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SaaS Backwards Episode 31: Straight talk about ABM—whether it’s the right go-to-market strategy and how to pull it off

Welcome to episode thirty-one of the SaaS Backwards podcast, where we interview CEOs and CMOs of fast-growing SaaS firms to reveal what they are doing that's working, and lessons learned from things that didn't work as planned. 

You can listen to the full episode directly below via Spotify, or visit SaaS Backwards on Buzzsprout or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Straight talk about ABM—whether it’s the right go-to-market strategy and how to pull it off

With Declan Mulkeen, CMO of StrategicABM

Edited for clarity and readability 

Host, Ken Lempit:
Welcome everyone to another episode of SaaS Backwards, a podcast that helps SaaS CMOs and CEOs to accelerate growth and enhance profitability. Our guest today is Declan Mulkeen. He's CMO at strategicabm, an account-based marketing agency. Before we dig into the conversation, give us just a little bit about you and your firm.

Declan Mulkeen:
We've been around for almost 20 years now, and like most agencies that have been in existence for that long, we've gone through the whole evolution in terms of what marketing has been doing over the course of the last 15, 20 years in terms of B2B marketing. 

In the last five to six years, we've dedicated ourselves a hundred percent to account-based marketing and we work with B2B tech brands all over the world. My job as a CMO is to talk about ABM and share stories about what good ABM looks like, and also to generate demand for the agency services through the work that I do on LinkedIn, and through my own account-based marketing campaigns. So I’m happy to share some of that insight with you today, Ken, and to tell your audience a little bit more about account based marketing and what good and bad ABM looks like.

Ken Lempit:
Well, let's talk a little bit about the history of ABM. I think it would be good to level set how we got to where we are today.

Declan Mulkeen:
That’s interesting because a lot of people think that ABM has been created by tech brands that have become quite well known in the course the last few years (without mentioning any name). But, account-based marketing is almost 20 years old now in terms of how it's been defined, it's methodology, the systems, and the way that it has been created. 

And it was created by Bev Burgess who was quite well known in the account-based marketing industry based out of the UK. (I had her as a guest on my own podcast, called Let's Talk ABM). She explained to me that she was having dinner one evening back in 2002 with about 25 marketing leaders from very well-known companies, and on one side of her was a very senior marketing chap from Accenture and another side was a very senior marketing chap from Unisys.

They started telling her about this new project they were doing, and they had called it client-centric marketing. It was about how to apply marketing to specific accounts as opposed to the market. 

That got her thinking about the approach, and she started doing research on what they were doing back in 2002. 

In 2003, that turned into a defined way of working which she coined as account-based marketing. And if you go forward now 19 years, we are where we are today and it's obviously grown enormously, particularly in the last three, four years, and that's really the potted history of where ABM came from.

Ken Lempit:
Yeah, that last three to four years of acceleration, probably a lot to marketers like ourselves, trying to find things that actually are still working well, as the channels have gotten really noisy and lead generation land, we're definitely looking for ways to be relevant. I think it'd be worth talking a little bit about the relationship between demand generation, lead generation and account-based marketing. I certainly think they're all synergistic, but I'd love your take on how you guys position that with your clients.

Declan Mulkeen:
I did a post on LinkedIn about this, saying that ABM is an addition to what you are already doing and it's not a substitute. That’s an important message -- each business has its reasons for what they're doing and their own business outcomes that they're looking to achieve. 

And not every one of these different strategies is right for all organizations. 

For some companies, lead gen is the right approach. For others, demand gen is the right approach. And some, ABM is the right approach. Or a mix of all the above. 

The way I see these three working is the essence of demand generation. It's about, how you build attention, interest and how you build your brand into the market through all the different tactics and events, content marketing, social, et cetera.

So how do you create that demand? How do you capture demand? How do you accelerate that demand? How do you expand that demand within the market that you're looking to penetrate? 

Whether that's mid-market enterprise, whether that's United States, whether that's Europe, whether that's within the cyber tech industry or whatever you're looking to create and build that demand.

