Times Are Tough, Don’t Skimp on Quality – a Q&A with Will Brookes, CEO, Raconteur

Stylized photo of Raconteur CEO Will Brookes

By R. Larsson, Advertising Week

Advertising Week caught up with Raconteur CEO Will Brookes to discuss how marketing shifts during recession, what to invest in should a recession happen, and the tone of voice brands should be using when times are tough.

Q: What tips do you have for business leaders on how to keep your nerve and carry on investing when times are tough?

As business leaders, we should remember that if we aren’t prepared to invest in our own companies, then we can hardly expect our customers to do so. By keeping marketing investment at least consistent, you’re sending out a strong message that regardless of the tough times, you’re confident and open for business.

Of course, some businesses will need to make cuts to some line items. My main tip would be to consider the short, medium and long-term implications of said cuts, and use that rationale to balance out where and how severely you take any action.

Q: Are there any particularly unique challenges to B2B marketing and communication in a recession – ones that are different to B2C?

B2B businesses are more recession-proof than B2C companies, simply because it is easier for B2B brands to have two-way dialogues with their customers.

B2B buyers do their research, speak to vendors multiple times, often try to negotiate and take time before they make a final decision. All those stages are more opportunities for people in the sales and marketing teams to fully understand what’s going on in the customer’s world and to ultimately influence their purchase decision. B2B brands have more levers to pull.

Given that, I think a big challenge for B2B brands is to keep a constant and transparent feedback loop between sales and marketing teams during challenging times. What changes or hurdles are the sales team encountering? Should marketing teams double down where they’re seeing success and pivot away from areas where sales are slower? How else can marketing adapt and help? If teams talk about these things and agree on the route forwards, they stand the best chance of success.

Q: If budgets are constrained which is the better approach – maintain quality and do it less frequently, or maintain presence but with cheaper options?

Put it this way – which is better? Ten leads that you have a chance of converting or 100 leads that you have a slim chance of converting and will likely waste time trying to convert? Two hundred views on a campaign from people who play significant roles in the purchase of your products or services or 1,000 views from people who don’t? One great campaign or three bang-average ones? It doesn’t matter how you slice and dice it; quality always wins. Generating great eyeballs or leads isn’t easy, especially in B2B where the parameters are tighter meaning you’ve got to be more relevant, more targeted and more differentiated. It’ll be nearly impossible to achieve success if you try to spread a limited budget more thinly.

I understand why some marketers still choose the latter. They think it spreads the risk and potentially shows frugality internally. I think this just shows a lack of confidence, either in their proposition or in their ability to make strong choices. I know that’s a little provocative but I think it’s the truth that some B2B marketers need to hear.

Fortune favours the brave at all times, especially the more challenging times when you’ve got the chance to zig while others zag.

Q: We’ve heard repeatedly that the research points to businesses needing to maintain marketing and advertising spend during recessions – but do you think this is understood beyond the marketing department?

To be honest, I’m not sure that this is fully understood even within marketing departments!

Funnily enough, Raconteur is about to launch a new brand proposition accompanied by our largest-ever paid marketing campaign. Did I think about holding off due to the current economic climate? Sure I did, but our conclusion is that there is no better time to do it because we know some of our competitors won’t be as noisy. That said, I’ve worked in the sales and marketing industry for 15 years so despite never working in the marketing function, I know how it works.

For businesses in other sectors, I certainly think they’re far too quick to look at marketing as an area for potential “risk mitigation” and cost-cutting, without thinking through the logic of this or considering the longer-term implications.

Any senior leader outside the marketing department should know that marketing (if it’s effective) and sales go hand in hand. In a recession, the one thing you probably want to protect with your life is sales, so it’s counterintuitive to scale back on brand awareness initiatives or generate fewer leads. I think people who argue otherwise probably have insufficient confidence in their marketing department, which is a deeper issue and has nothing to do with a recession.

Q: Now that data acquisition is often such an intrinsic part of customer communications do you think that businesses are more willing to maintain spend?

Certainly. The measurable outcome, the data, gives comfort that the money a marketer spends gets them something tangible. But we mustn’t forget the age-old adage that: “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” Brands that pivot solely to a short-term lead generation strategy in these times will likely hurt their longer-term prospects – keeping a blend is key.

Q: Do you think B2B understands the need for brand building or is it too focused on lead generation?

From my experience, most B2B marketers absolutely understand the need for longer-term brand building but sometimes they need a little reminding and a little re-convincing about the power and importance of it. Lead generation can feel safer because there’s a quantifiable outcome and it might keep the sales team or the CEO off your back – but great marketers should be able to back themselves and look beyond that.

Q: Tone of voice must be more considered when times are hard – certainly in B2C it’s all too easy to pitch it wrong. Do you think this is also the case with business comms?

B2B brands tend to be less emotive with their marketing, rightly or wrongly, so you see fewer disaster stories. But that doesn’t mean the risk doesn’t exist. Hopefully, everyone has learned a lot of lessons from the Covid period, when some industries were hit so much harder than others, which not everyone was mindful of. As long as you’re sensitive to the different challenges faced by different sectors and different types of businesses, it shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid landing yourself in hot water.

All that said, I think B2B brands should be far more emotive with their marketing, so they need to walk the tightrope carefully.

Q: Trust and expertise are at the heart of much business marketing – what are the most effective ways of conveying that when times are tough?

The secret to building trust is always authenticity. Brands should do what they say they’re going to do and shouldn’t say they believe in things that they don’t. It’s a very simple rule to follow and it’s even more important when times are tough and getting it wrong could quickly evaporate trust.

Arguably, tough times also represent an opportunity to showcase your superior expertise versus your competition. If you can relate your marketing to the challenges your clients and prospects are likely facing in a downturn and show that you understand those and how your solutions can alleviate their pain, you’re much more likely to be seen as a true expert.