Business-to-business marketing is throwing off its dowdy image and
becoming just as creative and challenging as the high-profile consumer
sector, writes Robert Dwek
How creative are business-to-business marketing campaigns? A stupid
question? Perhaps. But there are many people who see such advertising as
the poor relation to its more glamorous and high-profile consumer
Joe Public is very advertising-literate about consumer goods campaigns,
and many copywriters and directors in this field have become big names
on the back of much-acclaimed commercials.
But business-to-business is viewed in a very different light. Isn’t it
all about selling dreary products to people in boring business suits -
matched by a buttoned-up frame of mind? Surely people spending somebody
else’s money must be less inclined to fritter away their kitty on some
frivolous-sounding product or service?
But the business frame of mind is a lot less buttoned-up and is open to
new ways of thinking. ‘There’s an increasing realisation that business-
to-business marketing is all about targeting people, not companies,’
says Geoff Dowell, executive chairman of Dowell & Associates, a
specialist in the high-tech arena which beat several consumer-focused ad
agencies to win the pounds 4m Epson Computers account.
He emphasises the importance of sending the right emotional messages as
well as detailing product benefits. ‘People used to think business-to-
business was all about price performance, that it was a purely rational
decision. Well, it’s not.’ He cites IBM’s dominance in this area in the
late 70s and early 80s as an example of the power of branding in the
workplace. IBM won the hearts as well as the minds of its business
customers with its assurance that ‘Nobody ever got fired for buying an
SJA Direct has run business campaigns for the likes of Toshiba
Information Systems and CCSB. For Steven Jenkins, joint managing
director, business-to-business branding is all about building long-term
relationships with people who are very time-constrained. ‘You’ve got a
fraction of a second to catch their attention, so there’s no point using
excessive subtlety or being too clever or over-generalised. You’ll miss
the boat,’ he says.
He refers to a Direct Marketing Information Service survey in 1991,
which found that although half of all business-to-business direct mail
is read and thrown away and 30% has to be redirected, 8% is filed. It is
here the creative business-to-business marketers will concentrate their
energy, hoping to convert the prospect into a future sale.
Kim Riddington, creative director of Blaze Business To Business, warns
clients not to be taken in by a growing number of consumer-focused
agencies turning their hand to the burgeoning business arena.
‘An agency that lives in the FMCG world is not one that understands the
business customer,’ he says. ‘You can’t get away with the kind of
superficial approach of many of the consumer campaigns.’
There is also the problem of smaller advertising budgets compared with
consumer campaigns. ‘There isn’t the kind of money available to throw at
a single creative theme,’ he adds. A business-to-business agency has to
be much more involved in its client’s problems and strategic solutions.
Primary Contact’s Graham Bunting admits that on a more superficial
level, business-to-business advertising has not been as creative as some
of the consumer work. ‘It used to be the real ugly sister but we’ve
improved a heck of a lot and the standards get higher and higher each
‘The opportunities for doing creative work in this field are enormous.
The kinds of products we are selling are generally so much more
interesting than consumer ones. Coca-Cola seems glamorous, for example,
but it is really just a sweet, fizzy drink, whereas a new computer
package or piece of telecoms equipment is inherently exciting because it
can change lives.’
Even the ‘boring’ business products can be transformed by the right
creative approach. Bunting’s agency has just done a campaign for roof
tiles from building-materials firm Redland, ‘which doesn’t seem very
interesting until you get under the skin of the subject and start to
appreciate the details’.
The ads show a series of photos re-touched to make them look more like
watercolours. Appearing in architectural magazines, these ads attempt to
‘surround the product with brand values and to transform them from a
commodity into an up-market statement’.
It is this need to be extra-creative, to transform base metal into gold,
that denotes the best business-to-business agencies. Tim Hazelhurst,
chairman both of agency IAS and of the Association of Business
Advertising Agencies, claims consumer-focused agencies are ‘too
reactive’. He says: ‘We have to participate much more in the process of
evolving the marketing strategy.’
His own company recently had to create a campaign for a client whose
high-margin lighting products were under threat. New industry
legislation made it harder to justify the high price, so the creative
solution was to start selling the products over the phone, thus
retaining good margins despite the lower price. This has so far
generated pounds 2m of extra business.
‘Our creativity is strategic,’ he says. ‘A lot of business-to-business
marketing is dealing with small niches, so you find creative ways of
segmenting those niches and using databases to establish a strong
Chilcott Le Fevre helped change the image of Rank Xerox - and created
pounds 600,000 of new leads - by putting it on the Internet.
Martin Chilcott, managing director, says of business-to-business
advertising: ‘Strategically and tactically, it is highly creative. It
just needs to offer more substantial benefits and less intangible image
benefits than consumer advertising.’