Manufacturing Better Marketing, Sales, and C-Suite Alignment

Episode 51

September 17, 2019

Irina Kem, Director of Marketing at PACKPRO Systems, is on a mission to smash the glass wall between marketing and sales. With over 15 years’ experience in B2B marketing, her advice to younger marketers is to get out of their offices and into important conversations happening between the sales department and the C-suite. Without a better fundamental understanding of their own business’s processes and pain points, Irina says marketers are setting themselves up for failure—but the path to B2B marketing success becomes clear in this episode of The Kula Ring.

Manufacturing Better Marketing, Sales, and C-Suite Alignment Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how are you, sir?

Carman Pirie: You know, I wonder if our listeners ever wonder if somebody else is going to be joining you. Like it would be like a big-

Jeff White: Yeah, a big reveal. Ha-ha, Carman is no longer here.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, yeah. It’s like there’s been a trap door in the floor or whatever-

Jeff White: Yes, a little Austin Powers moment.

Carman Pirie: Yeah.

Jeff White: Doctor Evil.

Carman Pirie: Yeah.

Jeff White: But I mean they do the same thing every morning when my alarm goes off at 5:30 you know, the radio announcers say the same hello and goodbye. So I think it’s okay.

Carman Pirie: All right. All right. We’ll have to live with it. Good to be chatting today though. And I’m, you know, I think today’s show is really going to, well, I hope it does. Anyway, we’ll see how it goes.

But I think we’re going to help kind of unpack a bit of a challenge that marketers have in how they report on the success of their work to the C-suite. Essentially that disconnect between how marketers might define success and how business owners sometimes define it. And I think some of the kind of the blind spots or the traps you can get yourself into as a result. So I’m really hopeful that today’s guest is going to give our listeners some practical advice around how to maybe navigate these treacherous waters as it were. And so, let’s get started.

Jeff White: And not fall through some kind of trap door.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, it fell flat when we were talking about trap doors and navigating waters since that would be very hard for those things to be in the same place.

Jeff White: Wouldn’t it just, wouldn’t it just. Well joining us today is Irina Kem. Irina is the director of marketing at PACKPRO Systems and also is one of our few guests who are joining us from Canada. So welcome to The Kula Ring, Irina.

Irina Kem: Thank you. It’s exciting to be here.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, I wonder if we can apply to the Canadian broadcasting corporation for some subsidy or something because of the Canadian content-

Jeff White: The Canadian content.

Carman Pirie: That we’re putting out into the global airwaves.

Jeff White: Yes, we’re finally on CanCon.

Irina Kem: I think you should, I think you should. Coming from a proud Canadian, anything we can do to help our businesses thrive we should.

Carman Pirie: Indeed, but I want to assure our listeners elsewhere in the world that while the Canadian, the source of this may be Canadian, we hope the content will be useful to you as well.

Jeff White: Exactly. 

Carman Pirie: Delivered with maybe a bit more of a frozen tinge than we’re used to. 

Jeff White: It is August.

Carman Pirie: It is August, that helps. Well, I wonder if we could just get started, maybe just introduce our guest to you and, and the firm and your role and a bit of background if you were just to ground this conversation in a bit of context.

Irina Kem: Sure. I’d be happy to. And I’m really excited to be here. And the reason for that is that I’ve had phenomenal mentors and people I learned from in my career and so for me it’s an opportunity to give back after 15 years and certainly not stopping in B2B marketing and in a very interesting combination, I find, of organizations that I have been with, ranging from distribution, to packaging, to manufacturing in different roles and they have been marketing. 

Right now I’m director of marketing with PACKPRO and it’s a Canadian company that provides full system packaging solutions, including equipment, materials, and services to a wide range of clients. Prior to that I was with Swish, and the Swish group of companies is another Canadian success story. We’ll definitely have this Canadian flavor to this podcast today, but to your point, marketing is such a transferable topic that it, I’m sure some things can be applied across the borders.

