that became “ah hah moments” or epiphanies.

They become part of a collective memory that continually expands, and becomes intertwined with your expertise, skills, and relationships. For me that is ITSMA, a confluence of all three.

I cannot exactly remember when I started working with ITSMA, and leveraging their work in B2B solutions and services, but it was sometime in the mid-2000s when I led the SAP Services Marketing team for SAP North America Field Marketing.

Looking back, I specifically remember Jeff Winter, our VP of SAP Global Services Marketing, a long-time services marketing veteran like myself.  Jeff is now the CMO of Duck Creek Technologies and was a very charismatic and vocal proponent of ITSMA’s work and events – the perfect executive sponsor.  He had come from IBM, one of the early “founding members” of ITSMA along with my long-time former employer, DEC.

It did not take Jeff long to convince me of the value of services marketing-related research; after all, I had a background in this even before coming to SAP. As time went on, ITSMA has focused beyond services and marketing and expanded to a broader solution and B2B marketing focus.  ITSMA first coined the term “Account-Based Marketing” (ABM) in 2004 and has grown to become one of the leading authorities in ABM.

Not long after, I attended my first ITSMA Marketing Vision event.  Living in ITSMA’s “hometown” city of Boston it was a stone’s throw to Cambridge, MA to attend my first fall Marketing Vision event, a short ride on the MBTA “Red Line” (after I fought the “wicked” Boston traffic to get there).

By my reckoning I have attended all but one of the ITSMA Marketing Vision events since.  The mix of keynotes, breakout sessions, ITSMA’s annual Marketing Excellence Awards (MEA), and post-event workshops have made for many informative and educational events.

Although I took “early retirement” from SAP Marketing in the spring of 2019, I “was back at it” in the fall of 2019, and attended the 2019 ITSMA Marketing Vision event, now held at the MIT Samberg Conference Center.  Being a “Duke Blue Devil” MBA and not an “MIT Brass Rat” Sloan MBA, I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the great events MIT hosts “down the river” from “THE Business School” and my “Yale Bulldogs’ arch-rival” (Harvard). I remember telling Dave Munn, President and CEO of ITSMA, what a great place the MIT Samberg Conference Center was, and how I could not to wait to attend the 2020 Marketing Vision there.

And then COVID-19 came along and threw a monkey wrench into those plans, as it did for virtually every other marketing organization on the planet.

ITSMA made the 2020 an on-line virtual event, and transformed the content and experience to shorter days, ran their Marketing Excellence Awards first, and did the post-event workshops after the formal close of the core Marketing Vision virtual event. ITSMA was recently acquired by Momentum, a research and marketing consultancy organization focused on Account-based Marketing (ABM).

The 2021 Marketing Vision event, the 27th annual event, was a repeat of this virtual format with a mix of external, ITSMA, and Momentum speakers.   I attended the event shortly after joining the Wolters Kluwer Compliance Solutions Marketing Team, having just come off the annual Dresner Advisory Services 2021 Real Business Intelligence Conference weeks before, another extremely successful virtual on-line event.

I have said for years that it is important to periodically get out and see different perspectives, gain new experiences, and perhaps most importantly, network with your peers.  Well, COVID19 certainly threw another monkey wrench into those plans.

While in-person events literally disappeared over night, virtual and online events have stepped up in a big way. For years I have written about the key “ah hah” moments I gained from these experiences. And in the spirit of Steve Jobs, I love to use the term “Insanely Great” to describe my best “ah hah” moments (known by some as “epiphanies”).   And in the spirit of David Letterman, I love the “Top Ten” format; it’s a great way to summarize things (although it violates my personal propensity for grouping things In 3s/5s/7s etc.).

In that spirit, here are my “Top 10 Insanely Great” Ah Hah Moments from the 2021 ITSMA Marketing Vision Virtual Conference, with inspiration from David Letterman’s classic “Top Ten” lists:

  1. ABM is the new Black — or is it the new Pink?
  2. The Thought Leadership Journey is Here to Stay
  3. Metrics and Measurement have never been more important
  4. Sales Enablement is a Key Core Competency
  5. Invest in Competitive Intelligence
  6. MarTech is all about the Platform
  7. It’s the Year of Customer Centricity (again)
  8. Executive Engagement is a Key to Being a “Trusted Advisor”:
  9. Events have changed, In-person Events will come back, and Hybrid/Virtual events will continue to be critical
  10. Next-Generation Marketing Analytics will drive a “Brave New World of Marketing”

Queue the band led by the fabulous Paul Shaffer, and let’s get started!

