Marketers are busy bees. We're always running around to find the next task, the next metric, or the next step in our perfectly prepared marketing plan. So it makes sense that Paul Ince, our latest Marketing Smarts podcast guest, would define flexibility as pausing to stand back and go, "Is this the right thing to do right now?"

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"Sometimes I think it’s good to pause, take a bit of a break, stand back, put yourself in your audience’s shoes, if we want to go down that road, and try to think, what’s going on here?" he says in this week's episode.

In fact, for all the industry talk of data-driven marketing, Episode 512 is full of Ince's emphasizing that instincts and conversation are important to flexibility.

"I think a good way to get started is to take a look at the plan that you have already and to really try and work out, does this plan feel right? We can talk a lot in marketing about theories and tactics...I think some things you just know whether they feel right or not...I think if it feels a little bit off, then that’s your big indicator that there is some work to do there. ...something to dive into, unpick, and ask further questions about."

That doesn't mean completely ditching the plan you already have. But maybe it could use a few tweaks. It can be difficult to get senior management to buy in to that kind of flexibility, because investors need a plan, and they want to see results. You have to "bring them with you."

"You almost have to give people permission to be flexible," says Ince.

Listen to the entire show now from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode. And if you prefer to read instead, the full transcript is available below.

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Full Transcript: Flexibility That's Focused to Obtain B2B Marketing Nirvana

George Thomas: Let's get into this episode with Paul Ince on flexibility focused for B2B marketing nirvana. Paul is a marketing strategist, host, and emcee who believes that the people working in the business are best placed to talk about it. He helps organizations understand their voice and put strategy in place to amplify it to their market.

With 20 years of experience, he has supported many businesses to increase their visibility online and grow their business through digital technology. Paul speaks frequently on the subject of how to improve the way businesses have conversations with their customers and clients via the world of digital and occasionally analog marketing. In addition to running his content marketing agency LikeMind Media, Paul hosts MarketEd Live, a marketing conference in the UK every September, and co-hosts the award-nominated news and politics podcast Humans Exhaust Me.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you, Marketing Smarts listeners, this episode is going to be great. We're going to ask questions around traditional planning methods, flexibility, how to get started, what to watch out for in this conversation around flexibility focused for B2B marketing nirvana. Without further ado, let's go ahead and get into the good stuff.

Paul, I have to be honest with you, I have been ecstatic about this interview because there is a thing, a word, and the Marketing Smarts listeners saw it in the title, flexibility. Historically, one of the things that I've been told is that I am a transition specialist. I love to pivot, I actually embrace this thing of being flexible in life. However, it wasn't always that way. Many humans aren't built that way. So, the fact that today we're talking about flexibility focused for B2B marketing nirvana and I get to dive into your brain and understand truly what you mean by that word when it comes to this marketing space, very ecstatic.

Let's start from the beginning. As a speaker and managing director at LikeMind Media, pertaining to this conversation we're having today, what keeps you up at night?

Paul Ince: This is a massive question. What keeps me up at night? All sorts of things. At the moment, the thing that keeps me up all night, figuratively speaking, is things like the cost of living crisis, the economic downturn that people are talking about as if it's inevitable or things are going to happen. That brings uncertainty, and uncertainty causes people to become a little bit nervous, become a little bit more insular in terms of what they're doing, but they become unwilling to take as many risks as perhaps they should. I don't know about you, but in my experience of marketing, those marketers and businesses that take a few risks are the ones that seem to get attention.

For me, now is not the time to do the same old, same old. It's the time to think about what we're doing and to think about how we can maybe change things up a little, get some more attention. But I think we have to accept that maybe businesses that we're working with are a little bit more apprehensive about what's going on, thinking about budgets, thinking about spend, thinking about is what I'm talking about still going to be relevant in a couple months' time. All of these things go on. I run a business and we're no different.

