Marketing Long-Cycle B2B Tech

Mike Maynard, Managing Director and CEO, Napier Group (Chichester, England)

Mike Maynard is Managing Director and CEO at Napier Group, an agency focused on marketing technical products to technical audiences. Clients include major companies selling semiconductors, industrial automation systems, cellular communications infrastructure, complex software, and even a baggage-handling system manufacturer. The customer audience for these products is super-targeted and super technical.

A disillusioned engineer who loved talking tech, Mike stopped designing products and re-engineered himself as a tech salesman. In 2008, he bought out the tech-focused marketing agency his company had been using – two weeks before the dot com crash. With ALL of his money invested in the agency, Mike had no choice but to make the venture succeed. Today, the agency is a mix of geeks – engineers or technical journalists who understand the technology – and marketing experts. Based in Chichester, England, the agency works with a good number of American companies to target their American customers . . . and is in the process of adding a U.S. office.

Some of Napier’s clients have products with fairly quick purchase/sales cycles. Others, such as the airport baggage handling system manufacturer, may have cycles ranging from seven to twenty years. When the sales cycle is long, a client is not “trying to think about closing a sale all the time.” Multi-year sales cycles require marketing to build relationships and rapport. The objective is to keep the product long-term on the minds of “future” customers by helping them stay apprised of industry trends and leading-edge developments.

Mike explains that, when a product is technical, “people shortlist a very small number of suppliers.” While the customer journey for a consumer product is usually short and straightforward, marketing technical products takes a “very long time,” “involves different stages of research,” and “requires “very different information.” Mike says you have to understand your customers, what they need, and the information they need; “take this really complicated thing and then narrow it down to clear reasons why somebody should consider the product;” “keep talking to the client over a long period of time because of the long sales cycle”; and make their decision and customer journey as easy as possible.

In this interview, Mike discusses TURTL, an in-Beta, analytics-rich, flipbook style content platform that tracks audience engagement – whether a document is opened, how long a reader looks at it, and how far through the information the reader gets – which allows document owners to optimize their content, enrich relevant and eliminate irrelevant information, and customize the material to the needs of individual prospects. 

Instead of following “vanity metrics” (click-through rates, numbers of clicks), TURTL helps answer the questions, “What does your audience care about? What do you need to give them more of? What do you need to stop talking about? How can you optimize your campaigns?” Mike says, “It’s a phenomenal superpower,” being able to “learn from the behavior of your audience” particularly when you’ve got the long, complex documents typical in tech industries.

Mike can be reached at his agency’s website: napierb2b.com, on LinkedIn (Mike Maynard at Napier), or by email at: mike@napierb2b.com.

Transcript Follows:

ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Mike Maynard, Managing Director and CEO at Napier Group based in Chichester, England. Welcome to the podcast, Mike.

MIKE: Thanks for having me on the podcast, Rob. Appreciate it.

ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start us off with an introduction to Napier Group? What is the firm’s expertise?

MIKE: Basically, what the firm does is we get geeks and techies excited. Our business is helping people market in the B2B technology space. It’s all about selling technical products to a technical audience that’s making a technical decision.

ROB: Got it. How technical are we talking here? Is it gadgets, is it software, or is it heavy-duty engineer cloud platform kind of software developer stuff?

MIKE: It’s pretty geeky stuff, Rob. To give you an idea of some of our clients, we work with one of the leading semiconductor companies in the world. We work with companies that sell industrial automation systems. We work with people selling cellular communications infrastructure. We even work with the world’s largest manufacturer of baggage handling systems.

ROB: It sounds like these are not Super Bowl ads, right? This sounds like pretty targeted audiences.

MIKE: These are super-targeted, super technical, and generally speaking pretty demanding audiences, yeah. It’s definitely not Super Bowl ads.

ROB: It seems like whether you’re talking about semiconductors, whether you’re talking about communications, this is pretty technical stuff. I’m imagining you’re largely a firm of marketers; how do you equip your team to be prepared to speak this language? Are they reformed geeks, or what is the secret here?