ABM is the new Black — or is it the new Pink? Given ITSMA coined the term Account-Based Marketing (ABM) back in 2004, and they were acquired by Momentum, a research and marketing advisory firm focused primarily upon ABM, it is not unexpected that ABM would be a major focus:

  • Just like “Digital Marketing” was once its own focus area and is now a key component of “B2B Marketing”, ABM is becoming core to sales and with it the required alignment to marketing.
  • The workshop on “Embedded ABM” showcased how ABM is not its own separate activity, but key to go-to-market tactics, sales alignment, and the customer journey including the customer experience (CX).
  • As a former analyst, it’s clear to me that ABM has clearly come down the “hype cycle” and is squarely in the “plateau of productivity”. So much has converged here, it is truly extraordinary.
  • One-to-few ABM has expanded, and leaders in ABM selectively implement on-to-one and one-to-many ABM campaigns and programs; the best are built upon an insights-driven understanding of both the customer and their market; and yes, solid Competitive Intelligence.
  • The three top ABM priorities are sales enablement/education, tracking/measurement ABM performance, and developing campaigns assets that scale yet allow “mass customization”.
  • The leaders highlighted at “Marketing Vision 2021” though both the MEA ABM award-winners and the lessons learned from the “Magnificent Seven” (pioneers and leaders featured in the ITSM “Practitioner’s Guide to ABM”) showcase that mature ABM programs yield significant benefits, especially when following the “3 R’s of ABM: Reputation, Relationship, and Revenue.

The Thought Leadership Journey is Here to Stay:  With significant thought leadership content interspersed throughout “Marketing Vision 2021”, it is quite clear that Thought Leadership is no longer an optional play but is required for all successful content marketing, ABM, executive engagement, and much more:

  • Not surprisingly, Thought Leadership is key to providing value in ABM, and the more personalized to the needs of the customer the better – this was loud and clear among both the MEA and “Magnificent 87” ABM best practices.
  • Thought Leadership is critical to making the “short list” as a solution provider – and the content needs to be focused on key business and technical issues completely removed from selling.
  • Thought Leadership is not a destination it is a journey. Best Practices include leveraging a full “roster” of internal subject matter experts (SMEs), customers to tell their stories, and external experts including Analysts and external SMEs.  Content runs the gamut from Point of Views (POVs), benchmark studies, and good old plain “advice” based upon experience and expertise.
  • The importance of Thought Leadership content supporting outcomes-based solutions, and not product/services feature functions, was hammered home in a CMO panel – specifically calling out case studies and points of view based upon business issues – NOT products, and NOT selling!
  • Great Thought Leadership delivers insights and value, and the need has never been greater than now for marketing to lead this. Competitive intelligence (insights and analysis and NOT just data and information) is a key competency fueling and supporting Thought Leadership.
  • Expect more on this from me in future blogs, articles, and presentations now that I am focused full-time at Wolters Kluwer Compliance solutions (both “day job” and “midnight projects”) upon Thought Leadership.

Metrics and Measurement have never been more important:  as I transitioned from my role as a Research Director at Dresner Advisory Services, I was reminded that Reporting and Dashboards remain the top priority for organizations across all industries and functions surveyed for Business Intelligence, Data, and Analytics.  The Marketing Vision 2021 conference supported that; the need to measure and report the business impact of marketing has never been more important:

  • You cannot deliver insights-driven marketing without measuring the success and failure of your marketing initiatives. I learned that several times over in my tenure in the BMO at SAP Global Marketing – deliver the news, whether it is good or bad, and base it upon reliable data and easy to consume and digest reporting formats.  And use these insights to tell a story.
  • Just because you can deliver a report, metric, or measurement, don’t forget that you need to meet the needs of your stakeholders – and NOT what you can deliver for reporting and analytics. Successful reporting and analytics deliver the results in the business language of the stakeholder in a way that’s easily consumable and clearly communicated.
  • Outcomes-based Metrics are key. While the measurement of Marketing Contribution to the funnel/waterfall is part of the way we measure marketing, and with it Marketing-Generated Revenue from leads converting to opportunities to closed deals, we need to look at the ultimate outcome and plan backward.  Having worked for years in Services Marketing, that’s something we implicitly understood while the rest of the world seemingly asked, “why should we care about services marketing?  Well, it’s the “tip of the spear” and critical to delivering an outcomes-based solution.  It just took some of you a decade or more to catch up!