George: I totally agree with you. It's very interesting. I would say these things also keep me up at night because the more that we feel like we're being zoned in on or constrained, we feel like we're not allowed to bob and weave. We feel like every bob or weave is maybe a wrong direction, when it might be the exact right direction. It's so difficult to get our mentality, our mind, past that point of let's just go for it. It's interesting, I want to dive in a little bit deeper.

We're talking about flexibility, we're talking about planning, we're talking about how to make that pivot, that transition, those bobs and weaves that we need from a marketing standpoint. I'm going to ask the question this way. I don't even know if you agree with my question, so we'll see. I'm going to ask the question in this way and see where we go. Why do you believe traditional planning methods for marketing teams are broken as we sit here today with everything that's happening in the world?

Paul: I wouldn't necessarily describe them as broken. I think that there is a place still for what you might call traditional methods and things that people have learned in school and through their experience in their career, whether that's the four Ps or whatever strategies they have. I still think there is a place for those. I think where the flexibility element comes in is really trying to adapt those strategies or those theories to where we are now.

We've all gone the last few years where it's been completely changeable and we've all led a different life. Some people are getting back to normal and some people are staying where they've learned for the last few years. I think really the flexibility part comes into that when we're thinking about what we need to do now.

I did not have COVID-19 or a global pandemic on my business bingo card back in 2020. That was not in the plan. All of the marketing that I planned for either with my business or clients who have other businesses, that was not part of it. We continue to be in a world where things are happening all of the time. Monkeypox, who knew? We need another big global health emergency. Don't we? Of course we do.

There are all of these things that are happening. I'm just not sure that some of the traditional methods that we're all used to are keeping up with the pace that we now see.

George: It's interesting, when you say pace, I go to back in the day working at agencies. It was, "What are we going to do for the first six months? What's our goal for the year?" I love the bingo card. It wasn't on my bingo card. When things come zooming in, it's like how about this week or this month. So, that part, I totally agree.

You mentioned the word and I've mentioned the word, flexibility or flexible, multiple times. I want to do kind of a ground floor foundational set so that the listeners know when we're talking about marketing, planning, and strategy, and we use the word flexible or flexibility, what exactly do you mean by that? Because it could be a whole bunch of different things to a whole bunch of different people.

Paul: Before we do that, I want to pick up on what you just said about zooming in, zooming out, and plans, because that is part of it. I'll be going into this in a bit more detail at my session at B2B Forum. I think that we are pretty used to having this is the year's plan, this is the quarter's plan, and how did you do last quarter.

When you make these big strategies and plans and you put them in place, and do a pitch deck or you've created this massive document or whatever, and something comes along that you weren't expecting, then what do you do with that? What do you do with that massive piece of work? Does it make it immediately irrelevant? Well, maybe. But maybe with a little bit of help, with a little bit of flexibility in terms of lateral thinking or tweaking a little bit of that plan, then it's easier to make that relevant again.

I'm not an advocate of just ditching a massive plan that you've made and you've spent lots of time and energy, maybe you've done research, maybe you have audience research that has been done for your business. You don't necessarily want to ditch that. Again, we'll be talking about research in the session. You might not want to ditch that, but what you might want to do is tweak it a little, flex it, thinking about maybe the methodology, or maybe changing the channel, or changing the message, or the tone might perhaps be something else that you can do.

It's thinking about those different elements of the plan or the things that you're doing and thinking let's not just throw it all away, let's use what we can but be a little bit more agile. Agile marketing is already a thing, but it's just adapting that to our times, I think.

George: I love that. Actually, it's funny to hear you unpack that and to think about just this ability to even say everything you said, but this ability to say in your head, which is hard for us, "not yet." Being open to actually I spent 12, 24, 50 hours, great, this hurts, not yet. Or I spent 12, 24, 50 hours, and you even mentioned not totally down with scrapping it, but if we are truly talking about flexibility, the ability to say let's scrap it or let's set it aside for later. Having these different places that you can actually set it on the shelf or cylindrical file or whatever you're going to do with it, being okay with that as a human being, like let's go back to the drawing board.

