The demand generation illusion

We run the risk of upsetting several of you, but this needs to be stated now… 

The demand generation movement was largely built on an illusion.

Two words in there worth calling out:

  1. Movement: We’re NOT talking about demand generation as a function, and we’re certainly not talking about in-house demand generation pros. We’re talking about the narrative and the push created and cheerled by a relatively small number of people. 
  2. Largely: Of course there was validity to the demand generation movement, and the intentions seemed good, so we’re NOT saying it’s a complete illusion. But in this piece we offer an expansive take on the issues with the movement and its core fallacy.

So… in the simplest terms, a movement is a reaction to the status quo. 

And while the term demand gen had already been thrown around for years, the movement that had kicked in by 2020 was a reaction to B2B marketing still being stuck in the lead generation paradigm, which clearly had issues around efficiency. 

Folks were fed up with eBooks, content syndication and sh!tty MQLs. 

And before we knew it, other sources of marketing inefficiency got pulled into the narrative, like don’t waste big money on trade show booths. 

Demand generation emerged as “the right way” to do marketing. 

And the promise was pipeline and revenue – the two things most obsessed over in B2B Marketingland over the past few years. 

But have you noticed how most of the demand gen successes are talked about? 

How many “success stories” include meaningful and sustained increases in net new revenue?

Not many, right? 

What we see instead is results like: higher win rate, lower acquisition cost and greater pipeline velocity. 

And what’s generally the prescription given that creates those results? 

Well, first you gotta turn off all that inefficient lead gen stuff. And then put some more gas on what drives higher intent leads AKA demo requests. Now we’re cooking!

So we turn off what’s not working well, dial up the good stuff and measure the aggregate?!

“Look at how we (miraculously) got more of these high intent leads!”

C’mon now – aren’t we just moving cups around? 

And more importantly: How does this sustain and compound? 

It’s not that hard to get an initial bump when you essentially take credit for all results on an aggregate basis after turning off the less efficient programs. It looks good, but it sets expectations that are extremely difficult to live up to. 

Because those positive signals may not have been signs of more demand actually being generated. Not to the degree advertised. And that’s why we’re talking about an illusion. 

On the flip side, there were definitely benefits of the demand gen movement: 

  • Community – marketers coming together under shared values
  • Better content – more thoughtful and less transactional marketing
  • Results for some – helpful nudge away from the most inefficient stuff

Of course some companies have seen real results from proper demand gen efforts. It’s just that the movement didn’t seem to allow for any honest questioning or pushback. 

But now we gotta ask: 

  1. Is it possible that demand gen looks good largely because we just turned off inefficient lead gen programs? 
  2. Don’t lead gen and demand gen in the end lead to very similar behavior and challenges? (MQLs vs demo requests)
  3. And where the heck is the demand gen case study that says demo requests increased significantly quarter over quarter for several quarters straight, resulting in a meaningful increase in net new revenue? 


Ok, so folks are now talking about the three Cs of demand gen: 

  • Capture demand
  • Create demand
  • Convert demand

It started with capture vs. create, which was a helpful delineation initially. The problem was how overstated the create part was. 

Ironically, the create part turned out to be more capture than leaders of the movement would ever admit. Tech was booming and there was lots of growth all around. Companies were in growing categories and capturing demand more efficiently but claiming they were creating it. 

Did we really think “putting our POV out there” magically made professionals inside legitimate organizations all of a sudden feel a brand new need? 

And massive purchase decisions were made because executives went from 0 to 60 on a new type of product after hearing about it on a podcast or something? 

If so, where’s all that demand creation now? 

Maybe it was the good old generate-awareness-so-you-are-first-in-line-when-the-buyer-is-ready.

That’s fine. We just gotta be clear and honest about what it is.

Look, we all have an agenda. 

And behind this newsletter is an agency that believes in a different approach for B2B growth so we’re a part of it too. 

But running demand generation the way it’s prescribed by the leaders of that movement during these challenging times has a very low probability of giving you the revenue growth your business needs.

As a result, just like demand gen was a reaction to the lead gen status quo, we’re starting to see a response to the demand gen movement. 

A few years have gone by, and B2B marketing is now arguably harder than it’s ever been. 

Moving cups around won’t cut it anymore. 

That’s why you might have been seeing new ideas pitched as “the next big movement” without any of them getting that foothold yet.

“It’s all about community”

“Owned media is the way”

“The B2B creator economy”

“Revenue R&D” (DOA)

“X-led growth” (rant here)


Now throw in AI to distract us even further from thinking critically. 

Meanwhile, we’re on record over here saying we believe in the formula over the funnel as the overarching frame for driving B2B growth with a strict focus on customer acquisition. 

You should of course make up your own opinion – just watch out for those moving cups :)

Also, watch out for extremism in marketing. 

Like, are we really supposed to believe all leads are bad? 

We get that demand gen is more refined and all, but we also know for a fact that getting right-fit leads have value.

The funny thing is that both lead gen and demand gen are based on what we call funnel thinking, which is why they lead to similar behaviors and challenges – even though the initial tactics are different. 


We can’t wrap this up without sending a shout-out to each and every demand marketer out there. Here’s to hoping you all get freed from the tyranny of the demo request metric

Alright, so if you’ve read this far, we just have one simple ask of you:

Could you please hit reply and type either “you guys are crazy” or “interesting thinking” (or whatever comes to mind)? We thrive on your feedback!

- Your partners in growth at Elevate Demand

PS: The legendary Brian Balfour (former VP of Growth at HubSpot) was recently on Lenny’s Podcast dropping 10 lessons on career, growth and life. Worth a listen.