Behind B2B

Behind B2B #08: Mark Choueke

By Octopus Group on 9th August 2021

For the eighth instalment of Behind B2B, our series exploring the brightest minds in the industry, we’re talking B2B bravery with Mark Choueke – journalist, marketing leader, and freshly published author. 

Industry hopping, book writing, setting monsters loose on a customer experience summit in Utah: if there’s one thing we can say for Mark Choueke, it’s that he puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to bold B2B marketing. Hot on the heels of the publication of his new book, we sat down with Mark to chart his career and unpack what bravery in B2B really means. 

Mark, tell us – what did you really want to be when you grew up? Because as we all know, nobody grows up dreaming of B2B marketing… 

Honestly? Everything. It sounds barmy now, but when I was a kid, I really didn’t see any tension between being a politician and a pop star and a journalist and playing football for Liverpool. 

I just knew I didn’t want a ‘grey’ job. I remember walking into a branch of the Natwest bank with my dad when I was small, looking around at a grey room full of grey suits with grey faces. Everyone just looked so bored.

I knew I wanted variety and excitement as a ‘minimum requirement’ of working for a living. So after graduating, I went into journalism. I liked the idea of being investigative, running around and chasing the story. That was good fun, for a long time. But I had plenty of colleagues who were two, maybe three times my age – people who’d been in journalism for thirty years or more. That was never my ambition.

I moved around from one industry to another, trying new things. It became a bit of a problem when I was going for jobs – recruiters would tell me: you seem to have jumped around a lot. But I found a response that worked in interview situations: ‘you see it as jumping, I see it as collecting experiences’. 

How did you make the leap from journalism to B2B marketer? 

From journalism, I moved into PR at one of the big agencies. I’ll be honest: that was a wholly unsatisfactory experience, but an important learning curve nonetheless. From there, I ended up working with some ex-Googlers in tech and digital and data. All this interesting stuff I’d been writing about for so long.

I’ve been at the heart of B2B ever since and I’ve absolutely loved it. I’ve consulted, I’ve run an agency, I’ve done all sorts. I work now at Mention Me, the leading referral marketing platform – which has been one of my favourite places to work to date. It’s a product I can get behind, it’s got smart people, and a brilliant growth story ahead.

And I get to be a full-spectrum, full-stack marketer. I’m involved in conversations about pricing, positioning, product, place and distribution. It’s a really exciting place to be. It’s rare to find a B2B marketing experience that’s as satisfying as the one I’m having right now, so I feel very lucky. 

You’ve certainly had a varied career. What’s the best B2B work you’ve ever had a hand in? (Apart from your book – which we’ll come on to!) 

There’s actually a chapter about this in my book: it was Qubit, 2015. I was sitting at my desk one day and I got a call to come up and join the CEO, the CMO, and a few other important people – I was racking my brains trying to figure out what I was in trouble for. 

They said: Mark, sit down and listen to what we’re about to tell you. You can’t repeat this to anybody. Have you got a valid passport? Can you leave your family for 10 days? We need you in Salt Lake City, but before that, you need to stopover in New York and build a team for a secret project

Well, if there’s one way to get me excited, it’s to treat me like 007. So I said yes. They shared the idea. Adobe was Qubit’s biggest competitor (not that they even knew we existed at the time), and the plan was to ‘hijack’ the Adobe Summit in Salt Lake City. We knew there’d be 5,000 delegates in attendance – and those delegates were exactly who we wanted to speak to. 

Our angle was that Adobe’s customer experience cloud was a ‘Frankencloud’, made up of different acquisitions – unlike ours, which was built from the ground up with one purpose. So we hired a bunch of strapping actors, made them all into Frankenstein’s monsters, and put them in shirts that said DUMPFRANK.COM. That link led to a four-swipe microsite that detailed all the issues with dating a ‘Frankencloud’, and encouraged delegates to ‘dump Frank’ and book a demo with Qubit instead. 

It was hilarious. We had the actors doing the Thriller dance in the street, cycling around handing ice creams out, getting selfies with Adobe delegate and getting selfies with the cops who came to move us on. It was risky – it could have made us look small and stupid – but we just embraced it, and it was an absolute hit. It paid off big time. Everybody at the summit was talking about us, we won a few big clients, and even hired some Adobe sales execs. It – and all the collateral that came off the back of it including films on YouTube – gave us a level of fame (or perhaps notoriety) that really put us front of mind for our market. 