MIKE: I’m not sure I’m reformed, but I certainly am a geek. I started my career as an electronics engineer and spent years in design and then in technical support for semiconductor companies. So I’m certainly very technical. And actually, just over half the agency is very technical, typically coming from either an engineering or a technical journalism background.

So how do we equip people? The answer is we mix together people who understand the technology with people who are really good at marketing, and that’s how we get the results.

ROB: Got it. I am also a computer engineer by education, but now wear all the hats, much as you do in some seasons, I am sure. How, then, do you think about how to reach the audience, where to reach the audience? How do you find these very specific buyers? And these also sound like probably longer purchase cycles while we’re at it.

MIKE: Yeah, two very insightful questions, Rob. Talking about the purchase cycles, we do have a range of purchase cycles. With some of our clients’ products, we can actually get fairly quick turnarounds, and indeed, a couple of our clients actually sell online, so they will be able to sell particularly things like development kits (the things to start a development process going) online fairly quickly, although there’ll then be a development cycle involved for the engineers.

But if you look at, for example, selling a baggage handling system into an airport, if you want to sell a baggage handling system, someone’s really got to be building an airport terminal to buy a baggage handling system. They need somewhere to put it. Actually, you look at those sales cycles, the fastest turnaround they can get is typically about 7 years, and the sales cycle goes up to 20 years for these systems.

It really is a case of not trying to think about closing a sale all the time. With a multi-year sales cycle, that’s ridiculous. It’s about building that relationship, that rapport through marketing, and basically staying top-of-mind, staying the product that the customers want to choose.

ROB: How do you stay top-of-mind for seven years?

MIKE: The answer is you have to do interesting stuff. It’s really simple. In all our industries, if you look at it, there are people buying who are making very technical decisions over a long sales cycle. What these guys and girls want to do is understand what’s going on in the market, because they may go for a long period of time without making any specific purchasing decision. If you could be helping them, educating them, telling them about the trends, and hopefully introducing developments that actually are leading the industry, then you’re going to get them engaged. It’s about presenting that kind of information in a compelling way that really gets the techies excited. It’s about helping them as well as marketing to them.

ROB: I’d imagine at least you have plenty of time to pull together a case study. It’s not a quick turnaround, necessarily.

MIKE: The problem is everybody wants case studies, and case studies are notoriously difficult to get done. We’re forever trying to get case studies. Actually, the case studies are one of the fastest things that happen because typically they happen once a sale is completed and you’ve had a product, for example, go into production. Then you can turn around the case study really quickly. So you wait for it for a really long time – it’s like being a kid waiting for Christmas. You think it’s forever till it’s going to happen. You know that the client’s got this amazing project they’re working on, and then finally you get the opportunity, and suddenly Christmas is there and it’s amazing, and you get a fantastic case study.

ROB: Yeah, that sounds like Christmas all over again. If we rewind the clock a little bit, what led you into this business? How did this whole thing get started?

MIKE: It’s a very unplanned story. I used to be an engineer, and I was designing electronic systems. I designed everything from systems that could engrave printing rollers using big industrial lasers through to recording for music studios. Then I decided I wasn’t very good at the engineering part. I actually quite liked talking about the technology, so I went into technical sales.

In the UK at the time, you used to get a company car, a car provided by the company, if you were in marketing. I kind of liked the idea of moving into marketing because my car was getting old, so I moved into marketing because of that and spent a few years in marketing, running European marketing for a semiconductor company.

Then I went on a course. It was a residential management course, and there were a few glasses of wine on the last night, and we got into talking about what people’s ambitions were. Someone said to me, “You should run your own business, Mike.” I think they were really polite and they were saying, “Oh, my God, I would hate to be your manager, Mike,” but they presented it in this lovely way of . . . “You should run your own business.”

