Is creativity essential to B2B?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines creativity as “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.  

So, in one of our Creative Conversations, we gathered three creatives and a planner to discuss the role of creativity in B2B marketing. As you might expect, there was consensus around the table that creativity was a good thing, but it can be misunderstood; creativity in B2B can take many forms

Natasha Freedman, Senior Copywriter, Ogilvy: Of course, it depends on what you mean by “creativity”. Whilst B2B clients may not always be looking for exotic imagery and unusual analogies, there is room for creativity of some sort, be it strategy, targeting or tone of voice.

Nik Myers, Planning Partner, Ogilvy: Creativity is about being less ordinary. With the level of noise increasing exponentially year on year, the need for creativity has never been greater. Every client likes to believe their product has a magic sauce, but invariably it doesn’t. They believe a straight description of features and benefits will bring people flocking, but it won’t. There is a need for storytelling.

Andrew O’Sullivan, Associate Creative Director, Ogilvy: B2B seems to have an allergy to awareness over product – and this is where brands will have to differentiate. The differentiation will not be about products, it will be about how brands connect with their audience.


Does B2B creativity start with the brief?

Simon: As creatives, we want to have our cake and eat it. We say we want a really tight brief that’s been signed off, and a proposition with a USP we can get really excited about (which is difficult as products and services are all so similar these days) – but we also want creative freedom.

Nik: The brief is there to provide a spark and inspiration; it’s not there to set rules…

Simon: The brief is also there as the means by which creative work is judged. It enables you to establish if the work answers the question originally posed.

Andrew: If a good brief provides the guardrails, the creativity comes in finding a solution working between them.

Is B2B decision-making emotional or rational?

Nik: I think there’s a misapprehension that B2B decision-making is steady, logical. 70% of decision-makers admit that they make business decisions based on gut-instinct.

Simon Fraser, Creative Director, Ogilvy: …and yet tech companies have been telling B2B audiences for years that the technology can provide them with all the information, data and insights they need to make the right decision – with the result that you’ll never have to make a decision based on gut-instinct again.

Nik: But all that information ultimately has to go into a human person who will make the decision. B2B decision-making is a much more emotional process than B2C because the risks are so much greater. Buy the wrong trousers and the risks are negligible; buy the wrong cloud solution for your company and your career could be finished.  When you’re dealing with individuals and not companies, emotion will trump logic.

Why are so many B2B clients resistant to the creative approach?

Andrew: Because it takes a brave individual to say “I'm doing things differently” or “I’m not doing things the way my boss expects”. And favouring a campaign that you believe will emotionally connect is a very difficult position to maintain.

Nik: Also, the risk of a failed test is greater. If you’re going after a small audience and you get it wrong, you can lose that sale completely; they’ll never come back. Most of our B2B client marketers are courageous; they do want to do interesting work, but sometimes they’re stifled by the hierarchy, decision-makers higher up who don't come from a marketing background. They’re technologists, finance, engineers, product people and they’re more logical. That can stifle sales and marketing. We need to help our clients sell stuff in.

Do brand guidelines hinder creativity?

Natasha: Most of the time brand guidelines are fine to work with and some clients will let us flex the rules if they particularly like an idea that is not “within brand guidelines”. They should be guidelines, not a straitjacket.

Andrew: Brand guidelines are still produced in a very dated way. Brand consistency is usually about logos being the right colour and in the right place, and tone. However, some brands are more flexible. Billabong’s logo is different on different media. They have a lockup, but it can appear in many different forms. Their brand is not just about the logo.

Nik: But they had to get there somehow. Often you have to enforce the rules very firmly until everyone understands the brand. Only then you can relax them. If there are no brand guidelines and client feedback is “that doesn't sound/look like us, have another go”, it’s very difficult to know how to respond. Complete freedom isn't all it’s cracked up to be – you need guardrails, and that’s something that planning can help creative with.

Does creativity undermine the seriousness of B2B decision-making?

Natasha: Of course not, you can be creative, but it’s just about finding the right tone of voice. There’s a time for belly laughs and a time for something that raises a smile. You can be creative by dramatising a benefit or risk and still be serious with it.

Nik: The question seems to be assuming that creativity and seriousness are two separate things. You don’t have to make a choice, but there will be occasions when being light-hearted is inappropriate.

Andrew: Take the Economist. Their target audience is the C-suite and the wit and sophistication is appropriate, but remember that CEOs watch Love Island too. Of course, trying to sell an ERP system with a cartoon-based campaign might be a bit childish.

Natasha: I think that clients sometimes say they want serious, but if you push them a little, they’ll see what they could have.

Top tips on creativity in B2B

In B2B, creativity can take many forms. It's not just about execution. You can have a creative strategy or media plan.

There is a lot of average content out there, be prepared to push clients for small steps that can lead to larger gains.

Be clear about what clients mean by ‘serious’ or ‘within brand guidelines’ – they probably don’t mean dull and unimaginative – is it about tone or linking to other brand activity.

Know your client. Know when they’re looking for time spent on something a bit different and when they just need to get a campaign out of the door.

Do what you can to help your clients sell in creative solutions to the decision-makers in their organisation.


There's more from our Creative Conversations series - read "The perfect agency-client relationship" here.