The Great Shift: a new marketing mindset for a new era

The Great Shift. Arrows turning in a different direction

Of all the changes B2B marketing has seen over the last two decades, there’s one change that’s bigger than them all – but never gets talked about.

Digital was big (so big, it’s hard to remember life before email and the browser).

Marketing automation, analytics, search, social media… any one of these in isolation would constitute a revolution in marketing. Taken together, they’ve comprehensively overhauled our entire discipline in a very short time.

But underneath all of these transformational forces, one thing has changed that’s even more profound:

We don’t have to lie any more.

In fact, for the first time in marketing history, misleading people turns out to be bad marketing. Ineffective marketing.

For the last few centuries, misleading people was built into the way marketing worked—the way it had to work. Maybe not outright deception but a kind of acceptable and expected truth-stretching.

Today, honesty, transparency and authenticity dramatically out-perform the sleaze, sugar-coating and sleight-of-hand we all grew up on. (Yes, some consumer markets—like elections—still richly reward the dark arts of deception and manipulation but I’m hoping this is a transitional glitch. I’m an optimist).

The change didn’t happen by design.

A discipline built on hype and hoodwink didn’t suddenly decide to discover integrity.

It happened as a by-product of the technologies that re-engineered marketing—chiefly the internet and analytics.

Because the new marketing tech stack is all about ruthless efficiency. Driving out waste. Figuring out what works and slitting the throat-budget of everything else.

Weirdly, against all expectation, this cold, data-vaping precision unleashed an unintended consequence.

It unleashed honesty and integrity.

Today, a new kind of marketing is emerging that starts from a completely different place than the old marketing starting point.

And it’s good.

Really, really good.

The old zero-sum game

In the old mindset, marketing was about tricking folks into doing things that may or may not be in their best interest – because it’s in your best interest.

It’s an inherently adversarial mindset.
For someone to win, someone else has to lose.

(The same dynamic governed our cousins in sales and customer service. But let’s stick with marketing for now.)

In old marketing, the metric of success was easy: how many people do you send to the sales team.

It didn’t matter whether things worked out for them. Your job was to bring down the antelope; kill the antelope; and throw the antelope over your shoulder for someone else to worry about. Then go looking for the next antelope.

The success metric was simple: how many antelope did you kill this month?

This sounds harsh but it really was the mindset underlying all marketing.

And here’s the tragedy: for most companies, little has changed. Most B2B brands are still running an outdated playbook that’s still based on the old mindset. And they’re losing.

Systemic shame

The old mindset didn’t come about because marketers were bad people. It evolved as a survival mechanism because of two huge forces:

The inefficiency of markets
Until very recently, it was really hard to find your ideal prospects and for them to find you.


The resulting scarcity of opportunities
So the percentage of ideal prospects in your buyer universe was really low.

To repeat: Market inefficiencies and lack of information meant it was extremely difficult to find your best prospects and—even more critically—for them to find you.

When you can’t really target your marketing very well; when your reach is limited; when the tools for identifying ideal prospects don’t exist yet – you have to market hard to whoever you can reach. Or you won’t create enough opportunities.

(And when your marketing sends a limited number of undifferentiated prospects to your sales team, they have to close as many as possible, whether or not the product is right for them. They have no choice. But we said we’d stick with marketing.)

The scarcity of opportunity and inaccuracy of targeting determined the adversarial mindset. Us against them. There was no other way.

This underlying dynamic gave rise to a dimension that has plagued marketing since the birth of commerce: the hidden agenda.

Since forever, marketing has hidden its dirty little secret behind a sparkly surface of colourful packaging, smiling spokespeople and fantasy-based ‘lifestyle’ stories. The agenda was there (“Our one job is to sell you this shit.”) but it wasn’t on view.

The hidden agenda has always been the modus operandi of marketing because we were operating on agendas that needed to be hidden: adversarial agendas in which the company won when all but a few of its customers lost.

If this sounds unduly negative, it’s because we all grew up with this kind of marketing.

With shiny lies.

It’s just how the game was played.

So how has marketing changed?

Well, the first thing to say is that, for far too many companies, it hasn’t.

They’re still operating under the old, adversarial mindset. Still hiding their agendas behind pantomimes that are so familiar they’ve become clichés.

What’s weird is that everyone knows they’re watching a pantomime.

Customers know it.

Companies know it.

The frontline people in marketing, sales and customer service know it.

But it’s a dance we’ve all accepted because it’s just the way things are. The way they’ve always been. We understand that marketing mainly lies to us and it’s our job to filter out the lies to see if the remaining truths are appealing enough to spend money on.