So when Swish, during my time at Swish, I led marketing efforts and more interestingly, transformation of marketing activities and marketing strategy from rather straight and traditional and print based, et cetera, et cetera, to more digital focused and really zooming in on lead generation initiatives whereby, close to the end of my time there were able to improve that tenfold. Which is really exciting. And it also gave me an opportunity to work directly with the manufacturing arm of the company. This is the manufacturer of cleaning chemicals right here in Peterborough, Ontario. So it gives you a suddenly different perspective on what manufacturers are dealing with, and what business as a whole deals with, and how marketing fits into that mosaic of business decisions and business priorities.

Carman Pirie: And in your work there, I mean it was fair to say that you found that basically that traditional set of marketing metrics that should in some way, the way that marketers defined success for themselves seemed to be somewhat at odds with the business owners. Does that, would that be fair to say?

Irina Kem: I think business, well especially with Swish and it’s actually true for PACKPRO as well. For me, what was exciting in both cases, the business owners truly believed in the importance and power of marketing. And what I also find with manufacturing and distribution companies, that these are more of a mature business models and mature businesses. You very often talk to companies that are 50 years in business, 60 years in business, 30 years in business. So they’ve dedicated certain resources and focus to marketing, but then they come to the realization that, okay, we really need to do something differently. 

And where I see manufacturers and distributors succeed in their marketing efforts is when they start shifting from talking about what they do and rather helping their customers understand why this will be good for their customers’ business. Still, there is a lot of opportunity out there, I believe, with the manufacturing businesses and distribution businesses, where they’re so passionate about their products, which is rightfully so because that’s how their business usually starts with this great idea of how they can help make this world a better place or help businesses do their work easier.

And so there is a lot of effort and time dedicated to the production and product development and figuring out logistics, so that when the time for marketing comes, all of a sudden the time shrinks. And marketers sometimes are put into these very tough timelines of either launch of a new product or creating a new program. But where I see those companies succeed is where marketing is brought into that process and participates act actively in that, whether it’s product development or some other business aspects at a much earlier stage, so that marketers are aware of what’s going on and they can prep better for when the launch time comes in. And in a way, I find that marketers should not let themselves be locked into that corner room and find a way to be that active contributor, find a way to be part of those conversations earlier so that they’re better equipped, they have deeper understanding of what the business needs or business objectives are so that they can support business better.

Carman Pirie: So have you, I guess in in your career, do you feel that you’ve maybe just gotten lucky and, and have been fortunate enough to work with organizations that saw the benefit of your contribution at that level and invited you in? Or did you have to kind of elbow your way in to some of those C-suite conversations?

Irina Kem: That’s, I love that question because I think it’s a little bit of both. It’s a bit of picking the organizations where you feel like you can make a difference and there will be recognition of your efforts, but also continuously proving the value of marketing and bringing up those topics and explaining and reiterating why it’s important and how we can be better off as a business if marketing plays a more active role at an earlier stage. So I call myself fortunate because I’m certainly fortunate to have worked with organizations that do see the value in marketing.

Carman Pirie: Well, and of course a part of it is kind of, I think what you’re telling us here is that the extent to which you can frame marketing successes through the lens of business successes, which aren’t always necessarily the same thing, but the extent that you can frame them through the lens of what it actually means for the business, that will gain you more credibility, get you more visibility and invitation into those C-suite conversations. Which helps you understand what the business is trying to do and the “why” behind what you’re doing even more, and therefore allows you to restate your marketing performance even more aggressively and appropriately through the lens of of the business context and the business value that it delivers. Would that be accurate, or am I putting too many words in your mouth there?

Irina Kem: I feel like you are taking some from my mouth but that’s why, well that only proves that we have been probably treading the same waters to a degree, where it’s proving your value I think is true to any type of role. But I find with marketing especially because there is this time gap right between the expected sales results and how long marketing initiatives take and a really deep understanding of what, actually, marketing does. Because even right now with PACKPRO we have those regular conversations with the owners, and one of the things I keep bringing up that sometimes I feel like I’m an island and I’m making a conscious effort to make sure I communicate what I’m doing. Because we as marketers so often sit in our offices in front of these screens as compared to sales who are out there and may be more involved in group activities, if you will, or communication, et cetera, et cetera.