I'm glad that you unpacked that. Let's go back to that original question of when we're using this word flexibility and we're throwing it around with ease, when it comes to B2B marketing or marketing planning, what exactly do we mean when we're saying this?

Paul: I think it's really about how do you find the ways in which you can either bring people with you, because you're right, you can throw something away. Actually, I do think that there are times when you should just ditch things completely because it's no longer relevant or because there has been a change. A good example of that are things like social justice issues that come to the fore. What's relevant then is suddenly almost outrageously a bad idea because the public mood changes or we become aware of something.

That flexibility is about the flexibility of the mindset, the ability to feel that it's okay to make those changes. Also, to help other people understand that's okay, too. Some of the people listening here or whoever controls some of this may have stakeholders, board of directors or other people, that are part of this decision, and they might have to convince people who are a little bit reticent to make changes, particularly if it involves a plan that is linked to business objectives and overall sales numbers and things like that.

You have to bring people with you, and you have to exude confidence with that flexibility to allow other people to be flexible as well. You almost have to give people permission to be flexible. That's what I think flexibility is.

George: I love this so much. Marketing Smarts listeners, I have to ask a question. Are you going to be the internal flexibility champion inside of your organization? Anytime that I challenge somebody to be the champion, I immediately kind of have to back this up as why is it important, why do you need to be a champion? You know what the thing is now. You know what's happening around you now. But why is it important?

That leads me to the next question. Why is this important to the company, the internal champion, whatever, why is it important to their success and to the humans that they serve, this whole flexibility focused mindset?

Paul: As human beings, we have feelings and emotions, we're not robots. The way that our audiences feel changes as well.

Here in the UK, there was a lot of goodwill at the beginning of the pandemic. I don't know if you call them key workers over where you are, but we call them key workers, people like nurses, doctors, post office staff, people collecting the trash, that kind of thing, key workers who are there to serve the people. There was a lot of goodwill and support for them. Two years on, here in the UK, there are other issues around public sector pay, and I think the feeling is generally positive, but there are some feelings. The train drivers are going on strike because they're not being paid as much as they want to be paid. People are losing their minds about it because they can't get on a train.

So, audiences change, their feelings change towards things. We have to think about our audiences as being human. Sometimes I think when you're in a B2B environment it's easy to forget that we're still dealing with humans. The people who make the business decision to buy a service or to take a product and put it as a part of another thing that you're going to make and then ship onto somebody else, these are still human decisions that are being made.

By and large, I think that people use the same processes to form those decisions. They're looking for is it any good, is it something that I need, what's the price. Also, who are these people, what do they do, who am I going to be dealing with, what do their reviews say about them, does it look like I'm going to have a great experience. Those are the same decisions we make whether it's B2B or as consumers.

We really must put human beings at the front and center of our decisions, and we need to take that approach when we're trying to adapt our messaging if we're trying to be a little bit more flexible. It might be perhaps that we put more emphasis on how that audience is feeling right now and meeting them at that point where they are so that our messaging becomes as relevant as it can be in that moment, knowing that maybe in a few months or a year's time that might need to change again. But we focus on them and meet them every step of the way.

George: I love this so much. My brain is going a hundred miles an hour because it sounds like you're saying as marketers we should have empathy for the people that we're actually serving, which is just an amazing thing. As you were talking, I was thinking to myself if I had a time machine and I could go back in time, I would eradicate B2B and B-to-C acronyms because they're a falseality. It is truly H-to-H, human to human, no matter what you're doing. No matter if it's business to government, business to business, business to consumer, we're all humans, at least for now, until the aliens come. I'm just kidding, the aliens aren't coming, don't worry.

Let's get back to the good stuff of the interview. Paul, they know what it is, they know why it's important, but there might be people listening to this podcast episode saying, "I do need to be the internal champion for flexibility around our planning for the marketing moving forward. How the heck do I get started? How do I start to implement this mindset in myself and those around me?" Is there some type of system or process that we have to stop historically using and move into?