Sales Enablement is a Key Core Competency: A key critical success factor for ABM is alignment between sales and marketing.  I’ve been preaching that for years, since the first time I spoke about “Modern Marketing” years back.  Nothing has changed, and the discussions around Sales Enablement permeated multiple areas of Marketing Vision 2021:

  • ITSMA research shows that the “education of sales of the process and value of ABM” has grown from the #4 priority to #1. This goes hand-in-hand with the rapid growth of ABM, its greater strategic priority, and the transformation from simply a program to a core way of selling.
  • I loved the statement made by the speaker Liz Harrison from McKinsey about the need for “understanding your customer deeply, what matters to them, focusing your marketing investments on that”. This goes hand-in-hand with her statement that “Marketing should play a key role in setting the foundation of sales enablement”.
  • And yes, there’s a MarTech component to Sales Enablement. It’s less about the technology choice and more about the execution and linkage to sales, and “making the most” of your content, and making it easily accessible to the field.
  • As stated earlier, the number one priority and challenge of ABM is sales enablement, educating the field, and making sales more effective. Talk about an exciting area to be in!

Invest in Competitive Intelligence: part of transforming yourself from a “good” to a “great” marketer is to base your marketing upon a solid understanding of customers, the marketplace, and competitors.  And yes, this goes hand-in-hand with Sales Enablement; one of many inter-relationships we experienced at this year’s Marketing Vision 2021 virtual event:

  • Good competitive intelligence is the classic “data transformed to information and transformed to intelligence”, its own “Maslow-like” pyramid of needs. That was very clear attending the post-event workshop on competitive intelligence.
  • Like everything in marketing and sales, a good process and framework is key. I loved the competitive intelligence framework shared in the workshop, based upon a methodology developed initially by the CIA; having chosen my MBA and a career in marketing, over the CIA after graduation from Yale, I will say that the skills that would have landed me in Langley VA have served me very well in a three-decade plus marketing career.
  • Competitive Intelligence has tremendous impact across both sales and marketing, including win-loss analysis, development of playbooks and battle cards, and providing valuable insights to allow insights-driven marketing for ABM and virtually every marketing program.
  • And yes, there was such great content on the workshop on Competitive Intelligence I could spend the rest of this blog and several more elaborating further – see the resources below for my “real-time tweet deck collection” and my event coverage from this year’s Marketing Vision 2021 virtual event.

MarTech is all about the Platform:  just as the father of MarTech, Scott Brinker, the VP of Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot and Editor at chiefmartec.com, has discussed in recent events, articles, and blogs, the platform is becoming predominant over point solutions.  While Martech solutions continue to grow, net any “churn”, the “megatrend” is at the platform level.  This is indicative of both the growing maturity of solutions as well as a key dynamic across marketing.  MarTech has not only ridden the “hype cycle” it’s becoming an essential part of the fabric of ALL marketing, not unlike “Digital Marketing” as an essential discipline:

  • I was yet again stunned by a sense of DeJa’Vu, something that comes with several decades of experience. While I was at DEC, Sun Microsystems had a great slogan “The Network is the Computer”, first coined by John Gage. Sun’s Chief Researcher for years.  We are in an era of MarTech where “The Platform is the Solution” as we integrate not only MarTech but financial technology “FinTech”, Sales Technologies, and more.  And yes, part two of my DeJa’Vu was the pendulum of “suite versus point solutions”;  expect more from me on that topic.
  • Rather than go on and on about MarTech (and those that know me, know I would indeed), I encourage everyone to read last year’s “Executive Insights: A Marketing Technology (MarTech) Conversation with Scott Brinker” which I affectionately call the “Scott Brinker MarTech Manifesto”. I first met Scott at an earlier Marketing Vision event, and this was a collaboration after our second meeting, published between the 2019 and 2020 events.  If you haven’t already subscribed to his MarTech publications, I encourage you to do so now.
  • The era of the “Marketing Technologist” is here — everyone, no matter your role, or your level of technical literacy, needs to have some level of proficiency in MarTech and basic technical literacy. This not only spans point solutions but includes Data, Analytics, Business Intelligence (BI) and yes, it is expanding to AI and Machine Learning. No, you do not have to be an expert or practitioner – but as a leader, know what to leverage and how to enable your marketing teams to be successful.   Note this also relates to Data Science; know how to leverage these resources should you have them in-house or through outside consultancies.