About two months later, my main contact at the agency I was using said, “The two founders are looking to retire and sell the business, and I think you should buy it.” I thought, how hard can it be to run an agency? I’ve done marketing. An agency’s got to be basically the same as being on the client side. Let’s just try it. And then I learnt.

ROB: Purchasing a business can take on a few different forms. What did the purchase process and structure look like for you? I imagine there’s enough distance between here and there that you can probably talk a little bit about it.

MIKE: The approach actually was really simple. There were some technical issues; obviously, companies structure very differently. In the UK, you can have a partnership or you can have a limited liability company or you can have a listed company. At the time, the current company was a partnership. I basically bought the assets, put it into a limited liability company because I had no money, and certainly after the purchase, I had no money. I never really added up how much debt I’d run up because I think I would’ve never done it if I’d realized that. But it was a relatively straightforward process. Frankly, buying businesses is nowhere near as difficult as it sounds.

But I do have one great bit of advice for buying businesses. If you’re going to buy an agency that is 100% focused on technology clients, buying that agency about two weeks before the dot-com crash is a really, really bad idea. That’s my advice to anyone: get your timing right. That’s probably a bigger challenge than actually the whole process of buying a business.

ROB: Yes, timing would seem to matter a great deal there. But perhaps then also part of going through that season has probably helped along the way. How did you make it through the downturn, the dot-com crash? That’s certainly a baptism by fire, if you will, into the privileges of business ownership.

MIKE: That’s a great question. I think making it through was not really the problem, because I’d taken all the money I had, I put it into the business – there was no option. I had to make it succeed. I think a lot of agency owners will relate to this with COVID and typically having to leave the office, work from home – you get through that. I think the biggest problem is how that impacts you in the longer term.

For me, after buying the agency, it really made me overly cautious. We were always wanting to have cash in the bank. We always wanted to be safe. We wanted to have runway. We didn’t go out and invest as much as we should. We didn’t actually take advantage of the cycles when there were upcycles. It really had a long-term impact on me.

Agency owners who’ve been through COVID, a lot of agency owners have really struggled; the one thing I’d say is these exceptional situations are exceptional. And yes, there’ll be problems. There’ll be bumps on the road. It won’t be an easy route. But I think as we come out of this horrible pandemic, we’ve got to look back to building our confidence as agency owners and being prepared to go back to taking the risks you were taking before the pandemic.

ROB: How did that experience, and maybe the learning from that dot-com crash, affect your reaction to however much 2008 impacted you, and then what sort of footing were you on heading into COVID? You saw it. You clearly saw, “Here we go again”; how did your mind and your attitude react differently in that case?

MIKE: That’s a great question because I think the two are very different. 2008 obviously had a big impact on us, again, being a technology agency with a big tech downturn. But we were still running the business very conservatively. We were still, in my opinion, being a little bit overly cautious. We had cash, we were safe, we got through the downturn, and it was okay.

By the time we get to the pandemic and COVID, we changed our philosophy. We were investing more. We’re still running the business with cash in the bank rather than running it on an overdraft, so to some extent keeping safe. But honestly, for us – and we were lucky in the business we’re in. There are other agencies that have been hit far harder. For us, we came through COVID and it was like, actually, the impact to the business was pretty small. I mean, yes, we had to move everybody, make them remote, we had to do that in virtually no time, we had to deal with communications issues. We had all these problems. But basically, the money kept coming in, and that was great. Some of the clients cut back, but nobody really pulled out. It was actually so much easier having been through financially what were far worse downturns.

ROB: Yeah. Some of these products you’re talking about – I think any marketer, any client, any seller, any buyer is expecting the entire conversation to last longer than any downturn, so I can see how that makes sense.

