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B2B marketing meets global sales

Peter Richards - Director of Marketing & Communications, Protolabs
Protolabs

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"No organisation likes a surprise – so you need to test and learn, because you won’t have all the answers yourself." 

ClientSide’s latest episode features Peter Richards, the Director of Communications at Protolabs. Protolabs is currently the fastest manufacturer of custom prototypes and on-demand production parts globally and operates in eight countries. Meanwhile, Peter himself has been recognised by a wealth of industry players for his extensive experience in B2B marketing and sales. Listen to this episode explore the challenges B2B marketing poses when incorporating global markets with regional focuses

Transcript:

Speaker 1: 

This is ClientSide from Fox Agency. 

Speaker 2: 

Hit it. That what I’m talking about. Wait. 

Speaker 3: 

Okay, now, from the beginning. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Peter Richards is the director of marketing communications at Protolabs. Protolabs is the world’s fastest manufacturer of custom prototypes and on demand production parts with manufacturing facilities in eight countries, he has been recognized by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, DBA, Marketing Society, British Quality Foundation, and B2B Marketing as delivering marketing and sales excellence. Peter Richards, welcome to ClientSide. 

Peter Richards: 

That’s great. Thank you, Nathan, appreciate it. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Super excited to have you on the show. Your career is a fascinating one. You’ve had stints in financial services companies, telecoms, oil and gas, consulting, and now manufacturing, tell us how you got your start in marketing and the major milestones along the way. 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah, I guess my very first introduction to marketing, I guess in a commercial context, was actually when I started to work at Shell. I worked for Shell in their London headquarters and they were very good at replaying back their marketing adverts to all their employees. And at the time I was 18, so I had just finished my A levels, went straight into working environments, and I could see this way that the advertisement started to actually draw you in. 

And there was one historic advert that they had, which was called, Keep Going Well, Keep Going Shell, which I thought was a real neat way, a use of play on words, creative, and the articulation of what they wanted from a brand point of view, and also in essence to get people to buy the product and the service. So, that actually started, I guess, my interest. After that, I did a couple of years at Shell and then I was actually given some really good advice from my manager at the time, which was you need to get a degree to progress. 

And I went to university and, just highlighting my age, when I went to university, I was looking for courses that actually majored in marketing. And there were very few at the time. So, I took the opportunity to do a business degree in conjunction with marketing and develop from there. And then that sparked that interest, yeah, continued from that side of things. But then I thought, and again, it was a bit of mentoring advice, which was you can’t market what you don’t know how to sell. So, actually, when I was looking at my first proper move into that career ladder was then I moved into a sales role within BT, so British Telecom, and their business division. And I moved into B2B sales, spent some time in B2B sales. And then from that perspective, I then moved within BT. 

BT was a fantastic organization in terms of enabling you to develop your own career within the same organization. So, you moved every three years, and so I did some time in sales and then moved into what was product marketing at the time, then sector marketing and then client marketing. And I continued my journey, I did 14 years at BT, but then took the opportunity to say, actually, let’s look at what’s on the outside world, outside of BT, and then started to move into B2B focused organizations, all of them with a distinct marketing challenge. 

Be that from flotation or selling of the company and how you build a B2B brand all into organizations that were consulting. So, acquiring businesses, integrating those acquired brands into a combined proposition. And then finally where I am now at Protolabs, which is manufacturing, so how you illustrate the features and advantages of what you can do from a manufacturing context, but in the mindset of the client and the client group that you’re appealing to as well. So, that’s basically over 25 years of career history in a couple of minutes there. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

In a couple of minutes. 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

You did well to summarize it. So, we’re going to come on to talk about Protolabs in a moment because I know you’re responsible for driving demand at the company as well as building the brand, which is sometimes a challenge in commercially driven organizations. From your sales experience at BT, you’re a rare marketer in that respect, in that you have that cold, hard sales experience. How has that sales experience and the marketing experience that you’ve gained over your career, how has that helped you now in your role as direct to communications at Protolabs? 

Peter Richards: 

I think you’ve got to be grounded in impact, which is the key thing, why are you doing something? Always pull yourself back to the impact that you want from the activity. And even in the binary sense from a sales point of view, your impact it’s the sale, from that perspective. In a marketing context, it’s always very easy to get distracted by the activity and the shininess and the sexiness of that activity, which can at times distract you away from why you’re doing that activity. What’s the impact that you want to drive for the organization? And so I think that’s the first thing that I’ve learned, I guess, over the years, you’ve got to be very focused about why you are doing something and the impact that you want it to bring. 

