Is enough being done to create the right B2B blend?

The Periodical Publishers’ Association Advertising Excellence Awards are being announced today. However, is there a worrying underlying trend?

Jaakko Alanko is managing director, McCann Erickson Business Communications

I am passionate about producing effective business communication for my clients. But I am disappointed that, sometimes, our friends from consumer advertising insist on judging business-to-business work through consumer marketing eyes and end up pigeonholing business advertising as second rate. This attitude fails to do justice to the specific dynamic of business marketing.

Advertising creativity, like other business activity, must generate results. These could be leads, direct sales, customer retention or margin growth. So, advertising must be seen in the context of the overall business objectives. You can't isolate an advert on a page and expect it to meet these objectives alone.

If you organise the whole business as a creative selling and marketing process and demand high standards from your ad agency, then you will get the required level of innovation and creativity on the page as well.

But there is no point in creating a funky advert for a business that is not up to that level of creativity. The advertising created must follow the reality of the client. It has the chance to be as creative as the enterprise can support.

Some might say that on-page creativity in the business sector is a poor relation of more glamorous consumer advertising. Business adverts are like everything in life – some are good, some bad and others average. There needs to be a difference, however, because advertisers and agencies know that business decision-makers function differently to consumer spenders.

Consumer advertisers often talk to an unwilling audience that does not necessarily need their products.

They must, therefore, work on consumers' attitude with a narrowly defined proposition – the creative execution is often extreme to attract attention and repeated many times over.

Business selling can only occur once the business customer realises the need for a product or service. Our agency motto is "business products are not sold – they are bought".

You can't sell someone a new server, photocopier or piece of hospital equipment unless they need it. Creative executions in advertising should only be brought to bear when this essential truth of the business-to-business sales dynamic is understood.

When advertising to someone who is buying as part of their job, one exposure may be enough because the target is so receptive to our message. The best business advertising is, therefore, a highly-targeted and effective communication based on recognising a need and conveying the solution. It is not about sexy creative executions that seems to count for so much among award-hunting consumer agencies.

So, let's consider our would-be buyer. He knows he wants to buy and he's probably looking to create a shortlist. Good communications can help you get on the shortlist, which then gives you the opportunity to sell.

Creativity in business advertising comes from leading the customer through the entire sales process in a creative manner, thereby reducing the buying risk. You can't value any one step of this process over another, however – it is a matter of balancing a step-by-step process. I could mention a couple of examples: Lufthansa, who McCann Erickson Business Communications have helped create a fully integrated communications programme with a consistent experience for everyone from corporate buyers to the travel trade and business people. I also admire Hewlett Packard for its highly professional approach across brand advertising, contact activities and sales support materials. Despite some major upheavals, its marketing remains consistent.

The most profound creative thing you can do in business advertising (and communications in general) is to give the potential customer a consistent and continuous experience from beginning to the end, thereby creating a relationship. We are fortunate in the UK to have a strong and thriving business media sector that provides the right environment for this. For example, magazines, like the one you are holding, nurture trust and develop the reader relationship advertisers need.

According to research published by the Periodical Publishers' Association, 72% of business managers look forward to reading their business publications. This sense of familiarity reduces the perceived buying risk.

The true test of business creativity therefore is in its consistency, rather than a striking on-page vision. The buyer wants to be able to predict how the company behaves so that they feel confident, secure and able to make a decision. This creates the right environment to make a purchase. Judged this way, business advertising creativity may be a good deal better than many of the critics might think.

Evan Ivey is executive director, AGA Group and chairman of the PPA Business Advertising Excellence Awards

There is not enough really good, strong creative business-to-business advertising. Every time I say this, arms are raised in horror. Apparently, I'm just propagating an unhelpful myth, scoring an own goal, hurting the very sector I'm supposed to champion.

It's not that there isn't any great advertising being done, there is. Some of them featured in this year's Periodical Publishers' Association Business Advertising Excellence Awards, for which I was chairman of judges. You will be able to see what I mean when the results are announced today. It's just that for every winner there are too many also-rans.

So what is to be done? I think there are three main crimes, and agencies and clients must both share the blame.

The first is committed by many clients, across all sectors, but it is especially acute in business to business. At AGA, we call it "comfortable conformity". What we have found is that, over time, business strategies in any given sector tend to converge and companies in similar categories adopt similar practices. If it works for them it must be a winner, seems to be the vibe. But the more they begin to think the same the more they act, look and sound the same too.

For example, a few years ago I worked with an accountancy practice which insisted its advertising must sound as if it had come from an accountancy practice. Now, on the one hand this doesn't sound like too much to ask, but they had just hired us to help them shift perceptions.

Clearly they didn't want the image of a youth brand, but just acting like everyone else would get them nowhere. Business magazines have a relationship with their readers that is based on trust. This offers advertisers the ideal advertising environment, but the potential is not always realised.

As agencies, it is our duty to disrupt the category thinking and deliver a uniqueness about brands we represent – because brands will only be successful and interesting to customers if they occupy a unique space. I'm not telling you anything new, but our consumer colleagues are ahead of us here.

The second crime concerns misunderstanding the business decision-making process – the customer journey towards any decision and the role of each communication channel in helping achieve it.

Put simply, we have multiple communications channels available, so why do we try to cram the entire story into one ad?

How many business adverts often end up being a whole list of bullet points. I know that buyers of technical products need technical information, but is that really the job of the advertising? Isn't that where data sheets, editorial and sales people come in?

Business publications can offer multiplatform solutions like conferences and websites, so agencies would be better utilising the "when baiting the trap with cheese, remember to leave some room for the mouse." Advertising has to concentrate on one message and communicate it creatively and memorably.

We are right to accuse our clients of providing bad briefs but, as business agencies, we have the responsibility of helping our clients properly use the full gamut of media at their disposal.

The third and final crime is the lack of investment in time and money. While we rarely see enough effort put into the thinking and into trying to find an insight, the real problem is finding the time, money and appetite for measuring effectiveness.

No one really knows how advertising works, so results are impossible to predict.

The best we can do is to invest in tracking, learn lessons and improve.

There is real concern about this at AGA and, in future, we will refuse to work with any client that will not measure, or at least attempt to measure, return on investment.

This is a lead we hope more in the industry will follow and this becomes evident in next year's awards.

Some of the winners of the PPA Business Advertising Excellence Awards are outstanding, whereas other advertisers and agencies still have much to learn.

Clients should strive to stand out, agencies must help clients resist over-complicating the ads and together we must measure what we do. Until that time, my fellow judges and I will continue to fret over the future of B2B advertising.

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