I am curious as I think about it – most of what you’re talking about, these things sound like they are more sold than bought, if you will. They’re things where, as a marketer, you’re not just trying to get somebody to check out and buy a bunch of things to outfit all their cellphone towers for their entire country network buildout. In some ways you’re equipping and supporting a salesforce, I would imagine. So. what are the channels that you’re reaching, and how do you come alongside when the actual purchase is probably with a human and maybe an RFP and a whole bunch of other things?

MIKE: That’s a great question. If you look at the research with these highly involved decisions – and I know LinkedIn has published something recently about financial purchases – actually, people shortlist a very small number of suppliers. Typically a couple of suppliers. What you have to do is really understand the customer journey. People talk about the customer journey, and you can look at a customer journey for a consumer product; it’s very short, and it’s probably not that involved.

A customer journey for the kind of products we’re taking, it takes a very long time. It involves different stages of research. They need very different content, very different information. It’s about really getting into the head of those customers, understanding what they’re doing, understanding what they’re going through, what they need, and then delivering the right information.

I can’t change our clients’ products, and I can’t make our client always have the best product in the world. But what I can do is present the product in the best light, and I can make it as easy as possible for the customer to choose our client’s product. A lot of it is about removing these roadblocks that make it difficult to choose and just making that journey as smooth as possible.

ROB: It’s such an interesting journey along that way. You did mention, as we were getting you lined up to be on the podcast, you’re going to be at the B2B Expo in Los Angeles at the start of April. How does that fit into your mix of operating the firm? And that’s a little bit of a journey for you.

MIKE: Because we’re in technology, most of our clients are American, or certainly most of our revenue comes from clients that are ultimately headquartered in the States. Silicon Valley is a big area for us, but also we have some industrial technology companies we work with who are based in the States. So, we’ve always got a lot of our business from the States.

At the moment, we’re looking for creative things to do. We’ve recently signed a partnership with a content platform called TURTL. We’re looking to promote that as well, both in Europe and in the U.S. And then lastly – and this is news that very few people know outside of the company – we actually have someone who’s moving out to the States in the next week or two to begin opening a presence in the U.S. We’re already working for American companies to target some of their American customers, and now we’re building that out. That’s the next stage.

All of these things came together, along, frankly, with a 50% grant from the UK government to go to the show. So it made a lot of sense to go and see if it works. It’s very much an experiment for us. It could be a complete disaster, but I think like every marketing tactic, if you don’t try it, how do you know whether it works?

ROB: Sure. That’s actually a topic that’s been very near and dear to us as well. When you talk about these conferences, the decision of how much to experiment versus how much to commit – when you come to thinking about going to a conference like that, how do you think about what an experiment looks like versus a strong conviction that it’s the right place? What do those different investments look like?

MIKE: That’s a great question. I think you look firstly at the cost in terms of money, and then secondly at the cost in terms of time. For us, we’ve got a number of clients in the States, and I can combine a meeting with probably three of those clients as well as the event. I can actually get these client meetings that I’d probably want to fly to the States for anyway included. That makes it very much more compelling. There’s not much for time cost involved. As I say, we’ve signed this new technology partnership; we really want to promote that. We think there’s a lot of opportunity. The company is UK-based. It’s just launching and trying to build in the States.

Again, it’s perfect timing. You look at everything and you go, “Does my gut feel that the amount I’m investing is a small amount compared to the potential return? Yeah, I need one client from this show and I’m gold.” That’s a relatively small investment. If I don’t get anybody, it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had some great client meetings, I’ve learnt a lot about the market, I’ve been able to go to the States in front of some American clients and some prospects. It almost feels like it’s a “can’t-lose,” even though we’re doing the tradeshow route – which, particularly after COVID, feels a little bit risky.

ROB: Right, it’s a little bit of an experiment for everyone, but it’s definitely a good perspective to think about needing one good client to rationalize the entire endeavor.

It sounds like TURTL is strategic to you. Tell a little bit more about what that does. What does it do, how does it work, how does it help you?