It's much more broad-based marketing in terms of your targeting a much wider set of accounts, a much wider industry, much wider market. 

I think what a lot of people who are talking about demand generation now are saying is that the aim of demand generation is to surround your market with your brand, with your story, and your thought leadership, with who you are and what makes you different and how you help people. But ultimately, the companies should come to you. 

That is best in class demand generation. Lead generation has its parts in that because obviously all the work that you do will generate leads. And obviously we've been doing marketing for a while now, and we've all been involved in MQLs and SQLs and all that kind of thing and all these kind of acronyms that us marketers know and love…or not love so much.

Ken Lempit:
Or not so much. Right?

Declan Mulkeen:
Yeah, and I think we've done ourselves a lot of a disservice by having all these acronyms. We've created our own language that doesn't really help us to communicate with the rest of the business. 

That's probably a story for later, but I think lead gen is when you’re capturing leads through all your content. Those leads, in the majority of cases, don't have really any intent. And then you are putting those leads through a process with your sales and marketing teams, to try to bring them through a process whereby some of them will convert. 

Lead generation has had a lot of detractors because there's a low acceptance from sales. They’re often saying, "Hey guys, we're busy, we've got our own business. We know which accounts we want to win. We've got our own conversations and you are bugging us or throwing over the fence a whole bunch of leads and saying, "Hey guys, give these guys a call." And we're saying, well, look, they're not interested."

I  think that lead gen has a part to play in the demand gen funnel, but it's also been quite burnt recently. Of the three, ABM is much more laser focused because you're saying, "Hey, we've done our homework. We've done our research. We know from the data, we know from talking to our sales teams, we know from looking at intent data, we know from looking at our first party data in terms of which companies are interacting with our brand, we know which companies we need to either win or which companies we need to grow." 

Because it's not just about new logo acquisition, it's also about growing existing accounts. So we know which ones we want so it's much more laser focused. It's much more focused on the accounts that you want to grow or to win.

It’s what I like to call full funnel, and the way I see the difference is that demand generation is a bit more above the funnel (or top of the funnel), and ABM occurs through the whole funnel and thereafter, even when the customer is now a customer, so to speak. 

So you've already won the customer, they're now in your system. It’s laser focused, it's full funnel, you're working very closely with sales. 

I was talking to a guest on Let's Talk ABM the other day and she said something very interesting to me. She said that she saw the work that she does in ABM has been much more like sales work because sales and ABM happens later in the funnel, which I thought was a really interesting take on that really. So I think there's a key point here, which I always say to people is, it's not a question of “or,” it's a question of “and”.

ABM and demand generation work well together. Demand generation can feed demand into an ABM motion if those accounts are coinciding or if the demand generation work is triggering accounts that should go into your ABM motion. So, there's a relationship. 

Another one of my guests said to me that ABM and demand general are like cousins—they're related, they definitely have to get on, and it's definitely not a question of choose one over the other. My advice to everyone is look at your business outcomes, see what works best for your company, and then it's a question of and, not a question of or.

Ken Lempit:
In our experience in clients, we're using the lead gen work, especially, to help us message test if we don't have a good idea of our ICP, so that's allowing us to be more effective in thought leadership work and also in our ABM creative. We're focusing more on issues that matter to the people we want to sell to. So if you really know your product market fit, if that's really good, and you really know your clients, that may not be a value add for the relationship between lead gen and ABM.

But certainly, if you're a younger company or if you're about to go through a pivot, that's one way to use those tools together. 

Let’s talk about the technology vendors because I think that it's too easy for marketers to fall in love with technology and not necessarily understand what the possibilities are for a go to market motion. So obviously the tech helps us in certain ways, but what's the superset of ABM over the tech itself? Maybe just a quick bit about what are we doing in the tech? But what are we doing outside of the tech also to make ABM really work?

Declan Mulkeen:
Yeah, it's an interesting question, because the tech vendors have done a very good marketing job of making a lot of the market think that they actually created ABM and that ABM is all about technology. 

