Why B2B Advertising Is Like the Awkward Girl in High School

You May Regret Turning Your Back on It One of These Days

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Milan Martin Milan Martin
Last month I went to my high school reunion. As these things go, it was a healthy mix of "nice to see you" and "you were a jerk back then and you're even more of a jerk now." But what struck me most was that many of the former "cool kids" -- especially the girls -- looked years beyond their age. Apparently all the chain smoking and binge drinking does eventually catch up with you. What's more, many of the girls who were considered geeks, losers or generally just undesirable were nothing short of knockouts and were a ton of fun to talk to.

My reunion experience is neither new nor shocking, but where the story becomes relevant to this blog is that the way high school kids see each other isn't that dissimilar to how a lot of agencies see clients.

My agency focuses a fair amount of its time helping businesses market themselves to other businesses -- B2B as it's been known since the inception of time (there's even a magazine for it). The saddest thing about B2B -- whether you want to admit it or not -- is that most agency pros still shy away from it in favor of what they see as the more sexy assignments. It's as if we've raised our young in this business to see a paradigm of: Consumer = Sexy; B2B = Boring.

Here's my theory: The notion of B2B is simply a flawed descriptor.

No matter how many times I see the phrase "business to business" I can't get the image out of my head of someone shouting at a large, faceless corporate HQ building.

Have you ever tried marketing to a business? Damn near impossible. They don't seem to respond at all to any kind of messaging or take an affinity to your brand -- no matter what you do. Why can't we get through to these businesses, you ask? Maybe it's because businesses don't have little league games to get home to. Or maybe it's because businesses won't Twitter about the great experience they had with your brand. Nor will they care enough to trash your brand on their Facebook page after a disappointing experience. Businesses won't do any of these things that create a real connection. Real brand value. Real purchases.

But people will.

The only good B2B communications out there today puts people (er, "consumers") at the center of it. People who are VPs of IT by day and VPs of TLC by night.

As David Ogilvy put it, you can't bore people into buying your product, you can only interest them into it. Why wouldn't this apply to people making purchases on behalf of their company?

Too many agencies and marketers look at B2B as a place where good enough is good enough. "Ya it's not the most exciting ad you've ever seen but, hey, it's not the most exciting product, either, is it?"

As a result, the talent in our industry gravitates towards consumer assignments. And they miss a huge opportunity to do what our business is really about: making our clients lots of money by creating insightful, meaningful and break-through communications with people.

From a go-to-market perspective, yes, B2B does stray from consumer marketing. While selling a data network needs to start at the same people-centric, gooey, insightful core as selling a can of Coke, the road to the sale on the B2B side of things is often a gauntlet of gatekeepers, influencers, decision-makers and check-writers. It's the job of today's smart B2B shop to become intimate with each of these players. And create a plan of attack, expertly orchestrated, that creates relevant connection between your brand and each of these folks.

But this can be intimidating and I believe it's where some agency talent skulks away in fear and seeks the comfort of simpler consumer campaigns. But for those brave souls who really dig this stuff, this is where it gets interesting!

When done well, B2B transforms from that awkward 13-year-old girl into a head-turning knockout who, by the way, has got some really interesting stuff to say.

The agencies that recognize this -- who befriend that girl for her inner beauty and potential and nurture a relationship with her -- are going to end up with a real beauty on their arm. The ones that don't -- the ones that only want to hang out with the "cool girls"? Well, let's just say that your '79 Camaro was cool back in 11th grade but the fact that you're still driving it today is just plain sad.

~ ~ ~
Milan Martin, exec VP-general manager, GyroHSR, New York.

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