Not giving away everything, because they need to go to the B2B Forum or check the information out there, but is there some information that we can give them to at least get them started on this journey?

Paul: You're absolutely right. Of course everyone needs to come to my session and find out some of the key steps that I'm thinking about. I'll be honest, this thinking is evolving all of the time as things happen. Like I said, the reason that flexibility is so important to me is things change. I think a good way to get started is to take a look at the plan that you have already and to really try and work out does this plan feel right. We can talk a lot in marketing about theories and tactics and is this the right thing, but again, I'm not convinced that's as flexible as it should be.

It was interesting that you mentioned empathy there, because I read a really interesting article recently, and I've forgotten who it was by. Basically, it was suggesting that marketing people are not that great at empathy. I think that depends on who you are. The idea was that we all think that we can put ourselves in the audience's shoes and understand what they're thinking and feeling, but the reality is that you just might not be able to do that because maybe your socioeconomic status is completely different to somebody else's, your lived experience is completely different to somebody else's, whether that's a particular demographic or whatever. I think you can go on feeling or instinct in large part.

I think some things you just know whether they feel right or not. So, we'll talk about how to pay attention to things that are going on around you and how you can maybe find out some information to find out what the general sentiment is around something or a particular topic. We will talk about that in the session.

I think when you compare that with what your plan is, I think you will be able to know almost instinctively whether it feels right or whether it feels a bit off. I think if it feels a little bit off, then that's your big indicator that there is some work to do there. It might not be a lot of work, it might be a small tweak, but it means there is something to dive into perhaps and to try to unpick and see what you need to ask further questions about.

George: I am so digging this conversation. Now you're kind of dipping your toe into this idea of being aware, self-aware, company-aware, which then gets you into paying attention or at least understanding the values, the core values that you live, that the company lives by, the mission, the vision, the things that are truly important, because that's what you're going to measure that feeling that against. "That just doesn't feel quite right." You only know that if you have some morals, values, mission, vision in place that you're paying attention to.

It's interesting because as we dive a little bit deeper into this very empathetic human marketing flexible strategic planning process that we're talking about, what should we be keeping in mind along the way? With anything, you're running a race, you know that there's certain things you're thinking about, the stride, the pace, the handoff if it's a relay. If you're driving a car, you're thinking about when the next turn is and using your turn signal. That is if you're a good human, you're using your turn signal. I may or may not use my turn signal. Anyway, not why we're here.

What should we as marketers be paying attention to along the journey of trying to implement this flexibility focused planning strategy for our businesses?

Paul: I have to tell you I sometimes also don't use the signal. I feel bad about that. I feel responsible for someone behind me having to second guess which direction I'm going. Strangely, that's almost like an allegory for what we're trying to do here. We're all trying to second guess things that are going on, the interpretation of that.

I think sometimes it's just a good idea to pause. I think marketers by definition are very busy people. We're all trying to think about what's the next thing to do and what to do with this information, and what plan we need to do here, and what did that social media post do, will it go viral. We're all trying to work things out and second guess and do lots of stuff.

Sometimes I think it's good to pause, take a bit of a break, stand back, put yourself in your audience's shoes, if we want to go down that road, and try to think, what's going on here? We can pay attention to the news, that's a good place to start. What do we think about that? That could be like the news bulletin, but it could be things like what is the sector talking about, what's on its mind. If everyone is worrying about the cost of supplies or supply chain issues, are people getting their goods, what's going in the South China Sea or Ukraine, how are these things impacting.

There's lots of things to think about. I think sometimes it's overwhelming. Let's pause. Let's take a breath. Let's talk to our colleague, ask them, "What do you think about this?" It's not just one person's view. What do we need to do? Actually, one of the things that I'm going to mention in the session is about how many people does it take to build a strategy. How many people need to be involved? Do we need to keep that the same? How do we dip in and out? How do we get input without it taking forever?