And also you’re coming out of BT, BT had a principle, just before I left the organization, which was zero based budgeting. So, you go into a budget discussion with no budget and you build your business case up to justify that. So, I think that’s one element and I think also it’s how you articulate what you’re doing and the impact that you are having for the business. So, be that in the sense where I am at the moment, creating new prospects for the organization, creating in essence quotes. So, customers that are actually asking for a quote from us, from that point of view. The very binary level, that’s where I’m driven, from that point of view. We are quite a unique organizer terms of the speed that we operate and that is borne out of what we do. 

So, we manufacture parts extremely quickly, our brand promise is Manufacturing Accelerated. And so if a design engineer wants a part, they can have it in as fast as a day. And that also permeates through into the way we work from a business perspective, that we’ve got to generate that demand into the organization. And in doing that, it can at times distract you away from all elements of the marketing mix, because you’re so laser focused on the demand piece that it’s easy for the organization to not forget about the brand, but the brand then becomes something that is just sitting there in terms of it’ll always be there and you don’t have to do any brand building. 

But actually the key thing that I’ve learned coming into Protolabs is that, yes, you need to build the brand. You need to build that the brand in terms of, from a targeting point of view, into core sectors that you want to basically penetrate further. And it’s how you do that which is the key thing. But you’re doing that in a commercial context, as opposed to a big brand launch campaign which just raises the awareness. And I think the key thing for me is, yes, you can raise awareness, but that awareness has got to lead to something. And you’ve got to see journey from awareness all the way through to revenue. And that’s, I guess, the challenge for any marketing in a B2B context, I think, in terms of that balance between the two really. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

How do you draw that line then between the brand and the brand presence to commercial value? Especially in what is I’m imagining quite a commercially driven organization and a technically driven organization as well, I imagine a number of the leadership team are technical people, maybe not with a marketing background, especially not from a brand marketing background. How best do you educate the leadership team on why they should invest in brand? And how do you draw the line between brand and revenue? 

Peter Richards: 

First thing is, it goes back on a previous comment, you’ve got to have a balance. So, I think that’s the first point, which is you need to consciously know that you’ve got a balance in terms of the activity that you’re doing. You also need to look at where you want to get to, so what’s the end game, as opposed to trying to do everything all in one go. So, how you then evolve that balance to be saying when I joined the organization it was most probably 90% on pure demand gen and 10% on brand. And the what you then do is you’ve got your overall strategy of what you want to achieve and how you evolve that to most probably where we are at the moment, which is I would say 69% on demand generation and then where I’d like to get it to is most probably a 60-40 split, but that takes time. 

So, I think that’s the first point, that you’re testing ideas because that’s the other point, no organization likes a surprise, so you need to test and learn because you don’t have all the answers yourself, and you don’t know how a market’s going to respond to a campaign or a brand building initiative. So, I think the other point is test your ideas, take some risks, but you need to take calculated risks. And one example you that we had with within Protolabs was when I joined we looked at how we penetrated more into a specific sector. And I positioned doing some thought leadership research into that sector to try and get a deeper understanding of the client issues and then get closer to the industry base on that basis. 

That worked, and it worked really well for us. And so we’ve now built that initiative out into other sectors. So, you learn and build as you grow and I think that’s the key thing that I think I’ve certainly learned over the years. And also I think more so within Protolabs where there is an understandable drive for growth. We want to grow the business. We’re a highly profitable organization as well, and it’s how we continue that growth journey. And in doing that, you are doing that in conjunction with building the brand, but you’ve got to do that in a balanced way. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

How would you describe what the Protolabs brand is today and what it represents in the minds of customers, and then take us on a journey of how that brand is then communicated out to your target customers and existing customers as well. 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah, I think the essence of what we do is all around speed, so it’s speed to market. So, we help design engineers get to market quicker through being able to take their idea, take their actual drawing of what they want produced, and actually enable the production of that in a very rapid sense, through a variety of different technologies. So, if you look at the essence of what we do from a brand point of view, it’s about feed consistency and quality, but then also as part of that we’ve got a really unique elements in terms of our in-house capability, where we’ve got an engineering resource that can offer advice. So, there’s an education elements to what we do as well in supporting our clients. And in doing that and in building that process up, that then comes back into the brand and how we take our message to markets. 

