Tickling the ivory towers for some sign of b-to-b life

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I was comparing notes the other day with the head of an integrated marketing communications agency on the problems of hiring in the business-to-business realm. It seems there is one critical similarity in college training in this area for both marketing students and journalism students. That is, very few colleges do much more than pay lip service to b-to-b, which can make recruiting awfully tough for companies in the b-to-b arena.

Sure, on the marketing and advertising side, there are a few stalwart souls working hard to spread the word and further the study of business-to-business-notably Bob Lauterborn of the University of North Carolina, Don Schultz at Northwestern and Ralph Oliva of Penn State. But, for the most part, schools seem to be footnoting b-to-b at best.

The same is going on in communications studies, where print is seen as newspapers and consumer magazines, while trade publications are often ignored or, worse, snubbed as being less ethical than the "real" press. (Indeed, several newspaper reporters over the years have made the mistake of looking down their noses at me and remarking snootily, "Oh yes. Trade press. You trade stories for ads, don't you?" To paraphrase the old adage, hell hath no fury like a trade editor scorned.)

Those of us in business-to-business areas know that, whether it be marketing, advertising or journalism, b-to-b has much to offer. The work can be exciting, the challenges interesting and the opportunity to dig deep into a single area, exploring the many facets of that subject, is exceedingly satisfying in the long run. But that doesn't make it any easier to lure talent.

Kids coming out of school seem to want the so-called glamour world of the consumer, the bright lights and bubble gum, the dandruff shampoos and the hemorrhoid creams. Somewhere along the way, they got the idea that marketing feminine hygiene products and plaque removers was far more exciting than building a solid marketing program for pistons or plastics or anything else not sold at Wal-Mart.

So the marketing and advertising graduates set out for the consumer conglomerate megastars, while the communications grads head off for the newspapers, all with dreams of glory and stars in their eyes.

Still, one has to wonder why selling long-distance service to John and Jane Public is inherently more exotic than selling it to medium and large businesses. Or whether the greater challenge is in pushing PCs to families that buy them one at a time or to corporations that buy in bulk-big bulk.

The thing is, the lines are blurring. Look at the companies in our ranking of the Top 100 Business-to-business Advertisers in this issue. Slowly, under the growing influence of the high-tech and telecom crowd, they're putting more money into national and spot TV, radio and newspapers.

While the trade press is holding its own as the leading advertising category for the top 100, consumer magazines saw a 14.1% increase in b-to-b business in 1997.

At the same time, consider the growing number of massive corporate branding campaigns splashed across the media for companies that do nothing but sell their goods and services to other companies.

And this is just in measured spending. While AT&T spent less in 1997 than in 1996 on measured categories, Jim Speros, the company's VP-advertising and marketing communications, says spending didn't drop. It just migrated to other, nonmeasured areas such as direct marketing and the Internet.

Another example here is Macromedia, a software developer that's showcasing its wares on a nifty consumer site, ShockRave, that's not only looking to make some money but is also a b-to-b marketing ploy designed to give Macromedia an image of cool.

The high-tech crowd, it seems, thinks like consumer marketers in a b-to-b world. They're a hybrid that increasingly is forcing the rules to change and the marketing lines to shift just through its sheer volume.

B-to-b and consumer practices are crossing back and forth in an intricate dance as marketers from both sides learn from each other. B-to-b doesn't have to be boring and unimaginative work targeted at an audience that thinks too much, while consumer work doesn't need to be all fluff and flash focused on an audience that doesn't think at all.

It's an interesting new world out there, and the high-tech side of b-to-b is leading the way.

Now, if we could just figure out how to wire up a few ivory towers and let those professors in on our secret.

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