Creativity in B2B - Letting your head rule your heart

Letting your head rule your heart

As though he were trying to explain football’s offside rule, IAS managing director Rob Morrice is reaching for the nearest prop to illustrate the intricacies of B2B marketing. He settles on the bottle of water on his desk. “Do you really know the difference between Buxton water and Highland Spring?” he asks. “Would anyone? We choose Buxton because our creative director lives in Buxton. [As consumers] we buy that brand purely based on emotion.”

Therein, according to Morrice, lies the difference between B2B and B2C marketing: “In consumer marketing it’s all about the heart,” he says. “In B2B, emotion counts, but logic also plays a large part.”

Morrice’s view is fashioned out of his own experience: he was a “consumer man” before becoming managing director of the B2B-focused IAS in March last year. Having spent the previous 10 years at Smarts - a consumer agency with a creative heritage - he says that creativity is still important in B2B, “but it’s not just about that, and it’s not just about one way selling; it’s about building up dialogue.”

Nick Hague, a director of market research company B2B International, says business-to-business marketing shares the same ideals as consumer marketing, but has a more nuanced approach. He says the common challenge for both business-to-business and consumer marketers is to truly understand their customer needs and be able to communicate that their products or services really are special in being able to satisfy them.

“The B2B marketer needs to address small customer numbers, complex decision making units and complex products and applications with an emphasis on close targeting and personal relationships,” Hague says. “Consumer marketers face the challenge of communicating with a much wider customer base and ensuring that their products or services are in perfect condition at the point of sale.”

This added complexity - the need to please and win round potentially multiple stakeholders in a single client’s business - can lead people to get the wrong impression about B2B marketing, and think of it as being dull as far as the creative work goes, and overly bureaucratic when it comes to dealings with clients. As Morrice says, “you still get people thinking that conveyer belts and pumps are unsexy, and that beer and sweets are sexy”.

Olivia Kehoe, managing director of Barrett Dixon Bell (BDB), admits consumer marketing has a reputation for being “more glamorous and interesting” than B2B, but she’s quick to dismiss this notion as unwarranted for the benefit of any readers considering changing codes. “We reckon that anyone who appreciates the challenge of multi-technique, multi-lingual, through-the-line campaigns that make a real difference to clients’ businesses would strongly disagree,” she says.

Allowing for the kind of in-depth knowledge required to work in B2B markets, what does the business-to-business agency landscape look like? Well, it’s dominated by B2B specialists, but that hasn’t always been the case according to Kehoe.

“When BDB started [in 1987] a specialist B2B agency was almost unknown. Even now when there are many more agencies offering a ‘specialist B2B service’, many still rely on income from B2C clients and approach their B2B client challenges from a consumer perspective.” Kehoe says this renders campaign content “somewhat lightweight and, since B2B companies are usually fairly specialist, may not deliver the increased sales ultimately sought by the investing company.”

Elaborating further, she adds, “Sector knowledge and the ability to select appropriate media conduits is vital for cost-effectiveness and requires a much higher level of technical understanding and marketing expertise than consumer work – in our view.”

But some people, such as Karen Bernie, managing director of Wyatt International, an agency that serves both consumer and business-to-business clients, believe B2B and B2C marketing can co-exist. She claims the agency’s work across both markets proves complementary and beneficial. “Across all our teams we have B2B and consumer specialists,” she explains. “However, while consumer execs or B2B execs will focus on accounts in their core competency field, this is rarely exclusively as their experience and insights can add value to accounts across the board. Also, some of our accounts like Viking/Office Depot target both consumer and B2B.

“Both require in-depth market understanding, however B2B is different in that it involves more rational buying behaviour, while B2C can be a more impulsive or emotive sell.”

Ultimately, Bernie adds, we are all consumers and we need to be excited by the marketing approach whether it is because it will solve our business problem or it will enhance our day-to-day life experience. “The key is to make everything we do for our clients relevant and engaging, whether we are talking to B2B or consumer audiences,” she says.

At GyroHSR, the agency’s general manager in Manchester, Danny Turnbull, says his approach is to “apply B2C standards within a B2B space”. B2B is much more complex, he admits, but the fundamental principles of good communication, cut-through creative and sustainable differentiation still apply. “The same fundamental human principles of communication that have existed in all of the marketing industry for 100 years apply [in B2B] – they are just perhaps harder to make work in markets and with products that are much more complicated.”

With this belief, Turnbull makes a point of recruiting staff from consumer agencies. “I wouldn’t just recruit from the B2B gene pool,” he says. “We take all of our staff out of big agencies who have been well trained and know what ‘good’ is.”

Whether the approach and the thinking is different in B2B from consumer marketing, the common denominator is quality thinking – creative and strategic.

And B2B International’s Nick Hague says business-to-business agencies should heed something from the consumer marketing approach. “The most neglected marketing opportunity in the business-to-business arena is the building of a strong brand,” he says. “In a world where it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish one product from another, it is even more important to have the support of a powerful brand - that has long been realised by our consumer cousins.”

Marketing Industry Network members can download this report in full from the website located at, which also contains full membership details.


B2B International has just published a white paper on the “significant” differences between B2B and B2C marketing. Director Nick Hague takes us through the four key factors that make business-to-business markets special and different to business-to-consumer markets.

1. The decision making unit is far more complex in business-to-business markets than in consumer markets

2. Business-to-business products and their applications are more complex than consumer products

3. Business-to-business marketers address a much smaller number of customers who are very much larger in their consumption of products than is the case in consumer markets

4. Personal relationships are of critical importance in business-to-business market

B2B International recently surveyed 396 senior marketers who represented a broad spread covering all industrial sectors, many b2c sectors and most countries of the world.

Three quarters work in organisations that employ more than 250 people and many are occupied in some of the largest corporates in the world. There was an acknowledgement from around 70% of respondents that they are one of a team involved in determining the appropriate marketing strategy for their organisation.

B2B International says there is no doubt that the recession is affecting everyone and 4 out of 10 respondents said the effect has been very significant. As might be expected, national and overseas sales have been affected, investment has been cut back, plants have surplus capacity and there are cash-flow constraints.

Two thirds of respondents have seen their organisations reduce their marketing budgets as a result of the recession. The views of respondents are divided on the degree to which marketing is used as a weapon to fight the recession. 29% say that it is playing a big role and 36% say it is playing a minor role with the balance saying the role is moderate. An issue is the degree to which senior management supports marketing as a tool to fight the recession. Over a quarter of organisations believe that their senior management does not value marketing as a tool for this purpose. Over half of respondents (57%) are of the view that their organisation’s speed of response in the current business environment has been about right. However, a good third of respondents (36%) expressed concern that their organisation’s speed of response was not fast enough.


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