We run this thing called ABM Lunch & Learn where we help companies to understand ABM, we help them to understand whether it works for them or not, whether it should work for them, et cetera. But sometimes I hear prospective customers or tech brands saying, "Our multi-operational team bought this technology and they've asked us to use it." And I'm like, "You mean, you're being forced to use technology?" And they say, "Well, yeah. It's been given to us and they'd like us to use it for our ABM program."

Sometimes with these large organizations, there's a complete disconnect between different marketing departments, or within the marketing department, marketing operations, ABM team, or marketing team or demand gen team, et cetera. So the idea that you can't do ABM without technology is just not true.

I often tell people, "You should do ABM without technology and get it working first. And then you can worry about what tech you need to do later." 

Our slogan is-- strategy first, technology second. Always think about your strategy first, always think about your processes first, always think about your people first. 

The technology will answer those questions, strategy, process, people, but you don't start with technology. 

I think that's important for people to understand today, and my advice is that you need a pen and paper and to sit down and write a strategy--to think about what the business outcomes are that you are looking to achieve in the organization. Is ABM potentially the right solution for you to meet those business outcomes? And therefore, write down what you want to achieve.

You can do this without any technology simply by working with your head of sales, your VP of sales, asking him or her, “Which accounts are you looking to close this quarter, next quarter, etc.,” and then sitting down with your team of saying, "Look guys, we've got these five accounts that our head of sales is working on. What can we do to help them?" We could run an event. We could do a wine tasting. We could do a thought leadership program. 

Would this help our VP of sales to move the dial? Would this help our VP of sales to have a conversation with these potential customers? And you ask yourself those questions and just come up with a strategy to help in the short term, that will help you build that important relationship with sales.

It will also spread the word within the company of, "Hey, look what these guys are doing. Look what marketing and sales have just achieved together. They've just closed two huge deals by doing this very bespoke customized program. Let's do some more." 

Then the CEO will say, "Hey guys, I've just heard something. How much money do you need to do this bigger?" Then suddenly you're going to have a problem because people will come to you and give you money for you to amplify this more. 

So that's how I would say to people to look at technology. It's going to come later in the process.

Ken Lempit:
Yeah, there's a lot to unpack there--the ability to get closer to sales through alignment with their imperatives, their strategic imperatives, this is a really healthy process, as opposed to what you talked about earlier where we're sending over these manufactured MQLs and some of them are good and many of them are garbage, so that's sort of distancing the sales organization from marketing. So here's a really healthy process.

Also for marketers, I’ve got to believe most of us have figured it out, but the sales people have the budget. Sales has the budget, they're generating the revenue. We think it's our budget. But I think that for the most part, marketing is bigger than revenue generation, but there's a lot of budget available in sales for things that convert. So I think if we want to look for, how do we improve our fraternal relations, our position in the business, extend the career path of the CMO and do well for the business itself? That organic look at ABM I think is really important and really befriending the sales leader peer, really important.

Declan Mulkeen:

Ken Lempit:
We saw a decision tree that you created that was a lot of fun. So if you go on Declan's LinkedIn, he's got this decision tree chart on who's right for ABM. But I think it'd be fun just to walk people through that logic simply.

Declan Mulkeen:
Yeah, and just to make people laugh a little bit--On the left-hand side of the decision tree, I've asked “are you B2B or are you B2C?”

And then the question where if you say you're B2C, on the left-hand side, the question was, do you have a lot of money? 

If the answer is yes, then we say, “let's party because we can do everything!” 

And if the answer is no from a B2C point of view, I said, just do TikTok. 

That's just to make people laugh--but obviously going down the right-hand side with B2B, the question we always ask people say, hey guys, look, we'd like to do some ABM and we have some questions that we ask people to see whether they're the right fit for ABM. And I think the first question we look to see is, are you selling into mid-market and into enterprise?

That’s one of the one filters that we have because ABM is a good fit when you're selling out a high value or a complex solution product into enterprise or mid-market, so that's question number one. 

Question number two is, “do you have a long sale cycle?” Because if you have a long sale cycle, there's going to be lots of people involved in the process. We've all seen the numbers; 6 to 12 people are involved in any single buying purchase. 

