What are the right tools, the right strategies and tactics, and the right content for a successful marketing and sales pipeline? These questions led Scott Armstrong, Partner, to start his agency, Brainrider, in 2010. Brainrider is based in Toronto and San Francisco. In this interview, Scott discusses his agency’s demand generation, prospect and customer nurturing, and lead management strategies for companies involved in “the complex sale,” and highlights the advantages of permission-based marketing.
Most companies he works with already have toolsets in place. Brainrider’s role is to provide effective strategic methodology, planning, execution, and results measurement, developing a hyper-segmented B2B pipeline that empowers his client companies to optimize the results of their marketing efforts. The base stack for today’s B2B marketer includes: a robust sales CRM, marketing automation (with pipeline awareness and engagement tracking), and a marketing-updatable website. Tool selection should be aligned with use objectives with the “Why?”
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Scott Armstrong, Partner at Brainrider, based in Toronto and San Francisco. Welcome, Scott.
SCOTT: Thanks so much for having me.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Brainrider and about what you’re great at?
SCOTT: Sure. We were founded in 2010, and we are exclusively focused on B2B pipeline marketing. We are specialists in demand generation, nurturing, and lead management for B2B companies involved in the complex sale.
ROB: Awesome. I think some people were ready for that in 2010 and some people weren’t. How has that journey been? I imagine it’s probably more fun, more people interested now.
SCOTT: To be honest, we weren’t ready for it in 2010. There’s been a lot of learning over the course of the past decade, and certainly the mix of customers has changed. The mix of the Martech stack has changed.
What we do leverages your sales CRM, marketing automation, digital content, website CMS. In 2010, or really 2008, when we started thinking this through, those were really early technologies. But today, you’re right—more than half the market has adopted part of that Martech stack.
ROB: How have the tools changed and in ways that have evolved and made this more effective and possible for you and your clients?
SCOTT: I would say, in 2010, when we launched, we didn’t know what we were doing. Things have really evolved since then. The technology stack is much more deeply penetrated across a wider range of B2B marketers. The question has really moved from implementation—in our first year, we were focused primarily on implementation with a little bit of strategy. Today, we do very few basic implementations and we focus much more on strategic optimization, planning, execution, and results measurement.
ROB: I can see how that would be helpful. I guess that means your clients are doing a lot of the actual implementation?
SCOTT: No, they’ve already got the tools in place. The big focus for the year is implementing a tool such as marketing automation and testing out some tentative early steps on how to align with it with much more complex questions such as, “What’s the right campaign mix?” “How do we change our segmentation and messaging strategy to fit the reality of communicating in a digital world?” And, “Which results are we measuring and improving against?”
ROB: Got it. I think I asked about setting those things up. If you go to a conference and you hear a speaker talk, and they’re talking about marketing and automation and they’re talking about all these branching decision trees of, “If a user does this, then do that,” it can get complicated very quickly. How are people coping with this growing set of tools, and even getting in a place where they’re ready for you to help?
SCOTT: That’s a super smart question. That question really has been with us almost from the very start, because every year it feels complicated; it’s just a different tools mix.
Our answer for clients around that question is: Focus on your objectives and try to make them measurable objectives that can pay off against your business results. Don’t worry about features or technologies. Start with the “why” and then build the use case around the “why.” The tool selection and the tool use should then start fitting that much easier.
ROB: If someone’s just getting started, what are some of the tools that are most both necessary and approachable? What’s the base stack for a B2B marketer in 2018?
SCOTT: We focus very much on B2B marketers who are managing a more complex sale. For those marketers, the core stack starts with sales CRM. Most often it’s Salesforce.com, but it might be Microsoft Dynamics. It doesn’t really matter which sales CRM you’re on, but if you don’t have that core interface of data around who your prospects are that your sales team is using, you’ve got to start there.
Next is putting a marketing layer on top of that. Most traditionally, that’s been marketing automation. You want to do more than just be able to email those prospects. You really want to get some visibility into where they’re at in the pipeline and how they’re engaging with your tactics and content.
Then the third element of that—and really, all three of them should be together—is a website that allows the marketing team to edit, publish, and revise content on their website quite easily. You don’t want to be having to go through your IT group to make changes in messaging or offers on your site. A website content management system, or CMS—most commonly it’s WordPress, although depending on your use case there are a number of different systems out there—is the third leg of that stool.