MIKE: We’ve recently signed up with the guys. They have a technology to present information in somewhat like a flipbook style. You go online, you read the information, and you can delve down into the topics that interest you. On the face of it, that’s kind of like a number of other technologies, but what TURTL does is provides phenomenal analytics to the marketers. Typically, in our world, it’s all PDF. All the datasheets, manuals, instructions, brochures, everything is PDF. You send someone a PDF. Did they open it? I don’t know. Did they read the first page? I don’t know. Did they get to the end? I don’t know.

With a TURTL document, you get information on which pages they looked at, how long they looked at it, where they delved down for deeper information. Hopefully the TURTL guys won’t mind me saying this – the technology for presentation is good, it’s really good, but it’s not world-changing. The technology behind the analytics, though, for my clients is amazing because they’re producing massive books of information, and they have no idea whether anybody reads some of those pages. Now they know, and that’s so powerful. They can optimize the content.

And of course, within TURTL, like many of these other platforms, you can customize the content as well. You can work on the pages that people, your audience, care about, and you can also make sure you filter out the ones that are irrelevant to each prospect.

To me – and maybe this is more of a trend than just about TURTL – we’ve gone away from analytics being, “What’s your click-through rate? How many clicks did you get?” Everyone has realized that’s kind of vanity metrics, and now I think analytics are “What does your audience care about? What do you need to give them more of? What do you need to stop talking about? How can you optimize your campaigns?” That’s something that, to me, TURTL will give our clients, and it’s a phenomenal superpower.

ROB: It reminds me a little bit of DocSend, but for a different industry. Do you know DocSend?

MIKE: Yeah, DocSend.

ROB: I googled them again just to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and they’re all about investors and investing and those pitch decks that you send to investors. But it’s the same need and the same problem. It helps me picture – the displaying of the document, that’s table stakes. It’s necessary. It’s what the product has to do. You can’t do anything if you don’t do that. But it’s the insights it can give you that really – you know where you’re wasting your time, where you’re not. There’s a lot going on there, what content is communicating and maybe what isn’t. Or even with client needs, right?

MIKE: Absolutely. It lets you really understand what matters to the audience. You could do that on an individual level and that’s kind of cool, but it’s that aggregate level. We produced a general TURTL document from one of our previous PDFs, did a little bit of promotion over email, and 70% of people flipped all the way to the end. We were like, 70% going to the end? I wouldn’t have bet that on PDF. And okay, some of it is a new format, some of it is exciting. Then we look at it and it’s like, page seven – nobody liked that. Why do we talk about this stuff? Nobody cares. The next thing we’re going to do is take out page seven, and suddenly that document becomes even more engaging to the audience.

So, you can really learn from the behavior of your audience, and that to me is really powerful, particularly when you’ve got long and complex documents, which a lot of our clients have.

ROB: Mike, we talked a little bit about the past of the firm, but as you reflect – we’ve already shared some lessons, but what are some of the key lessons you feel like you have learned in building and operating the business and things you might suggest to yourself to do a little bit differently if you had the chance to go back and tell yourself?

MIKE: Wow, that’s a great question. I think looking back – I actually talked with one of my other directors, who has been with me for the whole journey, from buying the agency all the way through to today, and we said we lacked confidence. Quite often, if you don’t come from an agency background, you’re not used to what agencies do at different sizes. You think big agencies are some sort of unbelievable, amazing organization that you can’t touch.

To me, we lacked confidence to go pitch for some of the big businesses. When we look at where we do our best job, where we deliver the best value, actually a lot of the time that’s with our biggest clients. Not with the small companies, but with the really biggest clients. So, I think it’s about being confident in your offering and what you’re doing and really being prepared to put yourself out there.

ROB: I can almost see once you have that confidence, you think about “who is not your customer” more clearly, but also probably it creates an interesting perspective on what industries you see emerging and who would be a good customer. What have you seen coming to market that you would not have predicted, but you look at it and say “Hey, that’s actually a great prospect for us”? What types of things have surprised you?