So you just have to, I have to remind myself very often that, okay, it’s time to now explain what that means for the business. And I really love what you had said before around aligning marketing KPIs and business KPIs. Because I have the fortune of speaking with some younger marketers who are just entering the workforce, and they’re passionate about what they need to do and, you know, they want to generate more views on the YouTube channel and they want to bring more people on the website and sometimes what takes them aback is a simple question. “Okay and how is this going to help the business?” And they stop for a moment and then they can reengineer it and say, “Yeah, okay let me translate it into value for the business.” More people coming to the website. More people know, that means more people know our name. More people fill out the forms, that means more people are ready to engage with us. More people view our videos, we have more information about what they like, what they don’t. We can adjust what we invest our money in.

Jeff White: I think that’s really interesting and especially because it points to the fallacy of vanity metrics and we chatted with you-

Irina Kem: Very true.

Jeff White: -about this before earlier and I think we can all kind of fall down that rabbit hole of likes or retweets or page views or clicks or whatever impressions potentially worst of all. And even marketers fall down that hole and even sometimes the C-suite looks at those numbers and says, “Wow, you know, we’ve gotten so much more traffic, that’s great,” but we need to be able to create those methods of translating how those vanity metrics impact the real business KPIs. And I think what I’d like to know a little bit is what sorts of activities have you seen that have driven results for actual business KPIs at PACKPRO? What have you been seeing success with?

Irina Kem: You know what I, one of the, I call it an easy reminder, but it’s sometimes tough to really comply with, is have that question, “So what?” In front of your eyes all the time. And it’s better if you as a marketer ask yourself that question before your business leader or your owner asks you that. So, okay, we improve the number of visits to the website. So what? What does it mean? How do we compare to the industry benchmarks? How do we compare to our previous performance, whether it’s last year or last period? And what exactly does this mean? What has driven that change? And if it’s a positive change, can we replicate it? So we’ve just spoke about are there those five magic metrics that you should be looking at? And I don’t believe they are. To me, the ultimate result of any marketing initiative should be the sale. But to your point, you’re aware that sale may be really distant in time, depending on the sales cycle.

It can be six months, 12 months, 24 months. So we have to break down our path and how we get there. And over that period of time, communicate to our sales leaders as to what those metrics are. Well first, staying disciplined and making sure we set up our metrics for marketing and then staying disciplined in reaching out proactively and keeping them informed as to how these marketing results, whether it’s number of pages on the website, because some things are really hard to monetize if you will, or attribute a KPI to. So when I joined PACKPRO, it’s a phenomenal story of a company that had been in business for 20 years and they’ve been so focused on making sure the customers are happy and serviced exceptionally well so that they pretty much didn’t require marketing for a long time.

There was enough of customer references, supplier references, and referrals so that they can grow the business. The owners were forward thinking enough to invest in the website and then they got to the point where they realized, well, marketing can help us make a bigger step ahead. But marketing takes time. So when I came on board, one of my favorite topics is the website. And because that’s pretty much the only asset you own these days. Whether you’re writing your campaign on LinkedIn or on Facebook or on Google, you’re using somebody else’s platform where your website is the asset where the true conversion happens, however you decide to describe it, whether it’s a true sale or whether it’s field form or what not. But that’s where you get to know your visitors. That’s where you can help them understand who you are, what you’re doing, how you can help them.

So going back to metrics, we clearly needed to just build out the number of pages because with distribution, the challenge is you deal with so many lines, so many products, so many suppliers. And on the other side you’d talk to when you sell to very diverse businesses. Like we deal with companies that are in food manufacturing business and at the same time we service customers that are omni-channel retailers. So they have ecomm fulfillment facilities and they sell through stores. Then we have medical supply companies. So the products work for all of them, but the problems that we solve for them are different. So to help them find the relevant information on the website, we have to build out the website and the work still continues, it’s not by any means finished. But that to me, if I were to calculate the number of pages we created, that wouldn’t be a fancy metric. But it’s important for the foundation of our future success.