Is there a large buying committee that you need to influence? Each person needs a different message. Each person needs to be influenced in a different way. 

Are you looking to move in your maturity? Like we mentioned earlier, you've been doing lead generation, you've been doing demand generation, you're now looking to step up and to add a new lens onto the market, a new way of adding additional revenue, a new way of accelerating a lot of your growth, and ABM is a very good fit for that.

Some of the outcomes from running an ABM program successfully are that you're closing deals quicker, you're accelerating pipeline, you're increasing the average order value of what you're selling. So there's a number of metrics that come off the back of doing ABM well. 

Conversely, when are you not a good fit for ABM? In our opinion, you're not a good fit for ABM if you're  a SaaS company that is still in the product market fit stage--you're still testing the market, you're still getting some feedback about your product and how it works. If that's the case, lead gen, content marketing brand, demand gen are much better for you.

If your contract value (how much you would bill a company in a year) is less than $50K, ABM isn't necessarily the best fit for you because you need resources. You need people internally and you need potentially an agency like our own or others. 

Obviously, you need to then be spending on various elements of that, whether it's the account experience, media budget, or some form of direct mail--a whole bunch of areas that you could invest in. 

Also, going back to my point around SaaS, if you're not targeting mid-market and enterprise and you're targeting smaller companies, then that ties back to the average contract value. So normally there is a relationship between selling to small companies and the value. If you're selling $5,000 a year or $10,000 a year or whatever, ABM is not necessarily the right fit.

And the very last point is one (which is an interesting one for us as marketers) is sometimes companies don’t really have a full marketing department –it’s more of a sales-led culture. And they might have somebody doing a little bit of SEO or a little bit of content marketing or a little bit of email marketing, but they haven't really got a market department. 

We always say to those clients or potential clients that you really need to have some resources in your marketing department, because you need to do a lot of work. And if you don't have those resources, you're going to struggle. So those are the two branches that we would say.

Ken Lempit:
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. You’re not going to run a wine tasting series for someone who can only spend $3,000 a year with you. I mean, it just doesn't pan out.

Declan Mulkeen:
No, you'd probably send them a case of wine in the post and that'd probably be sufficient. The point is that there are other strategies and tactics that lend themselves more to the value. Afterall, it's a value exchange, so what do you need to invest for what you're going to get as a return?

Ken Lempit:
Fair enough. I think a topic that I want to make sure we get to is, how do we get started? So a likely situation is, I'm relatively new to a business as a marketing leader and I've found your chart. And I say, Hey, Eureka, ABM might be a tactic here and I've done the assessment. We do know our product market fit but for whatever reason, we did not focus on strategic accounts and marketing and sales, have not yet aligned around this. What's a good way to get started? How do we start that process?

Declan Mulkeen:
There are two answers. One is a little bit what I mentioned earlier, which is you start by just getting to sit down with your VP of sales. You get them to give you five accounts. You work for three months on those five accounts and see if you can get results. That's beta testing. Find out what worked and what kind of relationship you have with the sales team. You find out what kind of pushbacks you're getting from customers or from prospective customers and document it.

Part number two is if you've gone through that process now and you need to build out a wider ABM strategy for your organization—obviously you'll need investment and a team for that. Then you need to start thinking about, how to document the process? So how do you build the foundations? So you need to build an operating model, because obviously with ABM, there's an awful lot of foundational work. You've got to know your ideal customer profile, you've got to be very clear on that. Your ICP, the whole organization, particularly sales, customer success, and your C-suites have to be aligned that these are the types of customers you want, and very often that alignment is not always there.

So, what kind of customer do we want and why? 

Then you can go ahead and choose the accounts that you want to go after and that will be informed by your ICP. So you are matching your ICP. So you're not going after customers that don't meet your ICP. And then B, you are using the data that you're able to pull upon, which is obviously your first party data. What's happening in your website? What's happening in your database? What are you finding is the interaction you're already having with these accounts that you can see? Third party data, obviously we talk a lot about intent data and intent data platforms of which there are many, you can feed all that into your data assessment that will then allow you to select accounts. From there, you prioritize the accounts and then you work out, well, okay, well, what's the best way to approach this? We've got these types of accounts in these geographies, in these industries.

