The Future of Business Development – the context

Author - Freya Thompson

Date published:

The Chamber’s Freya Thompson outlines the impact the Covid pandemic had on business development, and introduces the Chamber’s latest report, which can be read in full here.

The Covid-19 pandemic was particularly tough for business development. 

For many businesses, their business development, sales, and marketing roles were the first to be put through furlough or redundancy and, as a result, many businesses have had to change the way they work.  

A January 2021 survey by Accenture that covered 4051 executives in 13 countries and 19 industries showed that Covid-19 significantly slowed down companies’ growth prospects.1 

Throughout the pandemic, most sectors experienced a low demand as customers looked for something different, such as fully remote services, things that make you better equipped for home working, and products that are immune-boosting. 

Just as demand changed, so too did the duties of some business development managers – often to a focus on existing clients and deepening those relationships, sometimes through new methods. 

“Zoom calls became the norm, texting and social media became more prominent.” 

Of course, businesses had to adapt to a virtual environment and a remote workforce, which sped up the digitisation process. Zoom calls became the norm, texting and social media became more prominent, cold calling became more difficult because offices were closed, and conferences were cancelled or forced to shift online. An online personal brand also became more important than ever, as photographer Chris Owens will explain later in this report. 

Many felt the urge to sell via online channels, as it was frequently one of the only avenues left available, especially for B2C firms. Some of our case studies, such as Tall Tales Mysteries and Uptivity Apps had great success with this, but it wasn’t necessarily always the best choice, with research from Madrid-based academics Gupta and Rubalcaba labelling selling via online channels as a mere myth of how to succeed in the COVID-19 era. An example they gave was UK-based start-up HOOP, a leisure and entertainment application that allowed parents to book activities for their kids in nearby locations, who added a new feature offering online activities for children. This did not result in any sales, and the start-up announced their exit.2  

“Businesses started getting to know their clients on a more personal level, in a way they couldn’t have prior to the pandemic.” 

Not only has the format in which we try to contact and sell to clients changed, but also the way in which clients are spoken and sold to. Recruitment agency GSR2R, for instance, published a piece on how successful recruiters have had to adapt their business development strategies since the pandemic3 and stated that, in the current climate, you need to have varied and wide-ranging conversations and be flexible, considerate, and sympathetic. They say that the time for transactional selling is over and it should be all about the consultative approach – building rapport and connection, working closely with clients and candidates, and offering trust and compassion and that the recruiters that do this will be the ones who enjoy continued success. This is mirrored in our case studies, with razorblue noting that they put additional focus on building stronger relationships with their clients, and Newcastle Building Society stating that they made thousands of outbound phone calls to check in on their customers for a friendly chat when not many of them were leaving their homes. Overall, businesses started getting to know their clients on a more personal level in a way they couldn’t have prior to the pandemic, and as Di Keller of Karbon Homes will explain later in this report, the relationships between people and the businesses we work for is becoming an increasingly important aspect of business development. 

There was even greater collaboration among rival companies in order to work towards common goals, with a business in a US study of innovation during the pandemic4 saying “We aren’t just selling our services anymore. There was a crisis that we had to help businesses through and work together and collaborate because of the urgency.”  

Although the recovery from the pandemic continues to be long and arduous for businesses, much is returning to normal, or at least, a new normal.  

A report by the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) last year found that while 70% of businesses were still being negatively impacted, 63% were experiencing signs of recovery. In addition, they found that 47% of businesses expected an increase in their marketing budget5 after the biggest recorded drop (-50.7%) in 2020,6 including a £1.8 billion decline in ad spend in the UK,7 in which no company, regardless of size or industry, is said to have been left unscathed.  Most sectors were able to recover their pre-covid advertising investments in 2020 and the end of 2021 saw almost the strongest ad spend growth since 2019 according to the IPA.8 

Although marketing investments are returning, the marketing channel mix has transformed. 44% of B2B marketers have ‘completely changed’ their marketing channel mix since the pandemic began, and 45% have ‘somewhat changed’ their mix, leaving just 11% of B2B marketers’ strategies unaffected.9 

While UK ad spend was predicted to be up 30% from 202010 in 2021, UK digital ad spend in particular was confirmed to be up 49% (making up 40.7% of UK marketing budgets)11 with mobile ad spend up 75%.12 This led IAB UK’s CEO, John Maw, to state that we saw “three years of change take place in just three months” and that advertisers have “adopted a more digital-heavy strategy as it was the medium least impacted by lockdowns”.13 91% of marketing organisations now use social media as part of their mix, tying with digital ads as the most commonly used channel across the sector.14 Video and audio have also become some of the most frequently used channels, with these formats having gained extra momentum since the pandemic began. People spend more time in-app, suggesting that habits formed during prolonged periods of lockdown in 2020 have stuck. 