Jeff White: The Kula Ring is proud to be a media sponsor of the 2019 ManufacturED Summit Conference, which is being held September 16th to 18th in Chicago, Illinois. Carman and I will be live onsite recording interviews for future episodes of The Kula Ring. You can save $200 now with the discount code Kulapartners200 at That’s

Carman Pirie: I think there’s, it’s interesting because part of what we’re talking about here is to make sure that you focus on reporting or keeping score card with the right thing so you’re focused on the right metric. And then there’s framing it in a business context and it’s kind of a two step process in some way. If you’re a very focused B2B manufacturer that maybe three to five new accounts in the next year is a huge win for you. You maybe only have 30 accounts total. Well the chances are all of your success can be defined through the lens of your target account work and what you’re doing from an account based marketing perspective through the lens of not how many organic search visitors have we received, but frankly, how many new target account prospects has our digital presence engaged in the last quarter or what have you.

So that would be just a reframe or choosing the right thing. And then of course, explaining that to the powers that be as to why that’s important, is about how you frame it. And framing it in a business context versus just a pure marketing one. And I do like the notion that you mentioned earlier around the fact that we have a very long sales cycle in many cases and it’s about analyzing that sales cycle and coming up with a strong understanding of what are the leading indicators that will help us understand that we’re moving to that next step in the buying process. I think that’s really a valuable insight and information for our listeners and just a way of thinking about how they frame up their marketing KPIs.

Jeff White: Yeah. Irina you can’t see, but we’ve been nodding along here in the office as you’ve been speaking, so-

Irina Kem: That’s, I’ll take it as a compliment because-

Jeff White: Please do.

Irina Kem: I think there are two key things that you’ve just mentioned, like you brought many great points, but that whole notion of understanding your business, it may sound basic, but I know sometimes marketers find themselves in a situation that they either don’t get that information readily presented to them unless they ask, and even then sometimes it’s a challenge, but they absolutely need that. They absolutely need to understand how the business functions, what the pain points of your own business are, how many customers do you get on an annual basis to set those metrics right? Because you’re absolutely right. We may be looking at the number of followers on LinkedIn. Well guess what, maybe 80% of our target audience is not on LinkedIn for one or the other reasons. So it’s really, to me, key to find a way again to understand what the business needs are, understand what the objectives are and also understand the customer.

Going back to my comment about us being usually in front of the screens, usually in the office, maybe talking to our sales team, which is the right thing to do. To me even that is not enough. We need to find as marketers, find a way to talk directly to the customers, whether it’s through the sales team and making friends within your sales team and getting on those sales calls or finding your way if you’re generating leads through the website. Be that first point of contact, pick up the phone and call the customer and figure out why and how they found you and what they’re looking for so that you have a real life sense of what those real life customers are looking for. And that will be helpful in truly understanding what your key performance indicators are.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, and I, and having that more in depth and personal understanding of that customer context will also help you, I think, present your ideas and your results more confidently and be able to frame them more confidently. And the “why” that they’re important for the business when you’re not doing it academically but it’s because of your own personal experience. I think there’s some great advice.

Jeff White: For sure. And I think too, I mean you spoke about the importance of talking to the customer but also involving sales, but not just relying on that. But I think there is an element of getting a commitment between the marketing department and the sales department to provide that two-way information about what’s working, what isn’t working, what are the customers saying, and getting some bi-directional communication going on there is going to only serve to create better KPIs in the long run.

Irina Kem: I agree. I personally have, I feel like I have been always on a mission of breaking that glass wall between marketing and sales. It’s an age long conflict sometimes or age long contention that marketing is bringing all these wonderful leads but sales are not closing them or from sales standpoint, well marketing, sends me the lead of someone who just opened the email and get excited then expects me to close that lead with a sale. So depending on which side you’re on the stories are true. So it’s really important to find the way to gain that understanding and build the trust with your sales team that you’re there to help them. And it reminds me of early days of email marketing and when I was working in one of the first email marketing automation tools and building the database and speaking to my sales team and you see this cold look in their eyes and in the context of what, are you going to take my contacts now and eliminate me?