ROB: Got it. WordPress, and then maybe even on top of that something like a tag management solution that lets marketing pipe in different toolkits. I think that’s been probably a big boon for marketers, the ability to use tag management and also to add solutions to their site even one layer up from WordPress. Have you seen much of that?
SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, super smart. And then you can go much deeper into the stack from that point, but really those technologies make the core.
ROB: How did you come to start Brainrider in the first place?
SCOTT: If you go back in time, my career started in the early 1990s as a B2B direct mailer. I was sending B2B messaging through the post office and listening to 1-800 calls for response.
Many of those principles are still in place. That was a business that was really about measurement, testing, and learning, and if you think about those core elements, that’s still the case today.
What happened, though, is I got distracted by a career in brand advertising, beverage alcohol advertising, technology advertising, all sorts of sexy, on-television, 30-second commercial stuff. That really exploded through the end of the ’90s, until digital arrived and changed the world in such a big way.
I was always intrigued by digital, even early on in my career, and certainly once the Web started hitting in a major way. So, in 2008, when a client challenged me about our ability to deliver improved results through digital channels, it was a really great question. That client who challenged me was a guy named Nolin LeChasseur, who actually became my other founding partner when we started Brainrider.
He asked the question: In a new world where increasing amounts of marketing and sales in the B2B space are moving online, what are the right tools, what are the right strategies and tactics, what’s the right content in order to build a successful marketing and sales pipeline? That really brought me and us into a new world, which has been exciting ever since, and we launched Brainrider in 2010.
ROB: What was that first year or two like? Was it just the two of you? When did you start to see acceleration in the business? Also, I think you mentioned at first you weren’t ready. I think you realized there was a destination, but perhaps—when did you feel more on the journey to that destination?
SCOTT: Definitely we realized there was a destination, and I think we’re still on track with that destination. That destination was: How do you optimize your marketing automation pipeline, your web content and tactics, your content and messaging, to produce better marketing results?
But, what started out as sort of a back-of-a-napkin drawing over a lunch talking about the business one day, a year later resulted in the launch of Brainrider—still based on that napkin. We really had to spend the first couple years building some processes and methodology to go from conceptual thoughts on one napkin into a more robust agency practice that could more quickly, more cost-effectively, and more robustly help guide clients through the process of adopting those technologies, refining them, and creating success.
ROB: Congrats on navigating the journey so far. What are some things that you have learned along the way in building Brainrider that you might do differently if you were starting over tomorrow?
SCOTT: I think about this every now and then, particularly at the end of a long week. It’s a great question to ponder.
To tell you the truth, it’s been so much fun, I wish I had started earlier. I was midway through my career, and I think the energy to start and launch an agency—probably I had more of that energy 5-10 years earlier.
The second is I would really focus on talent as well as process. Early on, we were really trying to figure out methodology. We worked hard on it. I think learning about talent, securing talent would’ve been a really important thing to do to help accelerate the growth of the company.
And that’s the last piece. I think we were conservative. We were a cash flow funded agency. We really started it with the money in our own pockets and the blessings of some clients who came on board in our first year. We did have some of my past clients who came along with us, which was terrific. I will always be grateful, for example, to Yellow Pages, who called us before we opened our doors to say that they wanted to be our first client.
But really, I think we could’ve moved faster in growing the agency to where we are today if we’d just been a little bit bolder.
ROB: What have been some of the key hires along the way, either people or particular roles, that have been game-changers for you?
SCOTT: We’ve actually most recently moved to a more traditional account structure. Our business is broken up into essentially four different account leads, one out of San Francisco and three out of Toronto. They own their individual businesses right down to the P&L. That’s really aligned the teams to the revenue on the business, but also to client priorities and client satisfaction. It really allowed us to improve client retention and improve client satisfaction, but also improve profitability for the business, which supports all of it.
ROB: Profitability, it’s great that you’ve got a lens for that. That’s one of those things that is often a lesson that people learn the hard way along the way, for sure.
SCOTT: An area we’re still struggling in, really, is the right backend agency toolset to integrate project management with our tracking, budget tracking and utilization rates. We’ve experimented over the past decade with a handful of different tools, and I still don’t think we’ve got that mix right.
Which is ironic, because we’re actually doing a really good job of using digital tools to manage the frontend of our business for clients—use of marketing automation, sales CRMs, websites, ABM platforms, measurement platforms. We’ve got great experience in all of those, but we’re really struggling with some of the backend systems to run an agency of our size.