Rule number one is, if you are going to do ABM, you need to make sure that you bunch them together in the right way. So, if you're going to do ABM and you've got two pharmaceutical, three financial services, four chemical, five financial services, this is the road to ruin and to madness. 

You need to bunch them together in a way that makes sense because you need to get economies of scale. You need to be able to say, "Okay, we're going to do a campaign into these 10 financial services companies. And we've done our homework. We've done some insights. We've done some research. We understand the value proposition that we want to give to the market is this. This is the messaging. This is what we know the pain is. This is the challenge that they're having with some changes in financial authorities, or this is coming over the horizon, or whatever's happening."

But if you break it down and you try to go after too many pieces of the market, you're going to not succeed. So make sure you are very clear, make sure you group them into what we call clusters of accounts. Start small, always start small. Don't go crazy.

I remember I was interviewing the head of ABM at Fujitsu, Andrea Clatworthy, and she said that one of her mistakes that she made at the beginning (and she's one of the ABM gurus), was to go after 56 accounts. And she said that was just too many. 56 is just way too many. 

So that they went through an iteration, and they cut it down and it was far more successful. So start small, pilots, a cluster that have some similarity, either the same sector or they have the same problem. Because they could in theory be across different sectors but they have the same problem. 

And once you've got that, then you need to make sure that you've built that rapport, you've built that relationship, you've got your sales team on board, because ABM is not ABM without sales and I think that's an important thing for people to realize-- if sales are not involved in ABM, it is not ABM. Okay?

And then the very last thing is, people are going to be asking you questions. People are going to be saying, "What the hell are you doing? When is it going to pay back? What does it look like? What's our ROI?" All these painful questions that us marketers get asked and we sometimes squirm and we don't know the answers. Well, you need to know the answers. So you need to build, before you start, you're reporting methodology.

How are you going to report on your ABM program? What are the numbers looking like? What are the quantitative numbers? And the qualitative, because ABM is a lot about qualitative data. So how many relationships you're building, what's your brand impression looking like? Et cetera. So you need to make sure you have all those lined up.

So those three things really. Build the foundation, build your operating model, document it, make sure you're choosing the right accounts, get the data and the insights on those accounts. So you make sure when you start building your campaigns and your content, it's all aligned to what the data's telling you. And then make sure you then build a relationship with sales. And then thirdly, make sure that you have the reporting methodology in place to make sure you answer those questions.

Ken Lempit:
So starting at the end there, the reporting and KPIs, there's an education process that you might have to take people through, because your predecessor in this scenario where you're the new CMO, may have been focused on MQLs and SQLs and the lead gen pipeline KPIs. And we're going to be talking about different thing. We're going to be talking about the number of engaged contacts, the utilization of content, the attendance at events, ultimately improving the ACV right of the deals and long term value, lifetime value, of these clients. So there's going to be a reset required, in some sense, on the KPIs that matter for this kind of campaign. And I think also the engagement with sales and the resource in marketing, we're going to need them to help us. We're going to need sales to help us or we're not going to be successful. I think all those things are really interesting and if you haven't done it before, it could seem like a lot to try and take on.

Declan Mulkeen:
It's a different mindset. And I think there's a reporter methodology that we use that was developed by an organization called ITSMA which is an overarching organization that created a lot of the ABM methodology 20 years ago. But it's called the three Rs, so it's reputation, relationships and revenue. So therefore if you're building the reputation inside an account, if you're creating the relationships inside the account, those two Rs are the leading indicators of the third R, which is revenue. So with reputation, you're building your credibility, you're opening new markets, as you said, you're creating new contacts in that account, you're identifying the key stakeholders, you're engaging with them, they're attending your events. They're becoming internal advocates of you, which is really important. So you've actually got sponsors inside the company who are saying, "Hey, you know what? You need to talk to Ken because he knows everything you need to know about this subject."

