How account planning can plant the most powerful ideas in B2B marketing

Account planning as an approach for generating insights tracks back to the mid-1960s

In the love-it, hate-it or just-don’t-get-it movie Inception, Eames (Tom Hardy) relates a simply complex insight to Dom Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio) that nary a viewer will have realized is the paradoxical challenge of account planning in B2B marketing.

You have to start with the absolute basic…the relationship with the father.

If you haven’t watched Inception, the film’s concept is that, by placing the simplest form of an idea deep into a character’s subconscious as they’re dreaming, the character can be led to “give himself the idea.” (Sounds a bit like planning already, doesn’t it?)

In the scene, Cobb was asking Eames for his advice on how to use “inception” to give the heir of a major corporation the idea to dissolve his father’s empire. You can watch the entire scene here (0:54-1:37).

Rather than planting overly complex ideas, Eames advised that you need “the simplest version of the idea for it to grow naturally within a subject’s mind.” The simplest version of the idea.

Which brings me roundabout back to B2B.

From complexity to simplicity, from rationality to emotionality

Account planning as an approach for generating insights tracks back to the mid-1960s and the UK offices of J. Walter Thompson and Boase Massimi Pollitt. The need for it, states Advertising Age, “sprung from great changes taking place in society and the nature of consumerism” such as women in the workplace, the Civil Rights movement and the growth of technology.

In the hidebound world of B2B, account planning gained a foothold much later and much more slowly. The prevailing belief was that the complexity of B2B products and need for feature-by-feature differentiation required entirely rational marketing approaches. The idea that human emotion might play a role in business-to-business decision making was considered irrelevant to the point of ridiculousness.

But as happened in the consumer world, “great changes taking place” in B2B resulted in planning playing a larger and larger role. Increased competition and commoditization, the proliferation and fragmentation of marketing channels, and the predominance of digital and experience all contributed to the need for deeper, more leverageable customer insights.

They also resulted in the paradox I referred at the beginning of this article.

B2B sectors and solutions are complex, and increasingly so. If you’ve ever unpacked the promise, pillars and customer journeys of an ‘application programming interface’ brand or ‘testing, inspection and certification’ brand, you’ll know what I say to be true.

Yet, from necessary complexity the best B2B planners find clarity. And from clarity, they find simplicity. And in that simplicity, they are able to extract deeper, more heartfelt points of connection. As Eames said, “You have to start with the absolute basic…the relationship with the father.” In B2B, it may not be about the father, but it surely is about the relationship.

Balancing commercial value and emotional value

Stein IAS has been at the forefront of the evolution of strategic planning in B2B (the term we prefer to consumer advertising’s ‘account planning’) and still is. We believe that in today’s age of purpose, the best ideas are driven by both commercial value and emotional value – and by multiple levels of emotional value.

As case in point, I’ll point to our own insights work for a brand unknown to many, but iconic in its markets for 125 years. This brand is a global leader in the aforementioned testing, inspection and certification category.

The company’s offering is complex to be sure. Across multiple industries, the brand does the hard work of determining that products meet objective criteria. That they interoperate. That they are safe. That they can be trusted.

In developing a global campaign concept for the company, our Insights team parsed complexity to get to clarity and then to simplicity – to Eames’ “absolute basic.” Our pivotal insight: As the world races to a future that requires non-stop innovation (while simultaneously requiring safety, security and sustainability), what will enable or impede this is … trust.

Consumers need to trust that their food is safe, that their data is secure, that their planet can sustain itself. Businesses need trust each other; they need to have faith in their supply chains. By empowering trust, our client's brand in turn empowers a future of ‘why not?’ And so, our insights-driven campaign concept was born: The World Runs on Trust.

Simple as that. When the world runs well, trust is present. When it doesn’t, well, it isn’t. And while simple – rather because it is simple – the idea is big and long. It’s rich with commercial value and emotional value.

All of which brings me to one last point. Eames said something else in Inception that is incredibly relevant to B2B planning today: “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

B2B needs to be about dreaming bigger – but often isn’t. In our client’s case, dreaming bigger is about envisioning and empowering a world that does run on trust. As planners and strategists, that’s what we need to give to B2B brands: insights that lead inexorably and inevitably to ideas at this rarified level. Said another way, we need to give B2B brands ‘permission’ to dream bigger.

After all, dreaming bigger just may be the most fundamental human inception of them all…darling.

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