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‘An exciting new chapter for B2B’

This year sees the launch of the Creative B2B Lions to celebrate game-changing work for products and services that are purchased by professionals on behalf of businesses. But why has this watershed moment taken so long? By Cos Mingides, founding partner of BBN’s London-based B2B agency True

B2B Brands are the engine of the global economy and business brands like GE, IBM, Cisco, SAP and Goldman Sachs are some of the most highly valued in the world. Yet B2B marketing has remained firmly in the shadow of B2C. With this year’s launch of the Creative B2B Lions, B2B is finally taking centre stage.

It’s not as though B2B campaigns haven’t been making an impact at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Last year, Doconomy’s ‘2030 Calculator’ won the Grand Prix in Creative eCommerce. ‘Fearless Girl’ from State Street Global Advisors became one of the most awarded campaigns in the history of the Cannes Lions in 2017, winning four Grand Prix. Other past big winners include Mailchimp, winner of the Cyber Grand Prix for ‘Did You Mean Mailchimp?’, and Volvo Trucks, which picked up two Grand Prix for ‘Epic Split’ starring Jean-Claude Van Damme.

These campaigns showed that B2B brands can drive culture and set the creative benchmark every bit as high as their B2C counterparts. Now, with the Creative B2B Lion, we finally have a dedicated platform to advance the evolution of the sector.

The B2B marketing sector is still in its nascency compared with B2C. Research released last year from System1 and the B2B Institute shows a creative crisis in B2B, with B2B ads significantly under-performing against their B2C counterparts. A total of 75% of ads tested only achieved a one-star on their five-star ‘emotion-to-action’ measurement system — meaning the ad is contributing zero in terms of long-term market-share growth.

It’s a complex issue that has developed over time and is primarily driven by the rise of digital, which resulted in a painful period for B2B. As everything moved online and away from the traditional trade press, the ATL B2B agencies lost their canvas for creativity and the direct-marketing agencies grew, creating a proliferation of agencies focused on sales activation. Email marketing became the primary communication channel, which is hardly conducive to creativity or big ideas. And as the sector became more and more sales-focused, marketing departments were slowly devalued.

The game has now changed. The rise of programmatic ad buying and addressable TV has been revolutionary in B2B. Suddenly, above-the-line channels that were previously prohibitive could be bought in a more targeted way, lowering the barrier to entry and raising the creative possibilities.

The other obstacle was the lack of empirical evidence on B2B effectiveness. The launch of LinkedIn think tank The B2B Institute resulted in the creation of research that marketers and agencies could use to make the case for brand building and creativity. In 2019, The B2B Institute commissioned pioneering research with Les Binet and Peter Field, in conjunction with the IPA, called The 5 Principles Of Growth In B2B Marketing, and this laid the groundwork for B2B effectiveness. Among several other great research papers, they also worked with Byron Sharp and The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute to launch How B2B Brands Grow, which has changed the way brands look at the role of marketing.

Marketers now have the evidence to build a strong business case for investing in big ideas that get talked about, drive culture and build fame for B2B brands in the wider world. But B2B leaders are not accustomed to investing in big, fame-driving campaigns. To do anything meaningful, B2B production and media budgets need to be a lot higher than they are now. Creativity should be considered a valuable asset that will be a driver of business growth. That shift in mindset is critical as we enter the next stage in the evolution of B2B.

Anita Elberse, a Harvard Business School professor and author of Blockbusters, a book analysing routes to success in the entertainment industry, says:

In investing, we intuitively think we should make a number of small bets. A blockbuster strategy is the opposite. It means making fewer huge investments. But it turns out to be safer.”

The B2B brands that understand this quickly and bet big on creativity now will be the ones shaping the future and leading the way in their industries. It is a key moment in time where brands can gain a major competitive advantage.

“The B2B brands that bet big on creativity now will be the ones shaping the future and leading the way in their industries”

From a creative-industry perspective, a challenge that will be harder to overcome quickly for B2B is that the work simply isn’t as visible as it is in B2C. This is because audiences tend to be smaller, media is more targeted and brands are lower profile. This acts as a barrier to attracting industry talent to B2B agencies as there isn’t the same pull factor for the industry’s leading creatives and strategists.

But arguably, marketers, creatives and strategists have much more scope to make their mark in B2B. As so many brands lack maturity, agencies are often working with almost a blank sheet of paper — an inspiring prospect and a rarity in the consumer world. This level of creative freedom should entice anyone in the industry with ambitions to shine. And as the level of creative work elevates over time, B2B will attract a wider pool of talent.

The launch of The Creative B2B Lions will certainly go a long way to helping this. This is the beginning of an exciting new chapter for B2B.


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