You're deepening those relationships, you're building referrals, et cetera. So those two Rs, reputation and relationships, will then drive the revenue, which you'll first start seeing in pipeline and then it will come through in size of deals won, how quickly you're winning those deals, which I mentioned earlier in terms of deal velocity, average contract value, et cetera. So I think those are really important for the audience to realize is that you need to change your reporting mindset.

Ken Lempit:
Hey, you mentioned that you have both a podcast and a Lunch & Learn series. Is the Lunch & Learn a public thing?

Declan Mulkeen:
Well, we've been doing it for about two years, 18 months now, as either one-on-one with another CMO or with their team. And we've delivered about 120, 130 of them really, and they're absolutely fascinating. I try to attend as many as I can to give my marketing expertise and to share with them what I know. 

Ken Lempit:
So is that an ABM tactic for your firm?

Declan Mulkeen:
It's weird actually--Indirectly, it is. The reason why we started it was because it was just early days of the pandemic, and we were literally wanting to talk to the market. And obviously we were all digital, we were all sitting at home or whatever, and we wanted to talk to the market and we wanted to help the market understand how they could overcome some of these digital challenges, how they could overcome some of these digital marketing challenges. So we launched it, we did a soft launch, I think it was in the summer of 2020, and then we launched it in the fall of 2020 properly.

And from there, it's interesting, because basically the only filter that we say to people is, you must be a B2B tech brand to attend the Lunch & Learn. We can't share proper expertise. We're trying to share as much expertise as we can and we can't talk to people outside of that area because it's not our domain. So if you're within the B2B tech space then we would run a Lunch & Learn with you. 

And what we're finding is it all depends on their level of maturity. So a lot of companies are very early on in their ABM journey, and they're looking to learn. So we delivered a lot of these Lunch & Learns and no sale comes from it. That doesn't mean a sale won't come in a year's time or 18 months’ time, it may well do because their level of maturity will increase, but we're doing it primarily from an education point of view, but we've won several accounts through this ABM strategy, if you want to call it that.

But it's been an interesting thing because I think what they've said to us, it reminds me of something of my old days in marketing, and they've said, "Well, look, the experience that you took us through over a course of several months is exactly the experience that we want to take our prospective customers through." 

We’ve shown them a road and a way of them talking to their customers, or potential customers, in a very different way. So almost like not do the whole book a demo and this kind of stuff which is really late in the funnel, you have to have a lot of intent to click, book a demo. We're actually bringing the conversation a lot earlier in the cycle and that's what our customers who are selling B2B tech solutions need to do. So, in a funny kind of way, we're showing them what they can do.

Ken Lempit:
That’s interesting. So for other service providers out there, maybe this is a great way to build rapport and reputation within target accounts? I think that's a great idea.

Declan Mulkeen:
Ken, before you say that, I should go and trademark this just before, just to make sure that nobody steals these ideas.

Ken Lempit:
We'll give you due credit, don't you worry. And if people want to check out your podcast, what's the name of the podcast again and where is it?

Declan Mulkeen:
The podcast is called Let's Talk ABM. So you can find it on Apple, Spotify, et cetera. And I do a lot of work on LinkedIn as well so you'll always find me talking about account based marketing on LinkedIn. So those two places really.

Awesome. And the website for your company again, is?

Declan Mulkeen:

Ken Lempit:
Well, that says it all. Hey Declan, thank you so much for being our guest on SaaS Backwards. I think there's a lot of value in the content and I'd welcome any feedback from listeners, so thanks so much.

Declan Mulkeen:
Thank you, Ken. Thanks for having me. It's been great to share some of our ABM journey with you.

Thanks for listening to the SaaS Backwards podcast brought to you by Austin Lawrence Group. We are a growth marketing agency that helps SaaS firms reduce churn, accelerate sales, and generate demand. Learn more about us at You can email Ken Lempit at about any SaaS marketing or customer retention subject. We hope you'll subscribe, and thanks again for listening.

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