How do CMOs lead an ABX program?

This post first appeared in DashDot: Learnings from building an ABM program at a FinTech Unicorn

When I first joined the company in December of 2020, the go-to-market (GTM) department was in a classically acrimonious mood: Sales leaders were sending spreadsheets to Marketing to show them just how bad the leads were. (They were less-than-2%-MQL:Meetings Booked-bad.)

The mid-stage startup had recently ridden a wave of pandemic-driven demand, helping banks virtualize what had been in-person processes. But by the time I showed up, the glut of inbound interest had faded and the Marketing team’s conventional lead generation tactics weren’t making up the gap. That’s when I began building an ABM team that would help the firm nearly double bookings and triple average contract value in its first year.

It was an imperfect journey. And I’m looking back at all I’ve learned from building an ABM program at a fintech unicorn startup.

Gravitate to good partners first

The sales development (SDR) lead and I started in the same month. His boss, the top sales leader, asked me how I was going to improve lead flow for his department. But the SDR lead knew better that the fates of his and my teams were intertwined. He came to me with a tactic that’s worked for him in the past: send prospects socks with the promise of shoes to go with those socks if the prospect took a sales meeting with us.

Playing the marketer in the duet, I wrapped my SDR partner’s tactic into a campaign targeted at a small segment of tech-forward banks. “Sprint: catch up with digital transformation.” (Get it? Because shoes?) As simple as it might seem, the effort represented our crucial first steps as an integrated Marketing-Sales Development team. Through Sprint, we defined how we’d target contacts, coordinate outbound Sales-Marketing tactics, and put some meetings on the books.

As Sprint was winding down, an industry veteran who recently joined the firm was getting her startup sea legs. I turned to her for guidance, asking “What should my next campaign be?” She told me all about a technical blocker that was holding the industry back from digitalization.

The industry vet had a point of view in need of an audience and I had a platform in need of a point of view. We spent hours together as I ghostwrote her whitepaper; she was patient with my industry naivete and I with her perfectionism. Together we built a thought leadership campaign that would later power our selling and events marketing for the remainder of the year. We called it “5R.” In executing 5R, the industry vet proved to be not only one of the company’s best speakers but also our top sales accelerator: when she joined calls, prospects listened. By partnering together, we produced dozens of new high-value opportunities and she cemented her role as a key player on the revenue team.

Both the SDR leader and the industry vet showed me the power of cross-functional unions. I could have sequestered myself in “the lead generation laboratory,” waiting for our product marketing leader to return from his paternity leave. But (more by dumb luck than by design), I went into the trenches with a couple of collaborative non-Marketing colleagues, accomplishing much more together than we would have alone.

Produce pilots, not platforms and program plans

While those early cross-functional partnerships accomplished much, they could’ve accomplished more. I hamstrung them with an oversized program plan and systems change management.

The ABM program plan I wrote in my first 90 days was a beast. I combined lessons from my prior role leading an ABM go-to-market with myriad additional tactics I wanted to try. And I added everything I wanted to change about our Sales-Marketing tech stack. The result was a 150-slide plan.

As my partners and I labored to execute the Sprint and 5R campaigns, I burdened them with an abstract treatise on the A-class ABM program we were building. Worse, I forced several systems changes into our early efforts. It was too much at once.

For example, in the case of Sprint, I asked the Sales team to select target accounts and contacts for the campaign by editing new fields in our CRM. We lost two weeks trying to get the Sales team to follow this new process, ultimately collecting spreadsheets with email addresses instead.

We had similar hang-ups during the 5R campaign. As part of the effort, Marketing developed an offer wherein a third-party consulting firm would deliver an analysis to prospects. Sales was amped to use the giveaway to accelerate their deal cycles. But we asked them to first update their account plans in a new template, to justify the case for deploying the offer in their account. We expected the whole Sales team to grapple with the dense subject matter of the campaign while also changing to a new and complex account planning process for the ABM program. They did neither, and I don’t blame them.

Two months into the 5R campaign, the Sales team finally embraced it. But they only did so after one of our top sellers closed his first prospecting engagement with our third-party consulting firm. He was so enthused by the impact the offer had on his sales cycle that he exclaimed on a sales enablement call: “If you’re not using this offer, what are you waiting for?” Sales deployed dozens of third-party consulting engagements shortly thereafter.

If only I had piloted the consulting offer with our top seller first! I would have gained his advocacy from the start, and he probably also would have given me some crucial feedback on how to structure the new campaign and process and better enable the Sales team. 

Recruit Sales to market the Marketing team

This was just one instance of many in which Marketing’s asks of Sales were best made by salespeople. This principle proved especially critical as we later onboarded five new account-based marketers (ABMers).

Like many B2B SaaS organizations, we divided our target accounts into segments by size and territories by geography. Each new ABMer was dedicated to several territories, embedded with a few account executives (AEs) and their sales development partners. Their job was to interpret the AEs’ account plans into 1:1 and 1:few marketing tactical activations, personalized to the motivations and challenges of each account.