As a marketer, I’ve spent most of my career on the perpetrator side of this tragic dance and, as a consumer, spent my entire life on the victim side.

And I’m tired of it.

I don’t want to dance any more.

That’s why I’m so happy about right now.

The great thing is that we no longer have to play the old game.

The world really has changed and it frees us all from the empty bullshit that sales and marketing were all built on.

There really is a new mindset emerging. A mindset that replaces the adversarial dance with an authentic dynamic based on mutual benefit.

It’s a mindset that has propelled the spectacular successes of the New Winners in every market (I won’t list them: you know who they are). (Okay, Hubspot.)

And it didn’t come about because someone figured out a better way. Or because altruism finally out-weighed self-interest (when has that ever happened?).

It came about because markets are now much more efficient and information-rich. It’s become dramatically easier for buyers to find the best solutions to their problems – and for companies to find more than enough ideal prospects to market to.

And when you can focus your efforts on ideal prospects, you can get out of the business of hoodwinking the not-so-ideal ones.

In fact, you must get out of that business.

Because every erg of energy you spend on a prospect that’s a poor fit for your products is an erg you can’t spend on one that will love, love, love what you’ve got.

And every poor-fit customer you get to buy from you becomes a mini-loudspeaker-of-hate on social media and the review sites.

Why did the marketing mindset change so much?

The same technologies that changed the mechanics of marketing – the internet, CRM, marketing automation, analytics, search – are now forcing and rewarding a change of mindset.

Today, we can reach and interact with far more people for far less money. When we interact with them, we can learn far more about them and capture far more of that learning. We can listen harder.

This translates into more efficient marketing that generates more opportunities that really are opportunities.

Even more importantly, the new marketing ecosystem means we can find our ideal prospects and focus our efforts on them. And our ideal prospects can find us too.

That’s not a small thing, that’s an enormous, everything-changing dynamic that explodes the old, adversarial mindset and incentivizes a new one based on mutual value.

Think about it.

If you have a room full of ideal prospects to market to, your messages can —and must— be very, very different than if that room is full of undifferentiated people (with maybe a few ideal prospects randomly distributed in the audience).

Instead of a soup of nonsense about how your product is great for everyone, young or old, it can say who it’s really great for. And it can freely admit who it’s not suited to. (A super-sane thing we call Insane Honesty).

And if a salesperson is sitting in front of an ideal prospect – one who values every benefit of the product and isn’t bothered at all about the product’s shortcomings – the sales discussion can and must be completely different from the old, “You-need-this-despite-all-evidence-to-the-contrary” pitch.

And if all of your customers are a really good fit for your products, the customer service teams can move from defense to offense: to helping the heck out of every customer until they beg you to stop.

Is that a profound change or what?

‘Snowflake’ my arse.

Please, do not mistake this for a ‘theory’ of customer-centricity. Or a ‘vision’ for a better world.

This is not a theory or a vision or a fantasy or a philosophy.

This is a tectonic shift that is happening whether or not you decide to notice it.

The adversarial mindset isn’t working any more.

It’s failing. Because it’s wrong:

Marketing is no longer about fooling people into doing things that may or may not be in their best interest.

Marketing is taking the thing that you worked so hard to make great (your product) and helping the right people discover it so they can benefit from it.

Sales isn’t tricking your prospects into investments that have a dubious probability of return.

Sales is helping people make good decisions so the ones who really fit your offer can harvest the benefits. And answering all their questions so they can get comfortable with making a commitment.

And customer service isn’t defending against the angry hordes while keeping your costs down.

Customer service is about helping people get even more value from your products and, in doing so, proving that you actually care about them.

The rise of accountability (and the fall in bullshit) in B2B marketing

This new marketing mindset is a both a driver and a direct result of the rise of B2B marketing as a fully accountable discipline.

B2B marketers are way, way better at what we do than ever before:

  • We can now find ideal prospects and build relationships with them.
  • We now have the tools to prove we’re succeeding at that.

Best of all: we no longer have to hide our agenda.

When the game you’re playing is to win at the expense of your customers, you’d better hide it.

It’s unattractive. It repels people, and rightly so.

It’s why there’s still a vague, lingering embarrassment about being in marketing or sales.

But when the new challenge is to find and serve the people who will genuinely love your products… there’s nothing at all to hide.

You can market with an open book, a full heart and a bright, clear voice.

You can sell with total transparency and integrity.

And you can go out of your way to support customers who haven’t even asked for your help yet.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the world I want to be a marketer in.

And, I’m happy to say, it’s the world we all are marketers in.

