Paul Maher, CEO & Founder of Positive and Categorical
1. What have you learned about marketing in a B2B tech firm?
Nobody questions how a car, a bottle of beer, or a holiday works. We market exclusively to the B2B Tech market. So we need to have deep expertise and also be able to simplify complex issues in response to what’s happening in the news.
The ability of our team to take on new technological concepts and make them relevant is always critical, but KISS, or ‘Keep IT Simple Stupid’ is a core skill too.
Over the years, we have converted Domain Name Server (DNS) infrastructure into ‘web postboxes’, We described Secure Socket Layer (SSL) certificates as ‘cyber padlocks’ and the new-fangled metaverse commerce, which we describe as ‘shopping alone with goggles’. This one went down particularly well with both newbies and tech veterans, who shared a dislike of hype..
Recently our work has been helped by the way deep tech has become better understood by the media and the public, thanks to data privacy and hacking. This means we are able to be even more creative in our pitching.
Learning ‘the line’ is critical. Too far away from the actual use case makes our clients, often detail-obsessed engineers at heart, apoplectic. But over time, perhaps after some judgement calls which are off, we teach new recruits ‘the line’ between common knowledge issues, such as cybersecurity, and the minutiae of our B2B Tech clients’ solutions.
Get it wrong and clients are p*****d. Get it right though and you literally create hundreds of articles. And we have. However, we need to bring new angles and tactics into play every month.. So far nobody has been sacked yet for being creative.
2. What challenges have you learned to navigate and how?
There are a number of challenges we have learned to navigate as a business. My top three, are staying relevant to clients, growing our skills internally and remembering to market our best work and ourselves.
In our space, our clients are striving to stay ahead of fierce global competition and so their messaging and positioning are in constant flux. One constant is we need to always check in on our client’s positioning and ensure we are able to confidently and successfully deliver it in relation to the current news cycle.
We were working for a cybersecurity client when the Ashley Madison data breach broke and threatened many relationships. Despite our protests that this was ‘the perfect storm’ to illustrate their tech, the head of marketing told us to stand down. Despite this, knowing the story had wider implications, we drafted technical explanations of what went wrong.
Reading these, perhaps believing the news cycle was dead, she approved our pitches. When further revelations put the story back ‘on the front page’ we were featured in all the top national titles as they scrambled to make sense of the leaks. We later discovered some execs of the company were investors in the website, hence the hesitance.
The rate of change in tech also means there is always a ‘shiny new thing’, so we have to quickly pick up on tech trends like Intelligent Automation, 5G and passwordless identity management. We deliver best-of-breed in-house education and day-to-day we encourage learning to stay out in front.
Specifically, we assign each team member a ‘beat’ which is a related set of tech, in which they build up expertise, they then bring that knowledge to the team each week and, over time, become experts. However, to keep it fresh and round out each individual’s knowledge, we switch things up just when we feel they are not being challenged.
Finally, we are an award-winning consultancy, but this does not happen on its own. We need to promote our own success and this can easily be forgotten without a management focus on marketing our best work. It has taken a while, but we are getting better at this.
For years, like many agencies, we waited until Year Ends and for contracts to wind down, to pull together ‘reviews’. This though missed out on the momentum we built up and was not fit for purpose. We would find out too late, a client was unhappy, which is of course terrible for business. It was hard to listen to client feedback, given too late, that we lost out, not because of performance, but essentially communications, which you would think we would know…
A new suite of measurement software allows us to dive deeper into metrics which link PR to performance marketing and deploying this means we can and have become more granular in our reporting. Clients love it and I have to say it keeps us on our toes and prevents any nasty surprises. Our client churn is around 5% per annum, which is well ahead of any other agency I have worked at.
3. What’s a marketing achievement that you’re happiest about?
Ultimately marketing is about sales. Our 50% increase in revenues over the last year is therefore a matter of great pride, and a reflection on the continued great work we are doing as industry-leading marketers.
There is no one ‘magic bullet’ to client retention, which is by far the largest contributor to growth as an agency. The Harvard Business Review claims it is five to 25 times easier to retain a customer than acquire one. We constantly review the quality of our core document creation process, our writing skills and even the depth of our relationships with media colleagues. It is extremely validating when a journalist recommends us, as they do two or three times a year.
It is also important to say ‘No’ to the wrong clients. While we get a healthy stream of new business inquiries, saying ‘No’ to disorganised, unrealistic or even just plain rude prospects is smart business. We ask our clients regularly how we are doing for them. This is carried out by team members not directly involved in the account. Perhaps it is an obvious by-product but this means they may suggest additional projects, which are a very valuable way to achieve not just more fees, but more solid, repeatable revenue growth.
It is working. While others were going backwards, we surged ahead, after years of building up the business for a decade. Winning a SABRE award for a campaign which delivered more than one quality article per day for a year and established our client as the expert in its field.
Another high point and this year’s shortlisting for PR Moment for the second year in a row, for a new client, which was a great milestone. It may sound like a cliché, but our top marketing achievement is when clients recognize our own emotional buy-in as part of the team. The personal note that followed a successful fundraise announcement was worth more to the team than many accolades.
4. What has given you your highest return on investment, and how do you measure it?
In any services business, one component is obviously people. We have recouped our investment in training and coaching with our team and also with clients, many of whom come back to us when they change employers.
Any time we create client delight, it pays off long-term for the business. We train in three broad areas, knowledge of our client’s tech, knowledge about the sector itself (from VC funding to organisation charts) and of course, how the media works. This allows us to tailor our training to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses.
Outside of that, we made early decisions to be a cloud-first digital agency adopting new communications. Tech, social and SEO best practices and digital tools for measurement have all paid off. The state of the art is always changing, for instance in SEO, where Moz once ruled, there are new tools and platforms which appear to be stronger for today’s Google algorithm updates.
We are also constantly reviewing project management, unified comms and messaging platforms. Some of the really top tools require significant five-figure investments. Return on Investment therefore requires constant measurement and we keep clear records on the tech we invest in and regularly cull anything which doesn’t work.
5. Your blog mentions the insurance industry waking up to tech innovation like finance did. How so?
Somehow the insurance industry ‘got away’ with making tons of money in a really closed world in London, Frankfurt, Paris and New York. While the open banking initiatives of the EU and others disrupted the market, brokers and underwriters were making massive salaries and walking around with paper portfolios based on basic calculations.
Now Artificial Intelligence and workflow automation have busted open the world of insurance and reinsurance which is at the centre of the web. Meanwhile, on the retail side comparison sites, chatbots and innovators such as Lemonade have woken the world up to a new fit-for-now insurance industry. Who knew insurance could be, if not cool, or sexy, at least digitally disruptive and modern?
6. Your bio says that Positive is helping companies lead their own category- how so, and what is this original category playbook?
The original category playbook is Play Bigger and you should follow the amazing Category pirates and the legendary Christopher Lochhead.