catches up with five marketers with pretty unusual career trajectories to find out what they’ve learnt along the way and what they bring to their current roles
The former Olympic canoeist
I fell into canoeing through being in the sea scouts, although at my very first canoe race I couldn’t even get off the start line for falling in the water. In a way it made me determined to be the best; four years later, I was a world championship finalist in Sofia, Bulgaria and the GB team captain. I enjoyed four years competing as a racing canoeist for Great Britain in competitions ranging from 500 metres to 125 miles, which was pretty amazing. Then, in 1982, my canoeing career literally went down the toilet: while racing in Madrid I caught dysentery, which I couldn’t shift for more than a year. My weight plummeted from 14 stone of muscle to 10 stone of skin and bone. When I finally recovered both my motivation and finances had run out.
It was the mid-eighties, the computer industry was growing quickly, and I decided to retrain as a computer scientist. In the early 90s I moved to Oracle, first as a software engineer, then into sales and eventually marketing.
Marketing was a natural fit for me… I’m a big fan of Peter Drucker who once said: “Business has only two basic functions – marketing and innovation.” What’s always amazed me about B2B marketing has been the lack of differentiation in messaging and proposition. So many IT innovations are complete game-changers, yet marketing messages all too often fail to compel users to adopt because they just don’t sell the competitive advantage.
What did I learn during my canoeing days? A lot! First of all, there’s no such thing as luck. It’s all about preparation and seizing opportunities. Preparation is what you do day in, day out, choosing between what makes a difference and what doesn’t. Then giving 100% to everything you’ve chosen to do.
Secondly, you need a great team around you. As a canoeist I had a great coach, team mates and support crew who paid attention to every detail, leaving nothing to chance. In business, your performance is a result of teamwork, planning, and attention to detail. You’re only ever as strong as the team around you.
The former bookkeeper
Funnily enough, I actually started my career working behind the counter at betting shop William Hill. The average day saw me staring into the eyes of our customers as they placed bets, making sure their betting slips were processed in time, and paying out winnings (every now and again!). The customer service and empathy skills I picked up here served me pretty well throughout my career: it was (and still is) about treating everyone with respect irrespective of bet (or budget), juggling multiple tasks at the same time and learning to prioritise. Managing a branch also exposed me to finance, which has also come in pretty useful ever since.
After William Hill I moved to a small Israeli software company that was looking to expand into Europe – and never looked back. Here I learnt all about how the different functional aspects of marketing worked together; I also learnt what it takes to generate business and the importance of being innovative and results-orientated. After 14 years there I joined Adobe, right at the start of their digital transformation.
What’s the most important thing I’ve learnt along the way? The importance of being obsessed with the customer. To quote Aaron Levie: “You’ll learn more in a day talking to customers than a week of brainstorming, a month of watching competition, or a year of market research.” It’s about keeping on top of consumer trends, staying curious, and embracing new and relevant technologies.
The former property management expert
Most people today tend to have unusual career paths, in that where they started out has little relation to where they’ve ended up or where they planned to be. I’m also sure most of us yearn for a meaningful purpose and have every intention of making it happen, but then get caught up in the realities of life and living.
Many years ago I ran a property management company in South Africa, and later worked for a prestigious UK property firm when I emigrated. As a business owner you’re in a ‘marketing’ role all the time – you’re constantly seeking ways to hunt down new customers, promote your services and enhance your brand, image and reputation. This was before the digital marketing era so I relied on printed leaflets, newspaper adverts and networking events. I quickly learnt about the power of word of mouth, and that customers like to be clearly told what they’re getting and why they should buy from you (but also not be given too many options). It certainly helped me focus on benefit-based selling.
I was already exposed to marketing my services, and adapting these to suit customer demand. But I felt the pull of technology and moved to an IT customer-facing role – customer roles are invaluable. They should scrap subjects at school and just teach young people how to negotiate, collaborate, manage spend, deliver, organise themselves, give feedback, manage conflict, sell themselves. Life skills. Marketing skills.