ROB: What is it, do you think, the tools out there are missing or perhaps not understanding about how an agency operates? There’s certainly not a dominant platform where everybody says “Hey, we’re using this one tool, it’s amazing.” There’s not the Salesforce of running an agency. What are they missing?
SCOTT: A real frustrating question, let me tell you. I think it comes from the fact that agencies are not a new concept. The existence of agencies goes back well over a hundred years. That’s a really mature industry. And yet the way agencies work today is significantly different than it was even 10 years ago.
I have a distributed, young, mobile, digitally-enabled workforce. They’re not interested in printing out reports or doing anything manual. [laughs] They want to do things on the fly, using apps, in a way that is integrated through APIs into their existing work processes.
There’s too much in the way of legacy tools around agency backend systems, and then the investments that are in place in new tools are, I believe, still going against an older agency model. We’re an agency of 50 people that’s growing quite quickly. You take WPP or Omnicom, those are agencies of multibillion dollars where most of the parts of those agency groups aren’t moving much past where they were in 1990.
ROB: I want to dig in a little bit deeper, because I think you’ve got a lot of knowledge that some people may not even fully understand. Coming from direct mail, do you think the realization that you were actually going to spend money on postage forced you to think harder about the content you were producing than maybe some people do today, when distribution has the illusion of being free or very cheap?
SCOTT: For sure, the calculation of print and postage costs changed and rationed our ability to reach out to customers. Similarly, media costs were so much higher. The other routes that we could use would’ve been newspaper advertising, out-of-home radio campaigns, and telemarketing campaigns. The media cost is quite different today.
The part that’s most interesting to me, though, isn’t the less rationing of media space. It’s really more understanding of what’s working along that buyer’s journey. As a 1990s B2B direct mailer, our touchpoints that we could measure were: Did we send them an envelope with a message in it, and did they call a 1-800 number?
Today, digitally, I can tell: Did we send them information? Did they open it? Did they engage with it? Where else on our website did that take them? Which advertisements did they connect with? Where on our website did that take them? Which events, online or offline, have engaged them? And what does that total picture look like before they click on that Contact Me button (which would be a similar conversion point to the 1-800 number)?
That level of detail around engagement really changes the amount of data that is available for a marketer to analyze and the clarity or the depth of visibility into what’s happening within your pipeline.
ROB: It sounds like something that’s capable, but it also sounds a little bit overwhelming sometimes, all the data that we can use, to the point where I think sometimes it’s almost fear-inducing to think about using it. How do you overcome that? How do you start to take those steps in increasing maturity?
SCOTT: I’ve got a little mini plug, which is if you work with an agency, that agency is doing more cycles of learning around these tools than anybody else right now. So one way to get over that fear is to tap into people who’ve got experience. That’s a quick way to do it, so that’s number one.
Number two is the point that I had made earlier, which is you really want to go back to a good understanding of what your measurable objectives are and which measurable objectives have the most likelihood of moving the business needle forward for you. Instead of focusing on everything that you can do, focus on the objective you want to reach, and then what are some of the pieces that you can execute that move you closer to achieving that objective.
ROB: Maybe if I only know that I’m looking at people who are visiting my website, maybe I can just keep on moving down the pipeline step by step rather than trying to eat the entire pipeline at once? Is it better to come from the front, the back? What’s the best way to incrementally get there?
SCOTT: That’s a great question. I’m often talking to clients about focusing on crawl, walk, run. Don’t try to bite off too much at once.
The second is, you can really take a look at the shape of your pipeline. Most normal B2B pipelines are shaped like a funnel, which is why people talk about funnel marketing. A healthy pipeline has more visitors than prospects, more prospects than qualified MQLs, more qualified MQLs than SQLs, and then a minority of sales.
If you can understand the shape of your pipeline, you can tell where the challenges or opportunities sit within your pipeline and which part of the pipeline you want to optimize first. If you’ve got lots of qualified visitors to your website but you don’t have enough prospects in your database, start by converting more visitors into prospects with better offer merchandizing, calls to action, and better content.
It’s going to be a faster route to success if the rest of the metrics in your pipeline hold true than trying to focus on the bottom of your pipeline.
ROB: That makes sense. I think that’s very practical, so thank you for sharing that bit. What are some things coming up in the future of B2B marketing, pipeline management, and particularly for Brainrider that you find exciting?
SCOTT: In a recent survey, they talked about the key challenges for companies that have adopted marketing automation. There were six key challenges, four of which have been marketing challenges forever—more talent, more money, more content, more time.
