The Backstory of Account-Based Marketing

December 7, 2015 Mark Emmons


Dinner parties usually are where good stories are told. But here’s a case of where one of the best stories in business today actually had its beginning at a social gathering.

In 2003, Bev Burgess was the host of a get-together in London. As she sat between two senior-level marketing executives for global companies Accenture and Unisys, the conversation took a fateful turn. They discussed an intriguing idea – creating campaigns specifically tailored toward individual accounts.


Bev Burgess, SVP ITSMA Europe

Her ears perked up.

“I thought this was just really, really interesting,” recalled Burgess, senior vice president of ITSMA Europe. “So we did some research around the idea and developed a process for it.”

The rest, as they say, is history. In hindsight, the main course that night was a new way of thinking about business: Account-Based Marketing.

ITSMA, the influential research firm, made a splash more than a decade ago by coining the phrase. It defined ABM as the treatment of accounts as markets in their own right – setting the stage for what now is the hottest trend in marketing.

Account-Based Marketing has become the thoughtful strategy to navigate the increasingly complex B2B landscape. Today, sales cycles stretch out longer and involve larger buying committees. ABM addresses this new buyer’s journey by bringing together sales and marketing teams in a collaborative effort to focus on a smaller number of high-value target accounts with highly personalized campaigns.

But it wasn’t until the relatively recent boom in marketing technology that the buzz about ABM shifted into overdrive. A SiriusDecisions study released earlier this year highlighted the growing interest when it found that 92 percent of companies recognized the value of ABM.

“Once the technology companies began to figure out that they could help with Account-Based Marketing, that’s when you began to see all the hype,” said Julie Schwartz, ITSMA’s senior vice president, research and thought leadership. “Tech is definitely having an impact, especially with the whole insight area. In order to do ABM well, you need to understand the account completely. So you need to collect intelligence.”

Schwartz and Burgess are quick to point out that ITSMA claims no credit for “inventing” Account-Based Marketing. In fact, sales and marketing experts like Matt Heinz and Trish Bertuzzi talked recently about how versions of named-account selling have been in the playbook of many companies for years. The publication of “The One-to-One Future” by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in 1993 also is often cited as a signpost in the move away from mass marketing to personalization.


“The One-to-One Future” by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers

What ITSMA did, though, was recognize that the marketing industry as a whole was hungry for a more productive and efficient approach to pry open coveted accounts. It gave the budding movement a catchy name, designed an ABM methodology and began to spread the word about the importance of building richer relationships with prospects to close deals.

“It still amazes me today that companies are just starting with ABM,” Burgess said. “I probably come across one each week that says: ‘Oh, I’ve discovered this new thing called Account-Based Marketing.’ Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a huge interest. But even as more people are talking about it, they’re not really speaking about the same thing we are.”

From ITSMA’s perspective, Account-Based Marketing is only about enterprise-sized accounts. A limited number of targets are selected and then, at a minimum, between $15,000 and $20,000 a year is invested in campaigns to penetrate them. Burgess and Schwartz are not kidding when they speak about “one market, one account.” Their vision of ABM clearly is not for every business.

At the same time, the rapid expansion of marketing analytics has fueled the skyrocketing interest in ABM and made it accessible to more businesses. Tech tools now make it possible to identify the best target accounts, pinpoint the key people inside those companies and then market to them in a customized way. And these campaigns can be done at scale.

Burgess and Schwartz, though, believe most businesses that are ABM newcomers aren’t truly employing an account strategy – at least not the way they envision it.

“What they’re starting to do, with the help of technology, is define the list of accounts they want and just be a little more clever about how to market to them,” Burgess said. “We would just describe that as good, targeted marketing. We think the clue is within the name. If you’re not creating a market for one account, we don’t think that’s Account-Based Marketing.”

Scott Brinker, the chief technical officer at ion interactive and the blogger at, was a speaker at the recent annual ITSMA marketing conference. He said that as ABM continues to become more popular, it will continue to evolve from the original ITSMA blueprint.

“When the craze of the moment begins to catch on, a lot of things get thrown under the same umbrella,” Brinker added. “This moment has to be good for all of the ABM folks – whether or not you meet the classic definition. The hardest thing with the MarTech landscape is breaking through the noise. One of the best things going for you is if what you’re doing has become the hottest subject. Right now, that’s ABM.”

In other words, it’s all aboard the Account-Based Marketing bandwagon. Schwartz believes it won’t be just a passing fad, either.

“If we’re talking about ABM as targeted marketing, I think that’s going to stay with us,” she said. “People are going to see that they can use technology to get better results from their marketing. That’s never going to go away once people get a taste.”

Much like the lasting taste from that long-ago dinner party.

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