It’s the Year of Customer Centricity (again):  putting the customer at the center of EVERYTHING is key and more important than ever; I believe 2021 is the third annual “THE year of the Customer Experience (CX)” by my reckoning.  Of course, every marketer knows it always has been – we have just seen the growing maturity and expansion of focus on customers, the CX journey and more.  This year’s Marketing Vision 2021 virtual event was no exception:

  • One of my favorite charts from the Marketing Vision 2021 event was another variation on the “Maslow Hierarchy” and the need to understand customer needs and expectations. This was literally such a confluence of multiple themes of the event that my head started spinning – in a really good way! Understand how well you meet the customer’s needs, where you have a “differential advantage” (an old Michael Porter concept that’s new again) and know how well your competitor does against you as well.
  • And yes, Competitive Intelligence comes into play in a big way. As someone who was once called the “sultan of SWOT” (with true respect to the great Babe Ruth) when I wore my annual “planning hat” in SAP marketing, I have preached for years (decades?) you cannot be an effective marketing without a solid understanding of SWOT – your strengths, weaknesses, the opportunities that are yours for the taking, and the competitive threats.
  • And as I discussed a while back, while we may not truly know “who truly owns the CX” (like the movie “Slapshot”, we may not know who “own the Chiefs” LOL), and with it the CX journey, it’s incumbent for marketing to lead and partner with sales and align to be as effective as possible.  Nothing was more apparent than the stories and lessons learned from the “ABM Magnificent Seven” that includes my long-time friend and colleague, Eric Martin, the VP of Account-Based Marketing at SAP North America Marketing; our conversation from a year ago “Executive Insights: Account-Based Marketing (ABM) with Eric Martin of SAP Marketing” has never been more relevant and timely.

Executive Engagement is a Key to Being a “Trusted Advisor”: OK, as a father of three adult children, I admit – sometimes you have a favorite, though you aspire to love your children equally.  I had MANY favorite sessions at Marketing Vision 2021, too many to list.  But one of my favorites was the Executive Engagement “fireside chat” with my former SAP Marketing colleague Janis Fratamico, now the Global Vice President of Field Marketing at Citrix. Here’s just a few highlights (check out my “tweetdeck collection” for more):

  • I think the fact it was right after the “fireside chat” on Thought Leadership impacted my thinking a bit. What’s one of the best ways to engage with and have an impact on, and provide value to an executive in a sales/engagement cycle? Thought Leadership!
  • Great Thought Leadership is not enough by itself – it needs to be part of the engagement and we need to understand what the wants to see and gain value from – NOT what we are prepared to provide. All of this is critical to build both confidence and trust with your executives (and the entire team).
  • Decision maker engagement is important: know that ITSMA research showcases that organizations have a median of three Trusted Advisors – so for many, that’s only one or two, and there’s lots of competition. It is critical to understand who the right people are, what are the best ways to reach them, and strive to deliver the VALUE to decision makers to help them get a promotion (yet another dimension of the “Jerry Maguire School of Marketing”, classic “help me help you”).  We MUST build confidence and trust.
  • I LOVED Janis’ advice: 1.) Be innovative 2.) focus upon events with interactive capabilities that offer great engagement and 3.) don’t lower your standards; if you truly want to reach executives, don’t change the value to “fill the room” (ALL marketers take notice!). And if needed, change the metric.  “Amen Sister” as we say in Boston (and Cambridge)!

Events have changed, In-person Events will come back, and Hybrid/Virtual events will continue to be critical: Julie Schwartz, SVP of Research and Thought Leadership and the “Chief Analyst” for ITSMA, included events in her keynote on “Executive Buying Behavior and What B2B Buyers Should Know”.  It was a great update on the ongoing ITSMA research on how buyers consume information, and is based upon a wave 2 study on how executives engage research. Highlights include:

  • Yes, there’s lots of pent-up demand for events. Part of my advice for marketers to “get out there” has included events and conferences.  Yes, COVID-19 not only threw a “monkey wrench” at in-person events, but the resultant accelerated digital transformation provides a great opportunity for virtual and on-line events.  I cringed however at her mention of one CMO who talked about “150 webinars per quarter” — quality and NOT quantity will win and engage the hearts and minds of our customers and prospects.
  • While in-person events are coming back slowly, that will happen more quickly in North America, and large “industry events” are still a “future”. We need a hybrid approach, while delivering high-touch, personal experiences, and engagement. Yes, preferences have shifted and the virtual event is absolutely here to stay!
  • I enjoyed Julie’s “Case Study” of Salesforce Dreamforce being “reimagined” and becoming a “digitally transformed” event, pivoting and shifting to a one-to-one from one-to-many focus/ABM focus and content personalization. Clearly a well-earned ITSMA MEA 2021 award winner with great documentation of the business impact.
  • However, we are all not a Salesforce with a large marketing department, budget, and resources. I was very fortunate to work on the 2021 Dresner Advisory Services “Real Business Intelligence Event”.  Have a look at “Real Business Intelligence Insights: my Top 12 “Insanely Great” Ah Hah Moments for “Data Leaders” and you can see how great content, thought leadership speakers (including a “real Martian”!), interactive sessions with analysts, speakers, and alumni, and a sponsor showcase all came together for a very successful virtual event.  Real Business Intelligence event registration and attendance more than doubled year over year, a great accomplishment as the field for virtual conferences was considerably larger and far more competitive in 2021 than in 2020. Yes, it too was “insanely great” and had great “aha moments”; yes, great marketers repurpose both content and messages!

Next-Generation Marketing Analytics will drive a “Brave New World of Marketing”: no there wasn’t a specific session or workshop on this topic, though I have certainly covered this during my tenure at SAP Marketing and while at Dresner Advisory Services (see “Next Generation Marketing Analytics”).  Throughout Marketing Vision 2021 Marketing Analytics, Data-driven Decision-making, and the successful use of MarTech solutions and marketing platforms, were key concepts and “red threads” that cut orthogonally across all sessions and workshops.

  • As Julie Schwartz stated up-front, and it came back at the end of the conference, “one way marketing earns a seat at the table is to enable both data-driven and insights-driven decision making” – we do that through the confluence of BI, Data, and Analytics; Competitive Intelligence; and deep customer and market insights.
  • As marketers, we indeed need to “skate to where the puck is going and NOT to where it’s been”; real-time reporting, advanced analytics including predictive analytics, and a “brave new world” of AI and Machine Learning and MarTech will fuel this. Don’t worry – this will bring the classic “lift and shift” and allow us to focus marketers on higher value-added tasks, automate repetitive reporting, and focus far more on leveraging key insights and intelligence.
  • The fact Marketing Vision 2021 had an entire workshop on “ABM Metrics” showcased how important this discipline is. And this includes the successful use of Data Sciences; Marketers must become “data literate” and not only leverage the experts on their teams, but understand the mandate here, and include Next-Generation Marketing Analytics in their overall plans and agenda and executive support.
  • I will close on a key point about ABM metrics – “don’t report for reporting’s sake, just because you can do it, stick to a relatively small number of key metrics, and focus on “curating” outcomes-based metrics that reflect the required business impact and NOT activity metrics alone”. That’s the vision of Next-Generation Marketing Analytics, supported by “modern” BI, Data, and Analytics solutions, and the modern MarTech platform.

As I’ve done for several years of ITSMA Marketing Vision events, I provided real-time “event ambassadorship” and tweeted during the keynotes, sessions, and workshops.  There’s a method to my madness: rather than write a detailed “event report” that will likely never get read, this produces a “living and dynamic event report” that is easy to collect and share with a “tweetdeck collection”.  Yes, “great storytelling” is key to cover everything we discussed at Marketing Vision 2021, and this is a great tool to enable it. I broke this year’s Marketing Vision conference tweet coverage into two parts:

And don’t forget to review the 2021 ITSMA Marketing Excellence Award (MEA) winners, a tremendous collection of best practices spanning ABM, Thought Leadership, Executive Engagement, and more.

I cannot wait for ITSMA “Marketing Vision 2022”, and I hope we are back in-person in Cambridge MA next fall.  However, I imagine Dave Munn and the folks at ITSMA and Momentum are already envisioning a hybrid in-person and virtual event.  Be sure to visit Marketing Vision and see what ensues; see you all next year!

Fred Isbell is Associate Director, Portfolio Marketing for Compliance Solutions Marketing & Strategy Team Wolters Kluwer. He was formerly a Research Director for Dresner Advisory Services. Fred was with SAP Global Marketing as Senior Marketing Director & BMO Lead. He also led SAP Services North America Field Marketing, SAP Services Thought Leadership, SAP Services Field Engagement programs and Channels Marketing for SAP Small and Midsize Enterprises (SME). Previous to SAP, Fred held a variety of senior solutions and services marketing roles with Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). He is a graduate of Yale University with honors and has an MBA from the Duke Fuqua School of Business where he was a Fuqua Scholar and received the Fuqua Alumni Exemplary Leadership Award.