“UK digital ad spend is up 49%, with mobile ad spend up 75%.” 

The marketing mix is not the only aspect of business development that has transformed. The majority of businesses had to rethink the way they operate and get creative to engage with their, in some cases entirely remote, workforce and invent new ways to serve their clients, which promoted innovation. So, while it has been a negative experience for many businesses, Covid-19 has apparently also been the shake-up that some sectors have needed for some time.  

Brendan Nelson, General Manager of LexisNexis Software Solutions, has stated that the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed business development and marketing strengths and weaknesses across every industry” but that this also allows us to see where to make improvements, particularly regarding technology.15 

One technological innovation is that 97% of event marketers believe hybrid events are the future, and that, going forward, the most rewarding events will have a virtual component.16 Hybrid events can mean less worries about capacity or changing health regulations, but it’s said that in-person events won’t go out of style, an opinion shared by Jeni Smith of NetKno in her contribution to this report.   

Something that also became virtual were trade missions, as Jack Simpson of the Chamber will talk about in his piece later in this report. One of the greatest tools for penetrating markets, trade missions became the sending of samples overseas, therefore bringing markets and contracts to the comfort of our own homes. 

Overall, with the last two examples, the fact that many of us are no longer constrained by our locations is the key. Perhaps the most critical innovation catalysed by the pandemic, increased digitisation allowing more of us to work remotely, is sometimes viewed as a risk to businesses in the North East, which may struggle to compete with the salaries offered by rival businesses in more affluent parts of the country or even abroad. The broadening pool of clients, however, with 46% of media, marketing, and advertising freelancers in the UK saying that they are no longer constrained by the location of clients and can now work for companies that are based overseas,17 and the ability for businesses like our case study Tall Tales Mysteries to reach customers all over the world, indicates that flexible location will be a mainstay the future of business development. 

Freya Thompson

Knowledge and Research Executive

You can read the full Future of Business Development Report here.

(1) Accenture (2021) The European double up: A twin strategy that will strengthen competitiveness. 

(2) Gupta V. and Rubalcaba L. (2021) Competency-Industry Relatedness (C-IR) Framework for Sustained Business Growth in Startups during and Beyond Pandemic: Myths and Lessons from Publicly Funded Innovative Startups. Sustainability, 13(9), pp.4632-4655 

(3) GSR2R (2020) Business development in the new norm 

(4) Pieper N. (2021) Creating a Culture of Innovation: How Businesses Used the COVID-19 Pandemic to Change the Future Workplace 

(5) Data & Marketing Association (2021) Coronavirus Survey: March 2021 Results  

(6) IPA (2020) Bellweather Report Q2 2020 – Coronavirus outbreak drives record decline in UK marketing budgets 

(7) Advertising Association & WARC (2021) UK Adspend to Grow 18.2% this Year as Recovery Gathers Pace 

(8) IPA (2022) Bellweather Report Q4 2021 – Total marketing budgets rise further, but growth slows amid pandemic flare-up  

(9) Salesforce (2021) State of Marketing 7th edition 

(10) IAB UK (2021) Digital advertising spend surges 49% in H1 2021, as marketers’ confidence returns 

(11) WARC (2021) Over 40% of UK marketing budgets are spent on digital 

(12) IAB UK (2021) Digital advertising spend surges 49% in H1 2021, as marketers’ confidence returns 

(13) ibid 

(14) Salesforce (2021) State of Marketing 7th edition 

(15) Legal Futures (2021) In law firms and accounting, business development and marketing take hardest hit from COVID-19, according to global LexisNexis InterAction survey 

(16) Bizzabo (2020) Evolution of Events Report 

(17) Worksome (2020) Freelance Survey 

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