The underlying forces have shifted.

It’s time to let go of the old mindset.

To stop thinking our job is to trick people. To bullshit them. To puff up small things into big ones and hype advantages into irresistible ‘must-haves’.

It’s time to start proving we’re here to generate mutual value.

To stop worrying about poor-fit prospects so we can throw everything we’ve got at ideal ones.

To use the tools and technologies and strategies and tactics at our disposal so we can reach further, listen harder and concentrate on seizing our best opportunities.

If your company is stuck in the old model, you’re on a bumpy, bruising learning curve. Good luck.

If you’re moving to the new mindset, fasten your seatbelts.

This is going to be fun.

Free bonus!

As a thank-you for reading all of that:

Five signs that you’re ready for the new marketing mindset

1) You believe in your products.

You know that they work. That you can help other businesses succeed.

2) Your marketing team is set up for listening hard.

Today’s winners are the companies who listen hardest and learn fastest.

How’s your marketing performance team? What shape is your data in?

Is your martech stack tuned for nuance or clunking along, pooping out MQLs with no discernible Q?

3) You’ve identified and aligned around a clear definition of your ideal prospects.

Agreeing with the sales team on every last detail, firmographic, demographic, technographic, psychographic and situational dimensions.

4) You’re able to admit your products aren’t for everyone.

And you’re okay about saying that openly. (If your stakehoders balk at that, see our Insane Honesty pitch).

5) Your tolerance for delusion is going down. If there’s less enthusiasm for the delusional, self-serving ‘message framework’ and a lot more internal candor about the true value you offer, you’re on the right track.



Amazing article, as ever! My addition would be that it is not just the techniques and strategy that is changing but also the people doing the writing. More and more comms professionals are finding it too uncomfortable to communicate things that don’t feel authentic or helpful to their audience. It leaves them disillusioned about the industry and wanting to work for companies that are contributing to the world.

Communicating with integrity takes personal strength as well as technical expertise. I wonder if it is those comms professionals who are most self-aware, who interrogate messages that are disingenuous and who stand up for their own values, instead of pandering to client needs, who write most creatively and with the greatest integrity?


    Great point, Amy. I do think the writers behind this kind of marketing need to be secure enough to be honest with themselves, asking questions like: Is this stuff true? Is it interesting? Is it fresh? Or is it… just marketing.

“Insane Honesty” is the front-end of objective morals ❤️

Right on. It seems so basic. Honesty. True belief and the passion for the value your product or service brings to your customers. Willingness to listen and act on feedback. Refreshing. We all know when we have these experiences and we all KNOW when we don’t which severely tarnishes a brand as we share these experiences.

    Thanks, Denise. That’s what’s so surprising: as consumers of marketing, we all DO instantly recognise the fake stuff from the real. But when we turn around to create marketing, the gravity that pulls us back to the empty, superficial stuff is very strong.

Yes, cult of efficiency is centre stage. Great article!

    Thanks, Sanjna!

hihih wonder what do you think about ESG and greenwhasing – in this light….

    Yeah, greenwashing is a great example of the old playbook.
    And it’s SO transparent these days, I’m always shocked brands go this way anyway (probably easier than actually changing anything).

You aren’t wrong, but you could have said it all in about half the time.

With a little less broetry.

So if I may offer a suggestion, please do a little editing to make your writing even more effective.

    Ouch. But I think you’re right.
    I probably should’ve edited it down a bit…
    (And the ‘broetry’… ouch-ouch.)

    Thanks for the feedback.
    Maybe the next one will be more in the zone for you…

There is an element of truth in what you say but I would ask you to take one step back. True marketing has always been about delicate management of all 4 Ps and B2B marketing has got itself into a mess because “marketing” has come to mean “comms” (ie “shout about what you’ve got on the van”). Yes, the way that we sell and the way people buy has changed for the better but the biggest change will come when B2B businesses understand what marketing really is (and I mean the discipline rather than the box on the org chart).

    Thanks, Robert.
    I take your point about the relegation of marketing to ‘comms’ in too many companies.
    But even teams with fully-developed marketing functions often come to the market with this adversarial mindset—a vestige of the days when that’s what worked!

I don’t remember the time I’ve read such an article about marketing. You’ve putted thing on the table with a clear voice. And you are perfectly right. Marketing is suffering old patterns that are constantly reappropriate with a new language (in France we call it nov-langue).

Marketing don’t need transformation in my opinion because its purpose is the same since beginning : being empathetic enough to create strong and trustworthy social relationship with an audience.

    Thanks, Benjamin. “nov-langue”…. I must steal that.

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