And my message has always been that especially in B2B, it’s usually a very relationship-based business and relationship-based sale. So there is no way to completely eliminate sales and that’s not the point. What marketing can do though, when your prospect is not ready, you’d rather be working with a prospect that is ready. You’d rather be working with a prospect that’s willing to listen to your story, that’s willing to, you know, show them the equipment or the material and help them understand how you can help them and eventually close that sale. But for this greater number of prospects that are lukewarm, that might have some interest, but it’s not worth the sales rep’s time. That’s where marketing comes in. That’s where marketing, email marketing programs come in or advertising programs come in. So that we warm up and nurture these leads to the point when it makes sense to sales to jump in and just close.

And we’ve just had that recent conversation with one of my sales professionals at PACKPRO. I was so pumped in the beginning of June when we got our first website lead, I know we’re starting small, but it makes them so much more valuable, those successes. And so that lead turned into an $11,000 sale over a period of six weeks. As compared to a normal four to six months interaction before the sale goes through. And it was actually the sales representative who spoke to me and said, “I’m amazed what happens when the customer is ready to talk to you, that you don’t have any walls reaching out. You have great communication with them and you pretty much go there, understand their pain point, and close the sale.” And that’s where the true value of marketing is. But it’s truly based on excellent relationship with a sales team, because if this is not happening or X number of leads that marketing provided were not able to close, or they’re still not warm enough, that the customers are not, the prospects are not engaged enough, then that’s feedback that needs to go to the marketing so that marketing can adjust the campaigns or maybe rejig the content that they have laid out, the stories that they’ve prepared with the materials that they’ve prepared for each stage in the buyer’s journey and make the required adjustments.

And in summary, it really needs to be a two-way street. And building that relationship with your sales team at all levels, at the level of sales reps, at the level of sales managers, at the level of sales leaders, is critical for marketers and doing that proactively is really important.

Carman Pirie: I think, look, you’ve laid out a very, I think a very solid approach there to thinking about that and thinking through the challenge that many marketers find themselves in and trying to seek marketing-sales alignment and really get that virtuous cycle of information flowing between the two organizations. I wonder, one of the things, I mean it’s always nice when you can do what you did and shorten the sales cycle from 18 months to six weeks. That makes it easier for marketers to show their worth of course. But I think one of the things that we wanted to chat about a little bit, we’ve talked in the lead up to this show recording today, that I think your approach can help kind of at least give people some tools to at least maybe deal with this challenge is that I think a lot of marketers find themselves, especially in the early days of digital transformation, being given just enough rope to hang themselves, if you will.

They’re given a, a minor budget and they’re told that they can have three months or six months to try something. And then if it works, of course the promises that the budget floodgates will then break open and the transformation can continue apace, which of course almost never happens because the sales cycle is 18 to 24 months long and the experiment cycle is three months long and the experiment’s being measured through the lens of whether or not it generated sales. So there’s a fundamental disconnect.

Jeff White: It’s almost like you need to have the early vanity metrics that prove progress.

Carman Pirie: Well, I think it’s asked the important thing that I’m trying to get across maybe to listeners is I think if they can think about it through the lens of what are those leading indicators, rather than allowing yourself to be bullied into the fact that you need to have that sale close within that experiment window.

Because even though you have closed loop analytics, that’s fine, but it’s just not gonna happen. There’s not enough time.

Jeff White: Not in a B2B context. No.

Carman Pirie: Exactly. And in some ways I think marketers would do well to be more aggressive at the front end of those experiments in terms of how they frame success for the organization, for the business so that they can really get everybody on the same page. Has that been part of your success as well? Is really making sure that you kind of let the organization know in advance what success looks like?

Irina Kem: Not always. Well you learn, right? And I remember myself sitting and trying to figure out, “Okay, what am I going to do now,” in earlier days of my career in terms of, “Okay, I clearly realize that this is the money that I, or the budget that I have available. And the goals are probably four, five times the budget or 10 times the budget and most importantly time that is given.” So I think the key is, make sure you do your homework. Okay. Think, I’m the person that would say the glass is half full. So if there is an opportunity that I like and if there is some money put towards that opportunity and you know you can make a difference, I’d say you probably can work with what you’re given. However you need to be clear about what you can do.