So, a lot of our work is around education, so talking about different design or manufacturing techniques that an organization could apply to their part that they want producing in automotive, in medical, or in aerospace, and what’s the best material to use, or what’s the best technology to use from a manufacturing perspective as well. So, I think there’s some educational elements that we have within the brand. 

There’s also from a brand point of view, following through on the essence of what we offer to the market, which is speed and quality. So, we then pull that back into what we articulate to the market. I’m a passionate believer in terms of making sure that it’s right first time, so we don’t let anything out of the door without continual review. The marketing material is that first touch point for a customer and also we spend a substantial amount on Google and paid search, and that’s also part of our offering from that point of view, how we then get a contact into our organization in the quickest way possible, so that from that initial search inquiry all the way through to the order of their part, how quickly can we do that? How many clicks does the individual go through to actually get to that point where they’re happy with the quote that they’re receiving from us, and then they can actually order as well? 

So, that then comes into how we operate from a business point of view. And then the final point I’d state, Nathan, which really goes back on one of the earlier points we touched on around brand, is all about that ability to test and learn. We are an organization that encourages learning within our own employees. We also do a lot of test and learn with our campaigns, a lot of A-B testing to see what resonates, and I think the key thing that we’re trying to get to is to a point where we can ensure that our offer is truly helping our client base advance their own manufacturing capabilities as well, so that we can help get to market quicker. 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Really interesting. You lead the EMEA marketing team, which is a team of 20 marketers across Europe, France, Germany, UK, and other markets. How do you structure marketing across those regions and tell us what you’ve learned about building marketing teams, specifically in Protolabs? 

 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah, I guess we’ve got the team split into really what you’d call three core functions. We’ve got regional marketing teams that are responsible for execution on the ground on the campaign activity and they work very with our sales teams in each of our respective regions. Then we’ve got two centers of excellence, we’ve got a content and cross EMEA center of excellence that is looking at all of our touch points that we have in a consistent way across all of our markets, so that what we’re putting out from that point of view, there’s a consistency to the way we’re executing things. 

And then we’ve got a digital center of excellence, which is responsible for all of our email marketing, our graphic design, and also our search capability as well. And then both of those two centers of excellence are supporting our go to market teams, from that perspective. And then I guess going back to your question about your building and learning from a team point of view, certainly from an EMEA perspective, it’s really quite interesting that when you look at continental Europe, if you use that term continental Europe, and in terms of the way the British respond to a campaign compared to the way the French will, or the Spanish will, or the Italians or the Germans, it is very, very different. 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Very different. Yeah. 

 

Peter Richards: 

And you need to be empathetic to that in how we go to market. And that’s why we have the regional teams that are looking at local markets, tailoring the content based upon those issues and delivering a message on that basis. You’ll have naturally, say within the French market, a far more analytical approach, questioning approach from customers, maybe more of that challenge, because it’s ingrained in them from a very early age when they go to school, they’re encouraged to challenge. 

Bizarrely, if we look at Germany where we’ve done some A-B testing, if we send a short email or a long email, the long email performs better than the short one. Whereas if you look at the UK, you would have that turned on its head as well. But then the essence of it also comes down to we are part of an American group, so I have an American head office, they have a more casual, relaxed style to their communication. 

If I was to take some of that communication and do a little translation and try and drop that into the European market, I wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation with you from that point of view. So, I think it’s that cultural awareness and also using the resource that you’ve got in proximity to the markets that you serve and leveraging that which is key 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Really interesting. Every marketer has got a story about how they’ve tried to translate a piece of copy from one language to another and fell flat. Have you got a story to share in that respect? 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah. I think we had one where we had within our ecommerce platform, which was cash on delivery, COD, and that was literally translated as cod, the fish, into German on our platform. And so when it came back to us to review, our German colleagues were saying, “Why are you referring to a fish in our ecommerce platform?” And it’s those sorts of levels that you see and also part of that is you’re then not close enough to your, because you’ve got somebody that’s done the translation that is away from the market, they’re looking at it as a pure line of text and they’ve done their job. They’ve translated it. That’s the key thing as well from that point of view. So, yeah, it’s an interesting side point, really. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Just sticking with teams for a moment, how do you drive innovation within your marketing teams? How do you constantly make sure that you are always bringing new ideas to the table, that no ideas are seen as rubbish and you’re always championing innovation? 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah. Good question. I think I encourage the team to get out of the building, look at what’s going on in the market around them. Also we’ve done some initiatives here, which one of my colleagues actually spawned the title of, digital discovery. So, looking at what other organizations do in a digital context and learning from that, there’s no monopoly on good ideas. And I think the key thing is trying to learn from what’s around you and then can you apply that into the organization? So, we actually started that initiative, in terms of digital discovery days, we started at the back of year. We’re now rolling that out on a quarterly basis now to actually try and force that innovation conversation into the business, so I think there’s that point. 

