Ignite B2B highlights industry’s diversity problem

On 30 January 2020, B2B Marketing put out a call for Ignite speakers.

They wanted people who had “been around the B2B block” and had experience and knowledge they wanted to share. Specifically, they were interested in case studies, guidance on how to achieve vital objectives, and “visionary perspectives”.

After 25 years in B2B across publishing, PR, and marketing, I do have experience and knowledge worth sharing. Plus, I’ve spoken at Ignite before and really enjoyed it so I decided to submit a proposal.

The power of difference

My synopsis was, “The world has changed, so why hasn’t your advertising? Diversity is the new normal and B2B brands that fail to reflect the diversity of their customers in an authentic, relatable way, risk becoming obsolete.”

I laid out some benefits of attending the talk, focussing on how a more inclusive approach can help deliver better customer and brand experiences, improve engagement levels and conversion rates, and build brand relevance and trust.

I even had a case study up my sleeve about how one of our clients – a global tech company – achieved 54% higher CTRs in MEA and an 11x increase in leads in Japan when more representative and inclusive imagery was introduced into campaigns.

On the face of it, the perfect marriage of commercialism and progressive, relevant ideals.

Source: Google/Ipsos, Inclusive Marketing Study

I didn’t hear anything back but saw the agenda was filling up, so I assumed I hadn’t made the cut. It happens. Fair enough.

Then on 3 June, I got an email thanking me for my submission and explaining that it didn’t fit with the event programme vision for Ignite.

It’s pretty hard to miss the significance of that timeline. Between the invite on 30 Jan and the email on 3 June, the world changed.

In that short time, we were hit by a global pandemic and witnessed the murder of George Floyd, sparking the renewed rise of Black Lives Matter protests around the world – on a scale not seen since the American civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Adland commits to action

In response to the protests about systemic racism, and on the same day I received the rejection email from B2B Marketing, The Drum published an open letter, co-ordinated by Creative Equals, from UK adland bosses pledging to do more to support black talent.

B2B Ignite took place three weeks later, clashing with Cannes Lions’ virtual offering, Lions Live, and The Drum’s Can-Do Festival. The twin pandemics – Coronavirus and racism – were all over the Lions Live and Can-Do agendas. Less so at Ignite.

Of course, these events are built to serve different agendas. Cannes Lions is a festival of creative marketing and Can-Do was launched this year to explore how brands and agencies are transforming their business models in the current climate.

Ignite is dedicated to learning and development, and the evolution of disciplines like ABM, Sales Enablement, and Martech. But Ignite also has streams for Engagement, Brand, and Leadership – broad themes that offer plenty of scope for exploring the business case for diversity.

Ultimately, any event built on foundations of learning and development should be inclined to search out future-facing or “visionary perspectives”, with a view to debating the question “Where are we – as an industry and a community – going?” Truly effective B2C and B2B marketing is built on an understanding of who consumers are and what makes them tick – what matters to them? The answers exist in a state of constant change. It’s our job to keep up.

Leading brands recognise that fact. Big names like Verizon, Diageo, HP, General Mills, and Unilever have been calling for faster progress on D&I for years. The speaker line-up for Ignite was filled with smart, qualified people. But it also reflected how little progress has been made in B2B. At 96% white and 64% male, the speaker line-up was seriously out of step.

The 2019 Agency Census from the IPA found that diversity improvements were “marginal at best and too slow in pace”, with data revealing that the number of employees from black and ethnic minority backgrounds had actually dropped over the prior 12 months.

As well as making up a smaller proportion of the UK agency workforce, staff from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds had seen C-suite representation drop too, with less than 5% of C-suite roles held by people of colour.

Following Ignite, I saw a post on LinkedIn calling out Marketing Week for peddling the tired old cliché that B2B stands for ‘boring to boring’ and asserting that B2B is an exciting place to be right now. I’d agree wholeheartedly, were it not for the paucity of diverse voices and views. Make no mistake, the roster of Ignite speakers is filled with brilliant thinkers and worthy perspectives. But it fails to represent the increasingly diverse audiences we seek to influence – and the diverse talent that exists in our industry.

B2B is a fascinating and exciting world right now. Technology has brought about dramatic changes in how modern B2B buyers engage and there is a growing understanding that just like in B2C, B2B purchase decisions are led by a combination of rational and emotional thinking. People buy from (and champion) companies that align with them on shared values – like diversity and inclusion.

2020 hindsight

Looking back at my pitch to B2B Marketing, I should have done more to spell it out: diversity really is the new normal.

In the US, millennials represent 73% of B2B buyers, and only 56% of them are white. In the UK, millennials make up 25% of the population, and over 20% are of an ethnic background other than White British.

We’d do well to bear in mind that these millennials aren’t just B2B buyers. They’re employees. Innovators. Near-future business leaders. They want to buy from and work for companies that prioritise diversity and inclusion in a real way.

I believe those of us who have “been around the B2B block” have an obligation to hold ourselves accountable – to the board, to our clients, and to our teams. B2B brands that fail to reflect the diversity of their customers and drive genuine equality within their organisations will become obsolete.

Robyn Pierce
Head of Social Media

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