B2B - the abbreviation on everybody’s mind, confirmed to be hot stuff in the industry through Cannes Lions’ newest Creative B2B award. The International Festival of Creativity established the award with the help of The B2B Institute, aiming to recognise creativity and brand-building through business to business advertising, which echoed the moods in the industry in the latest years, as well as its expectations for the future.
To get the boring stats out of the way, B2B marketing continued its increase throughout 2022 according to Appetite Creative Solutions and their B2B Marketing Survey found that 79% of respondents consider B2B marketing very important to business growth. Not only this, but 64% of those are looking to refresh their B2B strategy this year as per the general trends in the industry. As part of the so-called B2B ‘refurbishments’ companies are looking to increase their investment in social media, website, branding and video, and overall increase their B2B spending exponentially in 2022. As a fairly new actor in the spotlight however, the B2B trend seems to be in touch with brands’ newly ignited devotion to sustainability goals. 82% of the respondents to the Appetite Creative survey consider sustainability a core value when it comes to B2B digital marketing and will most likely take it into consideration when constructing the skeleton of their B2B strategy.
Jason Talbot, managing director at The Croc, echoes these trends: “My observation over the last five years is there’s a growing trend of B2C CEOs coming into the B2B space and they’re bringing a much stronger brand agenda to build sustainable bottom-line performance and shareholder value.” To him, this type of top-down shift attracts different types of CMOs which in turn creates better conditions to land bigger and longer ideas. “The talent we’re now seeing entering the B2B space is unlike anything I’ve seen previously and we’re now starting to see this reflect in the work - the future looks bright,” Jason says.
Creative director Nick Watmough agrees with his colleague Jason when it comes to the top-down approach regarding the rise of B2B. Noting that through the years, the recent advancements in B2B are unmistakable, but still sometimes swept under the rug. Nick points out that overall a small amount of B2B work has been able to sweep awards at Cannes before the creation of the new category, and when it has, it has been due to the smeared lines between B2B and B2C in those particular campaigns. “Overall, you could say that the B2B industry is like a Brit in Spain. They’ll drape their towel over the sun loungers, but you’ll never see them at the pool party. No, winning this fabled award means breaking the rules and I don’t mean the Speedo policy,” Nick explains. To him what will finally break this circle in 2022 is specifically the launch of the B2B Lions, which will give credit where it’s due and raise the creative bar even further in the process.
But back to the top-down approach. To Nick, giving the spotlight to B2B for once is not enough - the process is and should be a two-way street. In order to do justice to the opportunity, a shift in the creation of campaigns needs to be seen. “Specifically, the C-suite needs to embrace the true value of creativity, rather than boring their audiences to tears with commodity messaging. Women at a laptop surrounded by golden confetti, anyone? No thanks. Increasingly, Cannes has focused on the effectiveness of the work. In a world like B2B, where everything needs to be measurable and accountable, the sector is perfectly primed to get with the programme, creating amazing campaigns with demonstrable business value.” This will allow the B2B sector to give up on its ‘obsession’ with short-term sales and embrace long-term gains that creative thinking can deliver, as per what Jason also pointed out.
Stephen Haggerty, board creative director at Clear M&C Saatchi, as part of the senior leadership team, has never agreed with the frameworks within which B2B was meant to exist. To him, the term ‘business to business’ never quite made much sense, let alone the abbreviation of it. “Break it down and it still amounts to one person communicating to another about something that they think is worthwhile engaging with and parting with money for.” This is why he had a continuous issue with how we were told it should look like and behave. “Sombre, wordy, serious, verging on being 100% entirely functional at the expense of all humanity.” Rules that can’t be traced back to their origins, neither can their creator be found to question, that seem to be painfully outdated in a world of rapidly changing businesses. Not only business, but also people have changed, thinks Stephen. “Owner operated, data driven, socially active SMEs are major drivers of economic growth and see humanity and empathy as something valid to communicate in order to drive engagement and sales. Businesses today are younger, more diverse and after the last two years looking for positive disruption in the way they communicate and where they communicate.”
