Looking for the right B2B agency partner? Here's what you need to know.
DPR&Co Co-founder and Agency Principal Phil Huzzard explores the requirements of good B2B marketing partners and provides a little insight to help ensure the partner you choose is right you for.
Large-scale B2B brands operate in a very different environment to consumer brands. This distinction is particularly evident in the industrials/OEM marketing sector. So, having an agency partner that both embraces and excels in B2B communications is crucial.
Frustratingly for discerning B2B marketers, much of the advertising industry is structured to meet the needs of consumer brands. This is especially the case for larger, multinational agencies whose processes, methodologies and even their hiring decisions are shaped to meet the needs of FMCG, fashion, financial services, grocery brands and other consumer categories.
On the surface, this failure to understand the needs of B2B clients makes no sense. The value of B2B transactions can be comparatively large and their offerings tangibly differentiated. In addition, B2B clients can be worth a lot.
Despite this, the industrials/OEM sector is replete with bland, features-and-benefits driven, dumbed-down (as opposed to distilled) advertising – a sure sign of tepid agency commitment and motivation.
Some truly amazing clients find themselves at the bottom of their agency’s priority list or become the training ground for new staff, simply because they are B2B.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Great B2B agencies understand that, while B2B clients often don’t feature strongly at awards nights, they are both fascinating and rewarding to work with. They also understand that the people these companies are selling to are just as human as their consumer counterparts – with their own rational and emotional drivers and concerns. They are, in fact, consumers themselves.
Here’s my opinion on why B2B clients often get the short end of the creative stick and some tips on how to avoid being promised marketing heaven and winding up in purgatory. I hope this makes selecting your next agency partner easier, less risky, and more satisfying.
Why the mismatch?
The industrialised world has evolved over hundreds of years.
By contrast, advertising is an industry that has evolved over little more than a century.
Over much of this period, consumer marketing has been the industry's focal point. To better understand this phenomenon, watch the Emmy Award winning TV series, Madmen – a show that tracks the exploits of the US ad industry’s best and brightest in the 60’s and 70’s. I challenge you to find a single mention of a B2B client relationship.
Why? Because B2B marketing has always been seen as detail-orientated and dry. For some, it’s just not sexy or exciting work – being traditionally focused on trade shows, trade media and sales collateral to build awareness and create product demand.
Moreover, large mainstream ad agencies' reward structures and team cultures were based on securing big media budgets (lots of leverage) and the prestige of big-brand clients. Managing highly-targeted, complex subject matter requiring real technical understanding is a challenge for multinational agencies – partly due to their rapid turnover of staff.
The heart of the issue is that B2B marketing is more complicated than B2C. And the reason is simple.
The complexities of B2B
B2B advertising differs from consumer advertising because there is a more complex customer dynamic to consider.
With B2C advertising, the agency is focused solely on one target group – consumers. Sure, you’ll want to segment and prioritise your audience. But it’s still a singular market dynamic.
With B2B advertising, there are 2 distinct buying agendas. The first is that of the client and how it articulates its value. But because your client is a business dealing with its own customers, there’s a second audience to contend with; your client’s customer.That means a lot more to learn, nuances to observe, and the need for a deeper relationship with your agency.
Further complicating this dynamic is that B2B advertising (especially in the industrials sector) almost always involves solving more complex problems than consumer marketing. This means acquiring and assimilating deep knowledge about what your client sells, how they sell it and the value it delivers across an entire value chain.
The B2B brands that get it right
We work with several global B2B OEMs – all phenomenally successful. From a marketing standpoint, they have some key attributes in common.
- To market their products effectively, they require their agencies to know what they do and the problems they solve. There’s no substitute for this if you intend to create credible communications.
- The best B2B marketers have brand guardians who go to extraordinary lengths to ensure every agency partner works as part of a choreographed team.
- Accuracy and rigor is never allowed to dim the drive for creativity. Features and product benefits-driven communications are eschewed. The enhanced customer outcome is always at the centre of every communication.
- They allow their agency partners ‘inside the tent’, with training and team building to engender mutual trust and shared commitment.
- A shared commitment to strong brand stewardship, customer-focused communications and deep, partnership-style agency relationships is a hallmark of success.
- The relationships are typically deeper and longer than those in the B2C sector.
What to look for in a B2B agency partner
Here’s a checklist of attributes to guide you to a strong B2B agency relationship:
- History – does the agency have a long history of success working with discerning B2B clients? This really matters as it demonstrates that the agency has the will and stamina to deliver for you in the long term.
- Processes – what is the agency’s process for gaining an understanding of you and your customers? Can it conduct genuine, unbiassed research on your behalf and integrate it into the work they do for your brand? Has the agency developed insightful, research-informed strategies that have solved problems and ‘moved the needle’ for other clients?
- Senior people – the best B2B people understand business. Make sure your senior people are part of the engagement. They are businesspeople like you and will understand you better than anyone else in the agency.
- Creativity – look for a track record of compelling creative that you think is reflective of how you see your brand being represented.
- A true partnership - Over the term of your relationship, problems are inevitable, especially if your agency is pushing you (as they should). You need a relationship that’s sufficiently robust to weather the odd hiccup. Personal relationships are important. Both parties need to build up a ‘trust bank’ that keeps things on an even keel.
How to engage a B2B agency
Here are a few pointers that may help you choose the right B2B advertising partner:
- Don’t make it a creative pitch. Just don’t! Look for some advertising you admire, find out who did it and contact them. Do your research and conduct interviews. Follow up with a series of meetings. Get a sense of whether the agency has developed an understanding of your business and feels like part of the team. Look for ideas that may be outside of your current range of thinking – views that may challenge your status quo. If you need to engage in a competitive procurement process, base it on agency capability, its understanding of your challenge and its track record in solving similar problems or challenges.
- If you’re expecting a partner to spend a lot of time with you during a procurement process, pay for it. You’ll be expecting the agency to invest a lot in sharing their IP with you. It’s only fair that you compensate them. You’ll also feel less obliged to the agencies you don’t move forward with. Most agencies will see even a small payment as being indicative of you being a client they want to work with – one that values their time and ideas. They’ll go to much greater lengths to win your business.
- Remember that you want a partner, not an entertainer. Agencies are renowned for putting on a good show – amazing offices and wonderful experiences – all of which can be very seductive. Don't be swayed. Focus on a point a year from now and consider what’s going to be working for you then.
- Commitment over all else. Over the term of your relationship, problems are inevitable, especially if your agency is pushing you (as they should). You need a relationship that’s sufficiently robust to weather the odd hiccup. Personal relationships are important. Both parties need to build up a ‘trust bank’ that keeps things on an even keel.
We’re happy to advise on an agency selection process. We also welcome discussions with B2B marketers (especially those in the industrial, construction, manufacturing and engineering sectors) to see if we’re a good fit.