Tough at the top: The impact of Covid-19 on executive communications

Companies want to speak directly to the senior leadership of potential clients, but so do most of their competitors. How does that play out in a pandemic? Rob Leavitt, Senior Vice President, Consulting, at ITSMA, talks to us about the impact of Covid-19 on executive communications.

Why are we seeing more companies trying to reach the C-suite with their content?

Rob: B2B companies have for many years tried to reach the C-suite where the bigger strategic purchase decisions are made. But there have been two big waves of change in recent times that have inspired an even greater push.

The first is that so many companies in every sector are more aggressively transforming their businesses, typically with a technology-based strategy. If you are a technology or services provider, you are dealing with huge new kinds of opportunities, but those opportunities have much higher stakes. Decisions tend to be made at a higher level: C-suite – even board level. Companies that have traditionally been comfortable just selling to IT or to procurement are all of a sudden under pressure: “Either you become a more strategic partner to help my business transform or we are pushing you out.” The middle ground, where a lot of providers have sat, is being eroded.

At the same time, the move to a more digital economy has shaken up the C-suite. There are new roles emerging, such as chief digital officer, chief innovation officer, and chief experience officer. So you are trying to move up the organisation, but you have to move across in some new and different ways as well. This, too, has driven a lot of investment in executive-level marketing and relationship programs.

The pandemic has accelerated both of these trends. The cliche is that we’ve seen five years of digital transformation over the past nine months. Things that companies were working on gradually, at lower levels, or just beginning to invest in, are now front and centre for the C-suite: remote workforce, digital collaboration, rethinking markets and offerings, rethinking partner ecosystems. Solution providers that can’t have these urgent strategic conversations with C-suite decision makers are in great danger of missing out entirely.

So many content producers generalise about the C-Suite. Why do you think that is?

Rob: The short answer is that it’s easy! When you’re rushing to publish new content that responds to the new environment, it’s hard to take the time to go beyond basic personas. But the reality is that the individual business situations we’re trying to address are so different even if the sector trends appear the same. For example, two large commercial banks may look alike. But Bank A outsources most of its IT and data management and Bank B has it all in house. So even though they are both multibillion-dollar global commercial banks, if you are trying to help them on a data issue the dynamics are completely different. Their CIOs or CISOs are looking for different kinds of help from different kinds of partners and providers. You need to really get in and understand that at a more granular level.

What does this mean for executive communications?

Rob: In some cases, it has become easier to reach the C-Suite, especially if you have at least some existing relationships. A number of companies I work with have an executive advisory council. Typically these are groups of C-suite executives from your big clients who maybe get together a couple of times a year. And those are high-touch events – they are a big deal.

What we are seeing now is that these groups want to get together much more frequently. They want to hear about new approaches to the problems that are emerging; they want to check in with their peers; they want to brainstorm together on new solutions. So if you are in a position to host and facilitate these kinds of meetings, all of sudden some are now monthly, instead of maybe twice a year. That convening role has become even more important, and in some cases easier.

But it has also become harder because everyone is so incredibly busy and the executives we’re trying to reach are inundated with similar opportunities. And with almost everything being virtual, it’s much easier to tune out unproductive conversations, drop off the Zoom, and skip the next one at the last minute even if you accepted the invitation. So it cuts both ways.

Has Covid-19 changed the make-up of audiences?

Rob: Along with the acceleration of change and shift in priorities, we’ve also seen leaders take on new responsibilities and interests. CMOs, for example, are looking for new ideas, new approaches and new agencies. They are looking at how to sustain the creativity and energy of their teams. So they are now looking for thought leadership on remote work and team collaboration, and agile, and those kinds of issues that hadn’t been a priority before. Solution providers in those spaces may have never targeted CMOs before, and all of a sudden they have an opportunity to reach out and connect with them.

And what do these changes mean for thought leadership?

Rob: For now, the longer-term visionary thought leadership is less important. Executives are so focused on the current transition and getting through these waves of economic disruption that the things they can do now, or three months from now or six months from now, have become much more important. They are still looking for innovation, but it is near term. I would expect this to be the case for the next 12 to 18 months.

Producing compelling and effective thought leadership has always been hard. If you’re going to do more than simply promote your solutions with a quick reference toward some obvious business question, you really do need to step back, take a deep look at the market, conduct serious research, think about patterns and trends, uncover new ideas and approaches, and package them in ways that speak to the C-suite about real business innovation. All of this is much harder today given the incredible changes and challenges our clients are facing and will continue to face.

But the good news is that the executives we are trying to reach are still keen for new ideas and content, and that won’t change. They will consume enormous amounts of new thinking and new approaches in any format and on any channel. If it is not immediately relevant, they will tune out. But if it does speak to their needs, they will absolutely give it a chance. It is a fallacy that executives don’t have patience for long research reports, long articles and long videos; they do. It just needs to be high quality, relevant and compelling for them personally – particularly as their issues, roles and challenges change.



Rob Leavitt

Rob Leavitt is SVP of Consulting at ITSMA, a research and advisory firm that specialises in B2B marketing strategy and development for global firms selling complex services and solutions. Rob works with a wide range of ITSMA corporate members and clients to improve performance with thought leadership, executive engagement, and Account-Based Marketing. He also hosts ITSMA’s C-Suite Marketing podcast.


Sean Kearns

Sean Kearns

Sean is editorial lead for the Thought Leadership Network and editor-in-chief of Longitude. At the TLN, Sean oversees our editorial agenda, ensuring our programme aligns with the challenges and ambitions of global thought leadership practitioners. He works with Longitude specialists to create editorial and research that offers original, practical insight.

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