Precisely what Bill Burkart, B2B president for NA Wunderman Thompson, knows to be true. “B2B marketers are spending time and human capital devising optimised buyer journeys, anticipating the needs of diverse buying councils, and framing up optimised channel strategies. But you know what? Customers buy on their schedule, not the brand’s schedule. Emotion can outweigh rational decision making. And, YES, businesspeople are humans… and respond to emotional and rational communications.” Albeit shocking, the revelation that businesspeople are at the end of the day people, is true, but leads to a very important question - how can campaigns break through the preset B2B norms and find creative solutions where they ought to be? “Brands taking an emotional connection with their audiences is necessary, but not easy to accomplish,” agrees Bill.
This is why, to help their creative teams and strategies, Wunderman Thompson came up with one solution - they launched INSPIRE, a global consumer study that seeks to understand what it means to be a brand that inspires and builds emotional connections with their audiences. “We found an emotional connection is composed of three core elements: Elevating – providing content that inspires, Magnetic – demonstrating leadership in a category or product set and Motivating – stands for something unique and helps me discover new things,” explains Bill. They also found that the ‘inspiring’ brands, meaning those that score highest on the abovementioned criteria, also outperform their peers on two key metrics: growing their market share faster and charging higher pricing points. Bill is categorical: “This is where B2B marketing needs to go next –segmentation, personalization, intent signals, and proof points all matter, but what you say and how you say it matters more.”
Nina Nørgaard Jacobsen, CEO & founder at Biites, has seen the acceleration of creative output on the B2B horizon. “At Biites, we distribute video storytelling, and over the last couple of years, we’ve seen B2B marketing move away from the historically dry and fact-focused formats to formats including humour, emotions, and storytelling – formats that speak to the individual rather than the professional. Storytelling that for example goes behind the scenes of a company, inviting audiences into workplaces in reality-like format. Or storytelling in the form of brand documentaries, substituting the traditional case study with a much more engaging narrative.” Her solution touches on using traditional TV formats for inspiration and actually converting them into brand longform content, as a place to start, in a B2B context. “Imagine a real-life Suits format, created by a law firm or a reality series with real-life main and secondary characters from an IT services company,” she explains.
Combining craftsmanship in storytelling with engaging formats, what can result can be a truly unique approach to B2B that is in line with what the industry seems to be agreeing on from every angle. At the end of the day, there surely isn’t anybody that will say no to creativity given the opportunity to dive into it headfirst, especially in a field where creativity was long forgotten. And with the arrival of web 3.0, no matter if you like it or not, there is a new and shiny stage for that creativity to take all shapes and sizes. “In my opinion,” says Nina, “the biggest entertainment shows will be brand funded within the next ten years. It’s going to be the main type of content we all watch and enjoy. Both B2B and B2C brands will invest more in quality long form content becoming ‘entertainers’ – and this spend will ultimately be higher than traditional or digital ad budgets. It gets high viewing rates because it’s fundamentally really good content.”
Overall, exciting times seem to be coming when looking at the unanimous call for creativity. The agreeableness of the C-suite gives the green light to start the ball rolling on a new age of B2B advertising that will not necessarily kill what is at its core (which is B2B), but will do things differently. Stephen Haggarty has one clear message to B2B business leaders:
“Having worked across all the ‘abbreviations’, the B2B space is the one space where disruptive thinking and approaches are now cutting through the most. There’s no real separation between business and consumer when it comes to understanding how desire for a product can manifest. People buy people after all, don’t they?
“So, use those same tools – irreverence and humanity in your storytelling (where applicable), variable fonts to take care of multi-screen and immersive environments and explore movement along with Pixar-inspired hyper colours. Put it together and it’s a heady mixture – and one that creates real distinctiveness and clarity.” If the industry follows this advice, we can only keep our eyes peeled on what will come next!