I think the agency network is also really important, how you can bounce ideas off different agencies, have those more detailed conversations to try and understand what else is out there, what else are other people doing, but could you apply that into your business? And I think there’s that challenge with that sometimes, at times, the client agency relationship where you need to make sure there’s that resonance of do they actually understand your business, as opposed to they’re just throwing ideas at you without actually spending the time and efforts to, and it’s not much time actually in fairness, but try and get a more detailed understanding of how you operate from a business point of view so that those ideas could stick. 

And I think there’s that point as well, from an innovation perspective, looking at that, from that side of things. And I think the final point, we touched on it earlier, is we do a lot of testing. We test a lot of campaigns. We don’t know what’s going to work, but all that we do know is you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. You’ve got to keep that pace of change going as well. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Let’s stick with the agency conversation for a moment because selecting an agency partner is probably one of the most important decisions that any senior marketer can make. It’s really easy to pick up the phone and hire an agency on the spot, it’s much more difficult to find the ideal partner that can help reshape your approach, or as you say, help you see what other people are doing and see round corners to move the business forward. What’s the best way in your opinion, to find, identify, and select the right agency partner that can move you forward? 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah, I don’t think there’s any magic formula in terms of finding the agency. I think it does come down to deeper conversations and in those conversations is there a real desire from that agency or the contact to actually understand what you do? And I think the key marker for me is, in any agency conversation, the best ones are where they don’t talk. The worst agency pitches I’ve been and agency discussions is when I come away from that discussion and I consciously look at the clock and think, okay, I only spoke for five minutes on that call, the rest of it, I was all in receive mode. 

And actually in terms of the discussion, it’s all about curiosity, and I appreciate the challenge an agency’s got, they’re working across multiple projects, they want to try and work in the most cost effective way and utilize their own resource in the best way possible. But ultimately you’ve got to get under the skin of the client, and you’ve got to understand the pain points that the client’s got and how you address those points to try and build your offer for the client, which is actually going to move the business forward. 

Because the beauty of it is as soon as that agency client relationship works, provided that you don’t mess things up, you’re going to be working with them for years. Now, I’m working with people that I started working with 20 years ago still because, one, you trust them, because you know they can do a fantastic job. Secondly, they spend time to understand your business from that point of view. And I think it’s those core points as well that you need to make sure you’ve got somebody that is willing to actually extend the time to listen and understand what you’re doing. And also what’s the problem you’re trying to solve, which is the key thing. 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Really interesting. final question on the agency point, if when you are working with an agency something doesn’t go according to plan and you’re not happy with a piece of work or particular piece of output, what’s your approach to setting that right with the agency? Do you approach them directly and are you quite upfront about what’s gone wrong or is it the agency’s responsibility to identify these things and snuff them out? What’s your approach there? 

 

Peter Richards: 

I think at the end of the day, I was going to say my money, but it’s my organization’s money and I need to make sure that’s spent in the best way possible to drive the business forward. So, I do tend to have… I’m not backward in coming forward, having the difficult conversation, because I think feedback is really important, and case in point, we had a discussion with an agency on Friday last week where the pitch, the way they were putting across the message, just wasn’t clear, so we called time on the presentation and said, right, this is what you need to do to make sure that they… 

Because they’re giving up their time, as well as we are giving it up our time, we want to make sure it is value for both parties from that point of view. So, I think feedback’s really important and also how the agency solicits that feedback as well is also really important to make sure things can move forward on that basis. 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Let’s go back to an earlier conversation around emotion in B2B and brand building, because a lot has been written about the fact that B2B is very rational and emotionless and we weigh up the pros and cons and we make a very logical, rational decision as to which company we want to buy from. But as we’ve learned in recent years, B2B decisions are far more emotional than what we’ve been led to believe over recent years, and actually decisions in B2B are very emotional, sometimes more emotional than on the consumer side. Talk about the importance of emotion in your messaging, especially with a highly technical engineering audience that you’re speaking to. What’s the role of emotion in your B2B communications? 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah, and I think coming back on your point as well, Nathan, B2B often gets a bad rap because it’s not sexy like FMCG from that point of view. The only difference is, to a degree, the instant nature of the purchasing moment. It’s fairly rare in B2B that you have an instant purchasing moment. Whereas if I see an advert for a can of Coke, I’ll go and buy it because it’s stimulated my demand and interest from that point of view. So, that’s, I think, just a marker from that perspective. I think the next level that you start to look at from an emotional point of view is you still need to have emotion in your messaging and I need to appeal to design engineers and the engineering community in a way that’s going to basically attract them to engage with us. 

