February 29, 2024

Fixing the creativity crisis in B2B

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There’s a creativity crisis in B2B marketing.

And the fact that you clicked on this article means you agree (or you strongly disagree; either way, getting the click is half the battle 😉)

And unfortunately, it’s a crisis that’s only getting worse at a time when B2B businesses need creative ideas more than ever.

Even as ‘brand’ becomes the buzzword for B2B and the industry is handing out B2B ‘Creative Lions’ at Cannes, most B2B Marketers are doing exactly what they’ve done for years.

Short-term sales activation, looking for endless “quick wins”, and pushing products and features rather than tapping into the power of ideas and emotions.

And I don’t blame anyone for the crisis. 

We all know how risk-averse B2B can be:

“No one ever got fired for buying an IBM” is as relevant now as it was then (ironically, the most iconic piece of B2B creative marketing there’s ever been!)

Most traditional B2B businesses are under a lot of pressure.

Changing customer behaviour, digital transformation, more and more competition in the market and profit margins being squeezed.

Hardly the environment for a creative renaissance!

The challenge facing B2B marketing

For many B2Bs, marketing is nothing more than feeding the sales machine with as many leads as possible. Doesn’t matter about the quality; just keep the volume up!

Even though a generation of B2B marketers might feel uneasy about this role (and probably got into marketing because they wanted to do something creative), they just get on with it because it’s what the bosses want. 

And it does seem it’s what the bosses want. The short-term, route 1, product-led marketing approach has been validated by a generation of CEOs and Finance teams who aren’t interested in creative ideas or “brand-building”.

Their priority is next quarter’s numbers, which means going after the lowest-hanging fruit and relentlessly targeting those 5% of buyers we think are in the market at any given time.

And you don’t need to be creative to get those buyers; you just need to churn out endless LinkedIn posts about your latest product or service, and eventually, you’ll get some leads and sales. I didn’t say this approach doesn’t work at all!

The problem is that it’s working less and less.
For all the same reasons that I mentioned above.

  • Customers are changing
  • Digitisation is disrupting almost every industry
  • Competition is fierce
  • Customer acquisition is rising

The old ways of marketing are becoming less effective.

The unfortunate problem with ROI

CEOs and CFOs love to talk about ROI, and most marketers want to indulge them, so spend ages pretending as though they can measure it accurately (they can’t).
The problem with ROI is twofold, and both limit creativity in marketing.
Firstly, ROI is an efficiency measure, not an effectiveness measure: from the return on your investment alone, you have no idea whether your campaign is actually working. Spending £50K to make £150K is a better ROI than spending £1 million to make 2, but I know which profit number I’d rather hit.

Secondly, the rationalisation of ROI in every marketing decision means there’s no room for creativity. There’s no room to trust the marketing team you’ve hired to make the decisions they know will work, even if they can’t prove it.
The relentless focus on ROI is killing creativity in B2B and slowly killing your future cash flow.

If every campaign or piece of content must have a business case, it’s much easier to churn out boring, bland, conservative content. It’s easier to stick to what you've always done because you know you can "prove" the value to Finance, and marketing becomes just another entry on the balance sheet. 

Never realising its potential as a creative function that can tell a distinctive story about your brand and actually start lifting your business beyond the commodisation of your industry. 

You may not be able to differentiate on product or price, but you can certainly differentiate on how you make your customers feel.

And that’s the power of creative ideas and focusing on brand-building, not sales tactics. Think about investing in the quality of your content as investing in your future cash flow from those customers who are on the sidelines and waiting for any business to rise above the market and get their attention.
The opportunity is there, but are you ready?

We need a new measure

Let’s all agree for a moment that ROI is dead (although FInance may take some persuading!)


So what do we do instead?

Well, let me introduce a new measure. 

One that will (I hope) push creativity up the marketing and business agenda.

What is this new measure, I hear you say?

Well, it’s called ROI!

Wait… what?

You wouldn’t expect to read an article about creativity in marketing and not expect a bit of sleight of hand, would you?

Because it’s not ROI as you know it, instead it’s ROIdeas:

R - Return 

O - On

I - Ideas

But it’s more than just a clever (even if say so myself 😂) name.

It’s a new manifesto for B2B marketers.
If it challenges you to spend even a few more meetings thinking about the quality of your content ideas rather than measuring your return on investment, it’ll be worth it.
I realise it’ll take a big mindset shift, and you might say that ROIdeas feels too woolly or intangible.

"We have to measure ROI. It's the only way the CEO or the CFO can understand what we do.”

“Creativity is all good, but what about my Cost per Click?"

However, my answer is that marketers need to better demonstrate the value of creative ideas without reducing them to lines on a spreadsheet.

We all know that creativity can drive huge commercial value; we see it all the time in B2C. Most of our buying decisions in “real life” are because of great creative ideas from brands we’ve seen on TV or social media.

So why should B2B be any different?

I don’t have all the answers.
Part of the point of this article was to open up a conversation to explore different ways of measuring the impact of B2B content, to look at ways to move beyond how much money was spent or how many clicks you got and understand how the quality of your content actually made your audience feel about your brand.

I'm certain that by 2030, B2B marketing will be more about long-term brand building than short-term sales tactics, and even the most old-fashioned CEOs will have to admit it.
The old ways of thinking will be dead. ROI will be dead. But creative ideas will thrive.

It’s time to change direction before it’s too late.

P.S. I know this article might be triggering for many marketers but I’ll leave you with two stand-out creative moments in B2B marketing in the last 12 months from Workday and Quickbooks.

Who would have thought a chicken could sell accounting software? Love it.

To learn more, please see: https://thoughtleadershipb2b.co.uk

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