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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

July 2, 2024 | 11 min read

The Canadian filmmaker, who’s documented moving true stories spanning astronomy, journalism, sports, small businesses and more, has just released a new film tracing the history of B2B marketing.

Ben Proudfoot is profoundly curious. The 33-year-old Canadian filmmaker has made short documentaries about everything from the female astronomer who discovered pulsars to a fallen US fish and chips empire.

In 2021, Proudfoot’s film about women’s basketball pioneer Lusia Harris, aptly titled The Queen of Basketball, picked up the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Film. This year, Proudfoot dominated the category again, picking up the 2024 Oscar for The Last Repair Shop, a short documentary he directed and produced with Kris Bowers that follows the story of the craftspeople who repair musical instruments for public school students in Los Angeles.

Now, he’s turned his sights to something a little less expected: B2B marketing.

Proudfoot’s new film, Everybody’s Business, created by his production firm Breakwater Studios in partnership with LinkedIn, traces the evolution of B2B marketing – from the era in which it was known simply as “industrial marketing” to today, when the sector is responsible for solving some of the world’s biggest problems.

For LinkedIn, the goal of the project was simple, explains Tusar Barik, a senior director of marketing at LinkedIn: “How do we help grow this industry? How do we help rise all the boats? That’s what we want to do in the B2B industry – to help marketers understand how to get better at their jobs.”

LinkedIn also hopes that the film will help demystify the industry for businesses and consumers alike. “The biggest companies in the world are all B2B companies – B2B companies drive the economy,” Barik says. “We really wanted to tell that story of, ‘It’s driving the world.’ And, ‘What is the impact that people don’t realize that’s happening all around them … and how are we using creativity to tell that story?’”

Throughout the 32-minute documentary, viewers are immersed in the history of the sector, from the first-ever Cannes Lions Grand Prix winner in 1956 – which was awarded to English shop W.M. Larkins Studio for a B2B campaign designed to encourage African farmers to bank with Barclays – to the transformations propelling the sector forward today. Along the way, viewers meet B2B trailblazers including Tom Stein, Andisa Ntsubane, Jennifer Johnson and others.

At first, Proudfoot tells The Drum in an exclusive interview at Cannes Lions last month, he “was not interested” in making the film. “I didn’t know what ‘B2B’ stood for, what B2B marketing was.”

But in his conversations with LinkedIn, Proudfoot grew interested in the possibility of telling a profoundly human story through the historical lens of B2B marketing. “As I learned more, I became enamored with the idea that there was this whole world of business – this huge part of the economy – that had a huge effect on planet Earth … that nobody knew about,” he says. “It was interesting … to think about the profound impact that can be made in this particular world.”

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It’s an idea underscored by Proudfoot’s subjects in Everybody’s Business. Gazing steadily into the camera, B2B stalwart Tom Stein explains that the challenges addressed by B2B marketing span “every conceivable level of society, from income inequality, food security, cybersecurity, climate change.” He predicts that “all of these… will be solved by B2B.”

These big, real-world problems tied up in the business of B2B inspired Proudfoot to take on the project. “When I started to talk to the people who were the thought leaders in B2B marketing,” he says, “I thought, ‘There’s some really important ideas here that need to be shared.’”

Fanning the flames of B2B’s creative revolution

Proudfoot was also interested in investigating what’s happening in B2B marketing today – which is, as he puts it, “a creative revolution.”

B2B, he notes, is finally gaining broader recognition in the world of commercial creativity. Cannes Lions only added the Creative B2B award category in 2022. Lions chair Philip Thomas said at the time of the category’s announcement: “Having seen a rise in B2B work winning across the Lions, and with many in the industry believing that a specialist Lion in this area will raise the creative bar and elevate the discipline, we think that now is B2B’s moment to have its own spotlight on the global creative stage.”

In recent years, B2B brands have pushed the boundaries of what was traditionally expected of them, breaking out of cut-and-dry molds to embrace greater creative expression. The sector has, in some ways, taken a page from B2C marketing, embracing humor and emotion rather than fact alone and leaned into star-studded, top-of-funnel brand campaigns (a rollicking Workday campaign fronted by Ozzy Ozborne and Joan Jett won the top award at The Drum’s B2B Awards last year).