After spending several years understanding what customers need from technology in a client director role, I moved into communications and PR. PR is a key resource for marketers and is often underrated. Having your voice heard in a noisy marketplace, immersing yourself in content that your customers consume, and getting customer advocates on board with success stories are all invaluable for today’s marketer. After that, it was a natural next step to move to an integrated marketing role. I now head up marketing for a global technology business.
I’m frustrated by the jargon in B2B, the hype around certain trends. ‘It’s all about your digital marketing kitbag.’ Is it? Really? But what I love is the creative process – from concept right through to delivery – and being able to demonstrate how your activities have directly influenced business sales. Now that’s true job satisfaction.
The former public sector worker
My first proper writing job was in local government doing internal communications and PR – and as it turns out it couldn’t have been better preparation for B2B copywriting. Every day public sector-minded, internally-focused experts would give me boring announcements, full of impenetrable jargon and long, formal sentences, and my job was to make them clear and – if possible – exciting for the average person.
Topic-wise, think bin collections, regeneration policy, planning consultations and fly-tipping. I had to decipher the council-speak and find the angle – I quickly found out there was always an angle.
Spotting that story was fun, and I was pretty good at it. All I had to do was have thick-enough skin to ask dumb questions like: “What does this mean?” and “So what?” And, to be very honest, that’s still the most important part of what I do today.
I didn’t consciously make a switch to B2B; I just saw an advert for a copywriter – I figured that if I could make housing policy interesting, I could do this. That was 10 years ago, and since then I’ve worked for three agencies, writing about forklift trucks and fleet management, GPS testing and enterprise software. I know a little bit about a lot of niche things, and it makes for some interesting conversations.
It’s still the same game as before – making dull things compelling and complicated things simple. I love talking to subject matter experts who are so close to what they do they can’t see the interesting story under their nose. (I once spoke to an engineer who was more excited about the thermal tolerances of a new motor than the fact it needed such properties because it was going to be sent to Venus.)
Throughout the whole journey, my only frustration about working in B2B marketing is that we – as a sector – tend not to get the recognition we deserve. Just the other week, I saw a post on LinkedIn claiming copywriters only work in B2B because they’re not creative enough to cut it in B2C. What rot. Making sports shoes, puddings and hotels sound fabulous is easy. We make low-code dev accessible and virtualised infrastructure sexy. I know which challenge takes the most skill.
The B2C defector
What appealed to me about B2B marketing? First and foremost, the role and the company, but besides that, I was curious to see whether it really was a dull and outdated way of marketing. Now, having worked in B2B for a while, I can say that it’s definitely less sexy than B2C, but also much more interesting, complex and challenging. In B2B you get tasked with thinking about ecosystems of complete industries and fitting your strategies around different business models. This is where the true marketing work comes in and is also the fun part of the job.
Having worked in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector as international product manager and marketing manager, I actually see the move from B2C to B2B as a pretty complementary one. For one thing, the FMCG sector is all about the consumer focus, and in B2C this is what you live and breathe 24/7.
When I was working at Alpro, the plant-based food and drink manufacturer, our consumer research was mainly carried out on brand and end products – knowing how FMCG food companies carry out research, I’m now able to provide a complementary perspective in my current role to initiate consumer understanding on specific ingredients. At DSM I recently initiated, for example, a consumer community to find out what consumers thought of a specific ingredient.
What strikes me most is the relatively low understanding among my B2B peers of the amount of effort and resource required to build a B2C brand. Research budgets, brand strategy budgets and activation budgets are often underestimated.
Overall, though, I’m a big believer that B2B and B2C aren’t different ways of thinking: you need to understand the needs of the market and answer with a proposition. Yes, you translate it differently according to your place in the value chain: for B2B it might be designing a business model, whereas in B2C it might be a communications campaign. But the underlying way of thinking remains the same.