MIKE: That’s really interesting. I think certainly the comment about being prepared to be clear about who’s not your customer is really important. We’ve turned down quite a few clients – probably more clients than we’ve actually pitched, over the last six months.

In terms of the markets that are interesting, I think actually if you look at your business, what you need to do as an agency owner is see what you’re good at and then see what’s one step away. As you want to grow and expand out, you need to look at where you are one step away.

A lot of what we do is around quite complex software, so we’re really good at helping software companies sell a complex product. There are lots of areas in business where software is really taking over, whether that be in terms of advertising technology or whether it’s in terms of purchasing or whether it’s in terms of understanding maintenance in a plant. All of those are a slightly step away from what we were doing originally, but actually we’re really good at that stuff because we understand how to take this really complicated thing and then narrow it down to clear reasons why somebody should consider the product, and then keep talking to that person over a long period of time, because there’s a long sales cycle.

ROB: In software, do you end up with anything that’s a much shorter purchase cycle maybe than some of the complex hardware? Or do you find software with longer implementation cycles, more considered purchases, is a better fit?

MIKE: If I’m to be honest – and this comes back to the fact that as you grow your agency, you’ve got to be confident about where it’s not a good fit – if it’s more of an impulse buy, it’s a very short sales cycle, why do you need us? We’re really good at taking this technical information and communicating it over a long period of time. That’s what works really well. Why would you get us if it’s a software where you just need to run Google Ads and people buy it?

So, I think it’s probably not the right fit for us. It’s not somewhere we’d go, and it’s certainly not somewhere we’re chasing. We’re definitely chasing the complex enterprise kind of software businesses because that’s where we’re successful. That’s where we add value.

ROB: There’s certainly a buzz phrase circling in the software world of product-led growth. Everybody talks about PLG this and PLG that. Is that not at all relevant to some of these more enterprise solutions? Or are there ways it’s creeping its way in that are worth discussing?

MIKE: I think in terms of product-led growth, it’s difficult. The enterprise software companies are trying to be more agile. They’re trying to look more like almost the prosumer-type companies. But it is a different sale, because what you’re doing is selling something that’s going to handle a very large proportion of activities. It’s a very complex project. It’s got a lot of different processes inside it. If I’m the enterprise buying that, I kind of want to know that if it works today, it’s going to work tomorrow and it’s going to keep going. Stability is actually a real benefit.

So, I think we are going to see the software engineering market fragment, and there’s definitely the less involved purchases in software that are fantastic. You look at it in marketing, it could be anything from tools to create banner ads to some of the tools to view websites on different platforms. They’re actually quite low engagement processes, and there’s relatively low switching costs. They don’t matter. I think there’ll always be software like that, and that’s great because you get very fast innovation. You get new players in the market.

At the other end, you’ve got something like a marketing automation platform, and there, it’s not the platform that’s complicated; it’s the data and getting your CRM data, getting things synced up, getting history, being able to get things to work based upon behavior. And honestly, if you buy a marketing automation system and it looks completely different in a year’s time, that’s a huge risk for anybody.

So, I think different things need different approaches, and we’re definitely into the complex product where a certain degree of stability is absolutely important. It’s vital for the customer.

ROB: Certainly makes sense. Mike, when people want to find and connect with you and Napier Group, where should they go to find you?

MIKE: We’ve obviously got a website, napierb2b.com. People can go there. People can go on LinkedIn and find me; I’m Mike Maynard at Napier. I’m the only Mike Maynard at Napier, so that should be fairly easy. But frankly, I just love talking to people, so if anyone wants to email me, I think most agency owners will work out my email address; it’s mike@napierb2b.com. Just send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

ROB: That is excellent. Mike, thank you so much for coming on, for sharing your expertise and your experience. We are all better for it, and I wish you the best.

MIKE: No problem. Thanks for having me on the podcast, Rob.

ROB: Thank you very much. Take care.

Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email info@convergehq.com, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.