As Stein puts it in Everybody’s Business: “B2B marketing has a rep as being dull… B2B needs to be less self-effacing. B2B should be exuberant, exciting, emotional. It should be an exclamation point.”

It’s a message underscored by Jennifer Johnson, CMO at cybersecurity technology company CrowdStrike. “In B2B marketing, there was this notion that everything has to be very orderly,” she says in the film. “Like, we’re selling to a business – a logo, a building – but we’re selling to people. There is a human on the other end that has a problem… For me, chief marketing officer, [my] job is to be the storyteller for the company.”

To lean into more human-centric storytelling, Johnson teamed up with Zoic Studios, a special effects firm known for its work with Marvel, to develop otherworldly renditions of cyberattackers as part of the brand’s 2024 Super Bowl spot, which manifested as a western-meets-cyberpunk story of good versus evil.

The final product was not only wildly entertaining, but also highly effective: for viewers exposed to CrowdStrike’s ad, the brand saw a 60% conversion improvement. “That’s real demand generation, because now it’s familiar and [audiences are] forming an opinion, and there’s an intent and there’s an interest to go learn more,” Johnson says. She’s hopeful that this kind of brand storytelling will ultimately help make the world a safer place.

These kinds of stories evidence the positive potential of bolder, more experimental B2B marketing. “What this film aimed to pull back the curtain on, and also inspire, is that being bold, and being creative, and telling a story and being human – and god forbid, being a little emotional – actually is something that works wonders,” says Proudfoot.

And the movement is catching on. “Even literally from one year ago, there’s a different feeling. There’s a tidal change emerging in this space, and people are gaining the confidence because they’re seeing how successful it is when other people are coming out and telling their stories and being honest about what’s really going on here – what’s the emotional story, what’s the human story. People are really responding to that. Something is coming alive in this space.”

B2B’s power to effect change for good

Viewers of Everybody’s Business eventually find themselves in São Paulo, where the Brazil branch of UN Global Compact – a global initiative that aims to get business leaders to agree to a set of sustainability and social commitments – is aiming to generate more buy-in from companies.

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AlmapBBDO, a regional arm of the global creative agency network BBDO, signed on to help. The pitch? Launch an IPO for Earth to generate widespread investment. AlmapBBDO and UN Global Compact in Brazil approached B3, a São Paulo-based stock exchange considered one of the largest exchanges in the world in terms of market value. The exchange agreed to help stage a real IPO, complete with a stock price tied to global events and an annual ‘performance’ report.

The campaign reportedly resulted in a 140% year-over-year lift in sign-ups to the UN Global Compact, and picked up the Creative B2B Grand Prix at Cannes Lions last year.

In Proudfoot’s view, stories like these prove out the argument that B2B marketing can help solve the world’s most pressing problems. “If we want to make a difference in the world,” he says, “it’s imperative that we understand [B2B] companies and how they work.”

And B2B brands of all kinds are well positioned to take on more active roles as change agents in the world, suggests LinkedIn’s Barik. Pointing to Edelman’s 2024 Trust Barometer, which measures consumer perceptions of trust, he tells The Drum: “Trust in organizations is actually the highest, whereas [trust in] government and media has gone down. So the idea of storytelling from companies and organizations is increasingly important for these social issues. People are looking to companies to start telling stories… and it’s really important that they get those stories out there to help drive change that sometimes gets stuck in government [or other bureaucratic systems].”

Proudfoot even discovered a bit about his own story along the way. “I learned that my company is a B2B company,” he says, grinning. “We make original films, but we also work with other companies. I didn’t realize that I was part of it, too.”

Speaking more broadly, he admits that the project “changed the way I look at the world.” He says: “If you look around you, everything you see… has a history, a legacy of all these B2B transactions. Everything you see behind me – the paint, the stone, the furniture – [all represent] groups of people who are working together to make our world possible.”

Everybody’s Business was shot across the globe – from Cannes to New York to Accra to São Paulo – over the course of a year. It debuted at Cannes Lions on June 17 in an exclusive screening atop the Carlton Hotel.

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