Generations of Baltimoreans are familiar with local business-to-business firm Advance thanks to the company’s marketing innovations that began with its iconic TV commercials from the 1980s.
President, Jeff Elkin, joined the SMEI Baltimore chapter in October to share insights into how the company, now known as Advance – The Document Specialists, continues to build on the success of those early days when 100 percent of its marketing budget went to TV. Elkin took a trip down memory lane showing how the TV-centric marketing over the years shaped the Advance brand “and captured the essence of who we are as an organization.” The brand persona continues to this day in all of the company’s marketing outreach.
Along the way they learned a number of sales and marketing lessons, which Elkin shared with the SMEI audience:
Marketing is a Long-Term Investment – It’s a mistake to think you can throw money at a marketing tactic and expect results. “We’ve always been long-term investors and we’re not here to make the quick hit this year,” Elkin said. “We’re celebrating our 49th year and we want to be around for another 49 years.”
Take Risks But Know When You’ve Gone Too Far – It’s unusual for a business-to-business firm to use mass media to target business decision-makers, but it worked and Advance continued to refresh the campaigns throughout the years but were keenly aware when a theme appeared to “jump the shark,” calling for a new message and approach.
Search is Key – When prospects in the sales funnel are ready to educate themselves, they’ll turn to Google and other search engines to validate their thinking and collect more information. Advance has invested in their website and other online content formats, including a blog, which works to feed search engines with searchable content and has been a source for trade press coverage. They plan to rely more on video for the same search-result and information-gathering reasons.
Invest Time in Training – A bright recent college graduate might have the basic tools in place for a successful sales career, but it takes time to build the experience and knowledge before they’re out there having the pain conversation with the CEO. “It takes a good two to three years before that light bulb really goes off and starts shining brightly and not a lot of companies are willing to invest in their people that way in this day and age, but you have to.”
Social Media Measurement Remains Difficult – Advance has invested a “significant amount” in social media but Elkin says he has mixed feelings. Are C-level executives making buying decisions based on Facebook posts? Is LinkedIn nothing more than a way for competitors to tap into his best people? “Clearly we need to be there, but where that line is drawn and how much money we spend and take away from proven mediums is a big discussion and debate that goes on in our organization,” he said.
Marketing Paves Way for the Sales Call – The TV spots and related marketing works in tandem with the sales outreach, he said. “We’re still what they call a ‘push’ business, so as our sales people go out and knock on the doors we’ve essentially softened the situation for them so there’s a warm and fuzzy feeling and a preference and an awareness” about the company.
The Value of Partnerships – Elkin said it’s important to support the community, and through partnerships with organizations such as the Baltimore Ravens, Maryland Terrapins, the Maryland Zoo and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, it’s also a great way to differentiate the company and be a good corporate citizen. A lot of businesses out there want to do business with the organizations that support the local marketplace and it’s a worthwhile marketing investment, he said.
Founded in 1935, Sales & Marketing Executives International (SMEI) is the worldwide organization dedicated to ethical standards, continuing professional development, knowledge sharing, mentoring students and advancing free enterprise. For more information about the Baltimore chapter, visit www.smeibaltimore.org.