George: That's a good teaser right there. Marketing Smarts listeners, I can't help but think back to the Nate Brown interview and this just viable useful voice of customer system that you could have in place. For what Paul is talking about, it's your coworkers having the voice of customer, the larger kind of news sector, and being able to take all of these pieces of a puzzle and put it together to help when you're trying to do this planning.

Paul, historically you've seen people do this. What are some hurdles that they either fall prey to or get in the way?

Paul: Let's face it, there's lots. I think one obvious hurdle is senior management buy-in or lack of it. I think it's hard to sell flexibility sometimes because, I don't know, maybe investors need a plan, you need to work towards objectives. I think senior leadership buy-in is one hurdle.

Like I said earlier, you have to kind of take people with you. I think you have to show people. Sometimes you need to show them things that they understand, like the impact of things. Show them numbers. Maybe it's web traffic or sales or whatever. Think about your other people that are involved. Remember, they're human too. A CEO is a human too. They might not seem like it at the time, but they really are. You just have to find the chink in the armor, go for the heart. So, bring them along with you. I think that's one hurdle.

Another hurdle would be distraction. I think it's easy to get distracted and go down roads that have dead ends and you don't really want to go down. In my experience, as marketing people we like a new thing, so that's a distraction. Sometimes you have to bring it back to basics. I think that's actually where a good team can show its worth, because if you can get individuals to look at things and bring it back to the table, then you save a lot of time.

There's basically hurdles coming at you from every angle. It's like if you were running the 110-meter hurdles in athletics, instead of it being hurdles all the way down, there would be hurdles to your left, hurdles to your right. That's a terrible race. Who would run that race? No one. There's hurdles everywhere. I think you just have to be flexible, take a step back, and go, "What is this? What do I think it is? How do I get over it?" There's no harm in walking and climbing over a hurdle slowly.

George: As long as you get over it. That's the point, you just have to get over it. It's interesting. Let's keep the analogy and fun going. We've run the race, we've gotten over the hurdles, we're on the top step and we have the gold medal of flexibility winner around our neck. What does that look like, what does success look like? How do you know you've reached, as our title says, this B2B marketing nirvana and actually change your ways and doing it what might be "the right way" now?

Paul: I think success looks like different things to different people and maybe different types of business. I think most businesses are still looking at a reasonable set of similar metrics or things to measure by. I still think even though we're talking about flexibility, I'm not talking about a laissez-faire approach where it doesn't matter. It still matters. You still need to be getting results. If your core metrics are sales for the thing, or contracts to win, or tenders to apply for, or individual attendees at an event, those are still metrics that matter, so I still think we need to treat those as measurements of success.

I think a good indicator that flexibility is working is that you are keeping relatively close to those objectives all of the time. Instead of you going down a fixed route that you've already decided six months ago and you're kind of veering off and you don't know how to get back to the original path, with a flexible approach, if you see that you're veering away, you can bring it back. You see that you're drifting apart, you bring it back. To a certain extent, the ability for you to respond reasonably quickly to that is a good measure of success.

George: I love that so much. One of the things that I love to do on the Marketing Smarts Podcast, because I get the ability, the privilege if you will, to talk to some really smart people – Paul, you're one of those smart people – and I love to ask them for words of wisdom. The final question that I'll ask you to end this episode is if you could sit down with the Marketing Smarts audience and impart some wisdom that you've learned along the way, what is it that you would want to share?

Paul: Certainly, in my career, what I've learned is that sometimes the thing that you think is important is not always the thing that is important. Having a good dialogue with everybody involved in a transparent way, in a way that's honest, is the thing that will help you the most. No one likes to make a mistake, no one likes to get it wrong, but inevitably at some point we do. If you are able to have the relationship with somebody where you can be open about that, that's going to help you get back to where you need to be with the love and support of the people that are invested in that decision.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Melanie Deziel about building B2B marketing trust with evidence-based content, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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