It’s a fantastic example of how far B2B bravery can really be pushed. Which leads us to your newly published book, Boring2Brave: The ‘bravery-as-a-strategy’ mindset that’s transforming B2B marketing. What sparked the idea? 

Everywhere I look, I see really shoddy marketing. Stuff that doesn’t even glance in the direction of good design, or where the tone of voice is so staid you may as well be dead. Marketing that just makes you think: why would you put any money or time or heart into producing something that horrific? 

That’s a big problem, for several reasons.

First, it’s bad for your health to just accept: hey, my work doesn’t need to be interesting, I shouldn’t even try to be sparky or imaginative. Second, you’re just not going to get good results, which in turn is bad for your career. 

And so the book is a call to arms: let’s be braver. Let’s make people remember us, let’s trust that creativity can be transformational. Let’s actively pursue bravery as a strategy. I know the approach I’m championing isn’t for everyone – I once had a COO tell me he was so worried about everything I was trying to do, I ‘gave him a tummy ache’ – but I hope the book at least starts a useful discussion for some people. 

As for the timing, Boring2Brave was essentially a lockdown project. Rebeltech, the agency I’d founded with Nicole Lyons, pretty much shut after the unhappy wedding of Brexit and the pandemic. When the world closed shop, I was consulting and fortunate to be at home with my family – but I needed something else to do for my mental health. 

So I started writing; drawing together all these stories and lessons and beliefs I’d formed around B2B marketing over the years. It wasn’t an easy process: 2020 was its own flavour of tough for everyone, and with two kids under 8, Zoom calls all day with clients, things were pretty hectic. Sadly, my father died during that time – the book is actually dedicated to my mum and dad, who taught me an awful lot about what bravery means. 

So it wasn’t easy. I’d be up scribbling at 2am in the morning, way behind on deadlines. At one point my wife, who was fantastic throughout the process, literally said: love, I don’t mean to be unsupportive here, but I think you might be in trouble. Overall, it was a wonderfully cathartic process. And I’m proud of the result. The book was published on the 20th of July and the feedback has been fantastic – so yes, very exciting stuff. 

It’s a fantastic resource for B2B marketers new and old, with plenty of tangible advice and lots of great examples of brave, impactful work. What’s the best B2B campaign of all time, in your eyes – and what can B2B marketers take from it? 

Well, I’ve got to go for a brave one, naturally, but I don’t want to be glib about what that word actually means. Bravery means doing something that makes you uncomfortable – something risky or painful, even – to achieve a positive impact or result. With that in mind, one campaign I loved was ‘Hey World’ by Upwork, the freelancer platform. 

It was essentially a series of ads cheekily targeting well known figures, pointing out their need for a freelancer. Like ‘Hey Mr President (Trump) – need a social media strategist?’ Or ‘Hey Amazon – need any help selling literally everything?’ 

It’s a beautifully simple idea, demonstrating all the ways Upwork’s freelancers can add value. But the execution was great. Really stunning art direction, pointed but not too aggressive, a bit edgy. And it was brave, because it took the mick out of important people. Trump, Amazon, Elon Musk – those are big bears to poke at, but they did it well. They created relevancy, they made people smile. 

Upwork might have been a company you’d never heard of, but you’d certainly remember them after that. 

Final question: what’s one thing you’d like B2B marketers to stop doing? 

I’d like B2B marketers to stop writing in such a strange way – tone of voice is such a powerful weapon, but so few marketers really take the opportunity to use it. Instead, they fall back on language that’s so safe, it literally puts you to sleep. 

Instead: try and create some identity. Talk how you sound. It’s something I’ve tried to do in the book; I want people to read it and think it sounds like me. Of course, that doesn’t happen without putting the work in. 

At Mention Me, Sophia King – our Senior Brand Marketing Manager – designed and devised a tone of voice doc that was beautiful and brilliant and fun. Then, she took it out to the company, presented it, and ran workshops for the team on how to use it. There was something for everyone, whether you’re doing contracts in legal or microcopy in product engineering. Everybody loves it, and now we’ve got everybody writing like Mention Me.

So I’d try and kill that jargon rubbish. My final bit of advice? Write in a way that’s likely to be read. There’s no point having a world-leading product if the way you talk just kills the message; it’s like burying gold. 

Boring2Brave by Mark Choueke is available on Amazon now

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