The first two were quite interesting. The #1 challenge in creating better pipeline success is realigning the strategy and plan to the toolset that’s in place. The second one was reducing complexity in the systems that have been built.
We often see that. We’re hired to rescue marketing automation implementations that have gotten too complex to manage, or where the original team that built it left and nobody else can figure out what it was trying to do. [laughs]
Understanding your strategy—who’s the target, what’s your objective, how you’re going to measure success, what are your key messages, and how you’re going to put it all together, and then how to do that in the simplest, most robust way possible are really fun areas of development that are going on. You want to layer on that, though, that every year there’s increasing capability in the existing tools and new tools being launched.
2018 is clearly the year of account-based marketing. We’ve been involved in that space now for the last 2-½ years. We’ve a global partner with Demandbase, who we think are one of the leaders in the space. But most companies have not implemented ABM technology on top of their marketing automation system. They’re asking the questions around ABM like we were getting around marketing automation in 2010, which is “What’s the right tool? How do I implement? How do I get started? How do I pilot a program?”
So we’re finding the constant evolution of the marketing tech stack is something that’s pretty exciting.
The last thing that I would say is exciting is going to sound a little counterintuitive. Along with being the year of ABM, I think 2018 is going to be the year of privacy. We have GDPR in the European sense, we’ve got CASL in Canada, we’ve got Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress in the U.S. Privacy and permission-based marketing are really top-of-mind for almost everyone.
And I would argue they should be. If I go back 30 years, my father was horrified to realize that I was a B2B junk mailer. I was super excited to get B2B junk mail campaigns that had response rates of 1%, which he phrased as B2B junk mail campaigns that had rejection rates above 99%. That doesn’t feel very satisfying as a marketer trying to reach an audience.
Seth Godin wrote Permission-Based Marketing in 1999. We’re coming up on almost the 20th anniversary of that line of thinking. It’s about time that we learn that response rates over 50% because you have a permission-based, interested audience just makes for better, more efficient, more effective marketing, more revenue generation, happier customers—happier people than renting a list, buying a list, and spamming people.
ROB: With account-based marketing, as best I understand it—and feel free to fill in if I haven’t got it quite right—but the opportunity there is to be able to direct content/advertising/collateral to people who are in your sales pipeline based on their role within the organization, their role within the buying process, and where that entire company is within the buying process.
One criticism I’ve heard, at least in the past, is that the match rates against the CRM email addresses were kind of mediocre. Was that ever a fair concern? Is it still a material concern, or are things changing in interesting ways? What do you think?
SCOTT: I think in executing a new strategy with new technology, there’s always an adoption period where the data, the tactics, and the strategies are a bit clunky. So for lots of clients, we’re in sort of a horrifying stage right now.
We’ve got a large enterprise client; they are in the process of adopting ABM. They did a review of their past enterprise marketing efforts against a top account target list and realized that the last 24 months of all of their enterprise newsletter work had only reached four people in their top 25 target accounts. If you were responsible for that newsletter engagement program, that’s a horrifying number.
But if you’re responsible for helping improve results going forward, that number just says we’ve got a really great opportunity to deepen our penetration against the 80% of revenue that’s available from our top 20% of accounts.
So yes, there are some cringe-worthy moments that are happening as people are thinking through and piloting ABM programs today, but on the whole we look at account-based marketing really as pipeline marketing with hyper-segmentation. It’s just improved targeting and improved measurement of your performance against those targets, and that’s not a bad thing for anyone. It’s actually along the same lines I was talking about before, which is improving response rates through technology.
ROB: Right. Scott, when someone wants to get in touch with you and Brainrider, how can they find you?
SCOTT: We practice what we preach, so I think a search for Brainrider, a search for pipeline marketing, and a search for pipeline optimization and ABM marketing should bring us up. [laughs] I would start there. We’re a Salesforce Partner, so we speak at Salesforce events quite often, Dreamforce and their World Tour events.
You can also reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing questions. For us, future engagements are all about right fit, but when we launched Brainrider 10 years ago, our mission was to help marketers improve their marketing, and out of that mission get to work with some of the right clients. So if you’ve got a question, reach out to me. I’m happy to answer it.
ROB: That’s a fantastic offer. I’d encourage anybody to take you up on that. Thank you for sharing from your well of knowledge, Scott. Thank you today to Mathew Sweezey at Pardot Salesforce for this introduction. We could not have this conversation without that. And please do contact Scott. Scott, thank you for your time and thank you for sharing your journey.
SCOTT: Thank you. What a great interview.
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