Phil Crompton began his 40-year IBM career in sales, working closely with some of its largest financial clients. The experience, says Phil, was the perfect initiation to account-based marketing (ABM). “I really started to understand how large accounts work and the complexities of selling,” he says.
By 2011, Phil was running industry marketing, sales enablement, and various other functions across Europe. It was around that time that IBM’s global marketing team decided they wanted to experiment with ABM. “We were asked to cover a relatively small number of accounts in Europe and the US with a small number of people. It was very much done as a pilot.”
The team assessed the program after 12 months and found that the results, whilst positive, were not strong enough to justify scaling ABM to a larger number of clients and hiring the team required to run it. As a result, the pilot was terminated.
Fast-forward to January 2021. Sales was changing the way it serviced its top accounts, surrounding them with stronger, more technically-minded salespeople. At the same time, Phil’s industry marketing team were considering ways to better support sales’ new approach. “It became pretty obvious we needed to do something around ABM,” he says.
Thus, IBM reignited its short-lived ABM program, this time with a few major differences. The first was implementing a global program office. “We started to lay down some standards around the world as to how the team should operate.”
The team also sought advice from internal and external experts. “We were fortunate to be able to learn from Red Hat, which is an IBM company,” says Phil. “They had been running their top account mission for around five or six years. Plus, we worked very closely with it Momentum ITSMA who helped to educate and skill us all very quickly.”
Despite its anticlimactic pilot 10 years before, IBM’s ABM program saw rapid and scalable success. Today, there are around 250 top accounts. Unsurprisingly, the program requires a lot of manpower to keep it running. “We’re trying to work with a model of one person covering three to four accounts – so that’s about 60 people around the world. We then have our global program office as I mentioned – it’s small, around four or five people who are responsible for standards of education, of best practices, sharing, building the community, enablement, etcetera.”
Phil’s team also have a somewhat unusual tool up their sleeves – the so-called “SWAT Squad”. He explains: “It’s a squad of four or five people from cross-marketing disciplines, who are able to go into an individual account situation and say, okay, we want to do something special here. For example, put together a content series, or help them to do internal marketing. It’s a hit team that can go in and help to build something at an individual account level.”
The three Rs
One of the main challenges has been defining what “success” really means and how long it should take to deliver it. IBM uses the three R’s – reputation, relationships, and revenue – popularized by Momentum ITSMA to measure success, but these represent long-term metrics and it took time to convince sales that this is a valid yardstick for progress. “If you don’t have strong relationships with an organization and you’re trying to branch out and make new connections, or your reputation is a particular type – maybe you’ve been seen as an IT supplier and not as a strategic partner – it takes time to build that. The dichotomy between getting it right in the long term and being able to deliver some quick wins within the quarter is a real challenge.”
Few organizations have the resources of IBM but, in reality, the two “winning” components of its large ABM program have little to do with its history, size or resources. “The first one is to put some really good people in place. I’ve always had a very simple philosophy in my career, which is: pick good talent, give them a clear direction, then let them fly. That’s what we’ve been able to do around the world. We put 60 top-talent marketers in place, they’ve got experience, and they’ve got gravitas, which I think is important, because you’re trying to be a strategic partner for very senior sales leaders on our top accounts, so you need that credibility.”