Such a structure meant that much of an ABMer’s success was predicated on their relationship with their Sales partners. Fortunately, quick and early tactical wins had the Sales team singing their ABM partners’ praises:

  • One ABMer helped produce a rich 1:1 landing page using a target account’s partners as a messaging hook. As soon as the AE boasted that the landing page helped rocket their sales opportunity all the way to negotiation, other AEs’ asks for landing pages came flooding in.
  • An ABM team helped an AE put on a VIP workshop experience, complete with a personalized deck, takeaway materials, and branded macaroons. After the AE told the story about the workshop to his Sales peers, the ABM team was buried in decks and VIP event requests.

Sales is Marketing’s best marketer to Sales, especially in the context of ABM.

Conduct a swift and unrelenting search for what works

ABMers were recruiting Sales into tight tactical sprints, which proved to be the fastest way to learn which account-based marketing tactics worked best. The ABMers achieved wins much faster than those we earned in the more broadly-scoped campaigns we launched earlier in the program. Where 5R took months to build and a couple more to truly take hold with the Sales team, ABMers used direct input from their AE counterparts to launch tactics to suit within a week.

The pace of our learning accelerated. ABMers tracked their 1:1 tactics closely, learning how ABM ads did and didn’t drive response. They activated around live and virtual events, setting records for prospect response with each subsequent effort. The ABM team found 1:1 tailored direct mail to be a real conversation starter in their first tests. 

All of these tactics would have taken longer to produce and longer to learn from had we still been operating campaigns as we did in the past. By adding five account-based marketers focused on a subset of accounts, we added five scientists whose broad set of tactical experiments revealed what would and wouldn’t work for Snapdocs. Every tactical sprint was a pilot: Sales would offer the hypothesis, ABMers would structure the experiment, and we’d all learn from the results.

Focus to increase the intensity

While it was valuable for each ABMer to test tactics in their own experiments, the initial efforts were diffuse and specific to each territory. However, the ABMers soon came to execute account-based marketing plays together. They’d analyze account plans to identify common needs across our whole target account list and then produce tactical efforts that everyone could put to work on a 1:few and 1:1 basis. In doing so, they accelerated and multiplied the impact of their work in their respective territories.

For example, one of our account-based marketers built a webinar program about a topic several ABMers noted as a key sales objection in their accounts. She recruited the rest of the team to promote it within their respective territories, as well as the MarkOps team to expand the communications to the whole market. Through their efforts combined, we broke the company’s record for the webinar attendees, with many important new business and customer contacts among them.

Hire the right people

None of this would have been possible without the team. Each ABMer was a force – the kind of multi-functional practitioner who could just as soon be a startup founder’s first marketing hire. They operated with humility and intellectual curiosity – critical qualities for people who are figuring out how to apply the emerging practice of ABM to a market with a latent adoption orientation. Not to mention, it takes drive and resilience to be the one marketer embedded with an account team in Sales. Our ABMers had it in spades.

The ABMers were supported by a stellar Marketing Ops duo. They were patient with our shifting priorities and militant about hitting deadlines (with more than a few long nights to show for it). Marketing Ops received every ask with grace and a “can do” attitude. They never talked technical over our heads.

Astride the ABMers and the Marketing Operators were Campaigns, Partner, and Field marketers who each would single-handedly bring-to-life activations that you’d think were footed by an entire team. They were the bedrock on which 1:few and 1:1 ABM was built.

Crucially, through the chaos of a rapidly scaling startup, we treated each other well. We covered for a teammate when life events took them “out of office” for a while, keeping up what they would’ve done if they were in. We expected a lot of ourselves and welcomed productive conflict in the team; we trusted that any disagreement was in service of making things better for everyone. Our weeks ended with 30 minutes to celebrate wins, big and small. And we supported each other through the losses.

In the tight labor market of 2021, it took me a long time to find my ABM dream team of 11. They had the right skills and the right attitude for the task. In passing up several more timely candidates along the way, the team we built was worth the wait!

Leaving them is the toughest part about taking my next role, in which I’ll be sharing these lessons with others who will be starting or in the midst of their journey in building a Marketing program. 

More than just platforms, people power ABM. To be successful, marketers must seek cross-functional partners with whom they can build the program, one pilot at a time. They must recruit sales to champion the tactics that are working, as observed from a series of rapid tactical experiments. And even though an ABM program can be built on heroes and their wins within key accounts, it’s best done as a team sport — a team of people with drive, curiosity, and the willingness to help each other out.

Jared Brickman

Jared Brickman is Senior Director of the Marketing Center of Excellence at leading software investor Insight Partners, where he advises CMOs of the firm’s 500+ portfolio companies on how to go-to-market. Learn More →

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