Disrupt or be disrupted.

That neat turn of phrase is almost an article of faith in B2C business and marketing (and literally the title of thousands of articles, if Google is to be believed). But what about in B2B? Is disruption the required order of the day? CEOs certainly seem to think so. A recent survey reported that “44 percent of CEOs feel that disruptive growth is very important to the overall growth agenda,” and this is an agenda they increasingly expect their marketing leaders to own.

So, will B2B CMOs, who too often still labor as marcom providers in sales-centric organizations, be able to step up to plan, create, and lead the kind of strategic innovation required to upend categories, displace competitors, and produce significant growth?

To get a real-world view of this issue, we reached out to Maureen Waters, the CMO of Ten-X Commercial, a company with history as a digital disruptor in the real estate space. Our conversation with her is followed by a few recommendations as to how any CMO can best manage – and thrive – as management pushes for that disruptive growth.

Brandingmag: To start, please give us a snapshot of Ten-X.

Maureen Waters: Ten-X started in 2008. The market was suffering its big decline, and at that point there was quite a bit of distressed real estate out there. Auction.com, our first business unit, took advantage of that opportunity and has had a strong foothold in that market ever since. Then, three years ago, the company decided to focus on more than just distressed properties, so it created a new online platform for commercial real estate as it relates to stabilized assets. I joined in 2016, as CMO, to help grow that business and increase our market share in the category.

Bm: So how do you see your role as CMO in a company that can be seen as a disruptor? For instance, if CMOs have a role as disruptors themselves, it may be in one of three ways: 1) as an instigator, agitating for major change and innovation; 2) as facilitator, providing more traditional marketing communications support; or 3) as a protector, that is, not a creator of disruption so much as a “forward scout” to warn against competitive upheaval. How to you see yourself?

MW: Having spent all of my career in commercial real estate, it seems like everyone gets excited by the idea of disruption — but I think of that term as almost offensive.

Instead of “disrupting,” I tend to look at it as charting a new path where our customers need us to help improve a process or fill a need that’s not being met. Because of the technology world, this has come to be known as disruption. But I look at it more on the positive side — it’s improving a process that may be inefficient. At least in our world, that’s where we’re focused.

So I would say, in response to your question, that it’s a little bit of all three.

“A CMO needs to drive adoption of cultural change.”

Because disruption is more of an outward or market-facing concept, taking the instigator’s perspective is really more about being a change agent. How do you understand the customer and — as a facilitator now — how do you help improve your process and meet their needs? Finally, on the protector side, the role is more that of an evangelist, to drive cultural adoption. That piece of it is crucial — a CMO needs to drive adoption of the change.

Commercial real estate hasn’t been the most advanced when it comes to embracing change. This is partly because it’s a more personalized business than most which [has] been disrupted. Its person-to-person nature has made real estate difficult to disrupt, given that relationships are such a critical part of the business. This is especially sensitive in commercial real estate — so our success had to come from building a process that actually supports greater transparency, control, and efficiency, and allows that business-to-business relationship to more easily bring together buyers and sellers and brokers.

Bm: So, back to your previous comment, it sounds like you’re finding more success in improving the essential relationship process rather than, say, completely turning it on its head.

MW: Exactly.

Bm: When you speak of being a change agent, particularly with cultural change, how much of that is focused externally versus internally?

MW: My world is 100% focused on our customer. But part of this focus means figuring out how to bring that customer feedback into our organization and culturally build upon it to achieve complete customer alignment.

“Today the strategic shifts are monthly or daily and you constantly have to be ready to pivot.”

Bm: Sometimes corporate acculturation is seen as a one-and-done effort in moments of change. What you describe makes it sound more like it’s a constant, ongoing balancing and rebalancing of internal and external cultural factors.

MW: Absolutely. In order to be successful we must have a strong understanding of our customers’ needs — and those needs change daily. It used to be that you could build a 3-5 year strategic plan with annual customer input. But today the strategic shifts are monthly or daily and you constantly have to be ready to pivot.

Bm: That constancy of change has often been both served by and served up through technology. How do you as a CMO see your own needs for mastery changing? Are your principle needs still the classic marketing skills, or do you feel a new burden for your own technological understanding, your personal grasp of the mechanisms, the data…everything?

MW: I would say my emphasis is more on data than technology. The technology, for me, is a tool to help analyze the data and expedite the true insights, to help us in making informed decisions. So my focus is the data and insuring that whatever technologies we’re utilizing help us get to the appropriate insights as quickly as possible.

Bm: One of the great barriers to positive disruption, meaningful innovation — or frankly any sort of progress and growth in these more complex times — is the dreaded silo. Have you been faced with those and, if so, have you been able to achieve any meaningful integration?

MW: Yes. We’ve broken down old silos and now have an integrated team that is focused on delivering our customers’ needs. In fact, I just hired a VP of Integrated Marketing — so obviously I believe that this is extremely important.