Like if you are told, “Here’s your budget, go do something,” and you go do something, well that’s one approach. But if before you start doing something, you come back with the feedback to your leader or to who is giving you that direction to launch a campaign or do something within a certain period of time. If you’ve done your homework, you would know that in our particular business, I know that the sales cycle takes from say six to 12 months. I’m given three months to run a marketing campaign based on whatever the situation is. If it’s a product, new product launch, or maybe it’s a seasonal campaign, pick something that you believe can have a good result. It might not be the result that’s expected. Because to your point, if somebody expects a sale that normally takes 18 months to be closed in three, well as a realistic marketer you know that’s unlikely to happen.

But think through what you can do. And I’d say go back with that and get either yea or nay. They know we all have jobs and we want to keep the jobs, but I think it’s critical to have that conversation upfront, to your earlier point, whether it’s aggressive, proactive, however you want to formulate that. But you have to give a clear, to demonstrate you understand your business, because what it’s going to do for you. If you go back and say, “Hey, I get it that you’re giving me this time, this money, and this is what you expect. Is that what we’ve discussed?” “Yes.” “But understanding our business, having looked at the industry benchmarks and from my previous experience, here’s what I suggest we do in these three months. And if this, this program proves successful then we expand it for a longer period of time.” Just I think that slight pause from getting excited that you’ve got something and analyzing what realistically you can do and getting a buy-in from your business leader or a sales leader is critical.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, I think it’s essential. It just, it’s a lot easier to have, as tough as that conversation or daunting as it might seem, especially for a younger marketer potentially or a less experienced marketer. I think that it’s easier to have it earlier than after.

Jeff White: Man, you’re just setting yourself up for failure if you don’t have it.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, exactly, and you know what, I’ve seen that so many times, frankly.

Jeff White: It’s true.

Carman Pirie: Yeah. That’s some fantastic advice. Well, Irina, I really want to thank you for sharing your insight with us today. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with our listeners. I think you’ve given us a lot to think about and hopefully folks as you’re defining your marketing success, this episode has done a bit to help you frame that through a business lens and give you some tools to succeed. Thanks again Irina, appreciate it.

Irina Kem: Thank you both and thank you for the opportunity. I think what you’re doing is so critical because as a B2B marketer I have always felt like in most marketing gatherings you will be an oddball. It will be, I remember going to one of the first social media conferences here in Toronto where there was, everything is focused on B2C. So this expertise in B2B marketing is really, in a way, it’s a niche product and at the same time I think there is still such a great demand for knowledge and expertise. So I really appreciate the work that Kula is doing in bringing that forward and making B2B marketing more exciting for new marketers and giving them direction and hope and guidance as to what they can be in that profession.

Carman Pirie: I really appreciate that. And look, I’m a little selfish here. I think B2B is where the fun is. I think the-

Irina Kem: I love it!

Carman Pirie: Yeah-

Irina Kem: I love it.

Carman Pirie: Exactly. So I think we’re just on a mission to help other people see that too, because I think we can have a, for marketers who really want to make an impact, the dent that you can make in the universe, I think is bigger on the B2B side. But I really thank you for that.

Jeff White: That’s a wonderful compliment.

Carman Pirie: Yeah, indeed. All the best to you.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s K-U-L-A

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Irina Kem

Director of Marketing, PACKPRO Systems

Irina Kem has a strong background in B2B marketing, particularly in the packaging industry. At Unisource Canada, she led the creation of a marketing strategy for the newly-formed Packaging Business Unit, helping to shift their branding from product-based to solutions-focused. Irina also led digital transformation at Swish Maintenance Ltd, a leading distributor of cleaning products in Ontario. For the past year, she has been putting her serious B2B marketing chops to work at PACKPRO Systems, where she is the Director of Marketing. Irina also volunteers at Habitat for Humanity and Tiago Avenue Community Child Care.

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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