And that can be from a PPC advert that is putting the right message across for them from that point of view, that wants them to engage and wants them to click, all the way through to looking at this in more detail and taking a more technical whitepaper and how you actually get somebody to engage with that. You’ve got to have that emotional element in terms of what’s going to motivate the reader? What’s going to that person to want engage with that content? That’s really important to understand. So, there is that emotional connection between your content and also how you execute on that, so we look at a variety of different ways to stimulate that emotion, we look at you video in a lot of cases now to get technical messages across, to try and give somebody a quick soundbite around the technical issue, those sorts of points. 

And it’s how you build on that as well. So, I think, and I know it’s a clichéd term, but it’s people to people. You are selling to people and you’ve got to be able to stimulate their interest. Yes, there is a transactional element to any B2B engagement, which is the organization’s got a need and that person as the steward of the business has to resolve that need. So, you are therefore marrying that up. So, they’re not spending their own money, but ultimately it’s their job. If, say for example, we sell something to a design engineer and we screw up, that design engineer, then his job’s at risk. So, ultimately that emotional element is still there in terms of that purchase process, I think it- 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Because it’s job security, it’s reputation. It’s all of those things. 

 

Peter Richards: 

Yeah. Exactly that. 

 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Really interesting. You’ve been a successful marketing leader for many years now, and you’ve also observed, I’m sure, many impressive leaders over your career. What do you think are the most important qualities of a successful leader in your opinion? 

 

Peter Richards: 

You’ve got to listen and you’ve got to listen in a variety of different ways, either within your own organization, you’ve got to listen to the skillset that you’ve got around you and how you use that in the best way possible. You’ve got to listen to your board colleagues in terms of the drive that the organization’s you taking, and you’ve got to listen to the market that you’re supporting. 

Peter Richards: 

And then also, more importantly, you’ve got to be able to act as well. And you’ve got to be able to act for your team with a degree of passion and commitment to take them with you. And you’ve got to be able to set that direction when you are acting and moving that forward from that perspective. And then I think you’ve also got to have, from a leadership point of view, I’ve worked for some amazing bosses, who’ve all had a degree of empathy, real understanding of either the market issues, the team issues, the organization issues, and how you adapt with that empathy to the way that you’re taking your services to market as well. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Final question, Peter, before we end the interview, as you reflect on your own career as a director of communications, what advice would you give to a millennial or a young person who’s coming into marketing for the first time that wants to also develop a stellar in marketing? 

Peter Richards: 

I think you’ve got to be curious. You’ve got to keep that curiosity, a bit like when you were a kid, you’ve got to do the why. You’ve got to ask that why question continually. And I think that’s the key thing when you start your career, to have that level of curiosity, have that level of passion, but also have that level of commitment and staying power. I know everybody wants everything now in today’s environment, and I’m not saying from a career perspective you should hold people back, but you’ve got to be able to apply that curiosity and see it through. 

Peter Richards: 

And you’ve got to be able to see the impact, and going right back to the early start of our conversation, Nathan, which is you’ve got to look at the impact of why you’re doing something. And I think if you can take that curiosity and you ask that why question, you take the response, you build something, and you see the impact from it and see it through. That would be the key thing for me in terms of somebody starting their career. And they can do that, I’m not saying that’s a 10 year journey that somebody’s got to go through, but equally that’s a year of learning and responding and learning again from that point of view. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

Great place to end. Peter, thank you for doing this. 

Peter Richards: 

No problem. Thank you, Nathan. It’s been a good chat, so I appreciate it. 

Nathan Anibaba: 

If you’d like to share any comments on this episode or any episode of ClientSide, then find us online at fox.agency. If you’d like to appear as a guest on the show, please email zoey@fox.agency. The people that make this show possible are Milly Bell and Natasha [Rositch 00:30:00], our booker slash researcher, David Clare is our head of content, Ben Fox, our executive producer. I’m Nathan Anibaba. You’ve been listening to ClientSide from Fox Agency. 

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