And integration is much broader than it used to be. It’s not just the content, the digital, the creative, but also it takes us from the top of the funnel to the bottom. So we have to have an integrated approach and a full understanding of the funnel, not just the channels.

Bm: Speaking of channels for just a moment…it sounds as if, even as a digital-centric offering, your marketing isn’t just digital?

MW: No. We have to have a balance between digital and traditional marketing channels…otherwise we would miss a large percentage of our current marketplace that is still reading the Wall Street Journal and still looking at brochures.

Bm: So you have integration within the marketing strategy, tools, and tactics. Do you also have cross-functional integration within the organization? 

MW: Definitely. We have internal business partners who are at the table with us on a daily basis, whether it’s finance or HR or operations or technology. It’s not from the standpoint of ‘Here is our business strategy. Help us execute it.’ It’s really around, ‘Let’s discuss the appropriate strategy and have all partners input into that.’ It’s a different process than I have experienced in the past, which was more of considering marketing as support and less as helping with the strategic vision for the business and how to execute it. My background is strategy — I was the Chief Strategy Officer for Cushman & Wakefield — so I think that background has helped me get a seat at the table.

Bm: At many organizations, even if marketing is being invited into the business strategy discussion, it’s often late in the process. When do you get to sit down at that seat at the table? Early in the process, or late?

MW: I help drive the process from the very beginning,  most importantly, because of my understating of the customer. All strategy begins and ends with the customer.  It should become easier and easier for the CMO to have a seat at the strategy table because of their deep understanding of and relationship with the customer.

“Embrace disruption. Don’t view it defensively.”

Bm: So what would your advice be for other CMOs who are looking to break out of a traditional marcom mold and satisfy their CEOs demand for “disruptive growth?”

MW:  I would simply summarize what we’ve been talking about. First, really embrace disruption — don’t view it defensively, but look at it as a way to help improve and make processes more efficient. Start from a baseline of research and data that will help everyone else embrace that change too, as you create a brand culture that’s truly driven by the customer. Then be confident with taking a bold vision and engaging your internal and external stakeholders in the process. You’ll get people off the defensive and put yourself much more on offense, so you can really push through a change agenda that is much easier to execute.

The Take Away

As a “build” on Waters’ good advice above, we also offer a few key suggestions based on this author’s extensive experience helping B2B companies create significant growth by creating and managing change.

1. Recognize that your brand is your business, and work to earn that seat at the business strategy table.

As we’ve seen time and again in client projects — and as we’ve heard time and again from interviewees here in The B2B CMO —  the marketers who drive innovation and disruptive growth function as much more than traditional marketers. They assert themselves as strategic business leaders.

Sometimes, as Waters pointed out, this starts by winning over the internal troops with customer data and insights. And sometimes it starts well before a CMO even arrives at an organization, as they work to equip themselves with both a deeper and broader set of skills – particularly the “hard” skills enabled by math. 

As Paul Hillen, CMO of Cargill, told us, “There are too many people who say, ‘Well, I wasn’t really very good at math and I didn’t like math, so I’m going into marketing. I’m more of a creative thinker.’ What I’m trying to do is convince people that marketing must be a technical mastery, a learned and trained discipline.” And he added, “You don’t need a PhD in math – but if you don’t like math you’re going to be a failed marketer.”

So develop the hard skills, bring the hard facts, and you’ll find it much easier to command a role in shaping business strategy.

2. Once you’re at the strategy table, remember these three words.

Disruption has a dangerously seductive ring to it…meaning that it can seem so exciting it may cause you to stray from the strategic essentials required for any brand to succeed. And in my many years of experience, those essentials are found in three words: Be. Do. Say.  

To over-simplify, as with any brand, you must first discover what this supposedly innovative, disruptive brand can truly “Be.” That is, what purpose, vision and mission can it fulfill for customers?

Then you need to “Do” the things that make the essence of how you want to “Be” clear and self-evident — so that customers clearly see for themselves what’s “in it” for them. Creators of shiny new objects can get blinded by the glare of their own presumed brilliance, assuming that customers will “of course” understand, appreciate, and believe their breakthrough. Their list of things to “Do” certainly includes ensuring product excellence, but it also includes the internal training, policies, and communications required to deliver exceptional customer experience.

And finally, with your “Be” and “Do” in order, you can then believably “Say” why you’re different and better.  And the beauty of it is, once the exceptional purpose and performance of your offering is made self-evident, you’ll need to “Say” less yourself, as your customers will begin to see and say it for you.

3. Always put the “active” in “brand activation.”

It’s a simple, if brutal, truth: innovation is nothing without activation.

You may deliver a truly disruptive product or service, and introduce it with the most brilliant strategic positioning – but if you don’t activate it in the marketplace with an equally innovative program of internal acculturation and external communication, and then keep updating your activation to stay apace of the modern marketplace that Waters notes is “changing daily” — your growth is more likely to be characterized as “disappointing” rather than “disruptive.”