It’s about being an entrepreneur and problem-solver as well as an artist

What makes marketing creative? Historically, when someone has invoked “creativity in marketing,” they were celebrating the cleverness of an ad. But as the remit of the CMO has expanded in recent years to include every aspect of the customer experience—spanning technology, data and analytics—the notion of marketing creativity has changed.
In the business-to-business (B2B) world, where one customer’s buying decision is overseen by an entire finance department and a single strategic misstep can cost the company a small fortune—if not several jobs—”marketing creativity” takes different shapes and forms.

If your company expertly uses data and analysis to quell a buyer’s concerns, that’s a technologically creative solution. If your team responds to an economic downturn by diversifying marketing spending and fiscal planning, that’s a fiscally creative answer. If you’re confident enough in your core product that you can drive traffic to a landing page with sports sponsorships and TikTok dances, that’s a culturally creative approach (and novel one for B2B organizations, too).

To understand the depth and breadth of creativity in B2B marketing, we interviewed dozens of advertising and marketing executives. We found ample evidence of creativity that goes beyond the words and pictures in ad campaigns. Their stories and the trends they reflect help illustrate what it means to be a creative marketer and deliver meaningful outcomes for the business.

Esquire Bank: Taking creativity to the cloud

B2B marketers can be as clever and traditionally creative as their b-to-c counterparts. They just don’t always have to be. Esquire Bank lends money to law firms to fund trial expenses. Last year, it brought in creative agency Park & Battery to help expand its national presence. The agency mimicked roadside and television legal ads—using the image of Esquire Bank co-founder and head of corporate development Ari P. Kornhaber (a former trial attorney), the bank’s phone number, and the catchphrase “Don’t be sorry, call Ari.”

They used those elements on billboards in Boston, Chicago, and Houston, posted ads in the elevators of office buildings where law firms were concentrated, and aired regionally targeted ads on Spotify, Roku, and Hulu.

The response was 9 million ad views, 305,000 TV spot views and 7,000 website visitors. But the award-winning campaign was only half of Esquire’s marketing equation.

Esquire was able to put those ads in front of the right audiences with help from Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud software. Where Esquire once reached out to law firms through state bar association events and referrals, Marketing Cloud helped Esquire generate more than 50% of its prospective law firm clients through digital marketing. Esquire announced in May that it’s expanding its use of Salesforce to include more artificial intelligence, advanced data analytics, and personalization features.

“When you’re talking about a B2B audience with lawyers who are notoriously difficult to sell to—they’re busy doing their own thing, they’re busy winning cases—what’s the best approach to let them know about the products and services that you have that are super unique?” said Kyall Mai, SVP and Chief Innovation Officer at Esquire. “The answer is a content marketing strategy with knowledge leadership at its core.”

Henkel: Building the ‘ABM pyramid’ a different way

Account-based marketing (ABM) is a type of marketing strategy that can seem formulaic and uninspired—largely because it treats companies as “accounts” rather than brands with unique stories to tell.

Two years ago, the marketing organization at Henkel—the German chemical and consumer goods giant—took a decidedly creative approach to building its ABM strategy. Instead of choosing their top accounts across sectors and creating one-to-one content from scratch, Henkel created separate industry- and sector-specific pyramids and placed applicable accounts within each. And rather than creating thought leadership content for specific clients first and then adapting the underlying narratives and messaging on an account-by-account basis, Henkel inverted the principle: The marketing teams developed content for the bottom part of the pyramid first, then incrementally worked their way upward.

“We built a long-term program from the ground up, which is not how a lot of companies do it,” Ryan Almond, Henkel’s global vertical marketing and ABM director, told Adweek. “You see so many companies build an ABM program one account at a time. It may work for that one client, but then they suddenly realize they’ve built a one-off snowflake, and they can’t scale it.”

In one example, Henkel crafted a comprehensive industry narrative and content pieces across the buying cycle in the data and telecom industry. This served as the basis for more personalized content targeted toward a specific U.S.-based multinational telecom company as well as many other accounts.

“Now it’s a lot easier for us to go to other companies in the sector and speak with credibility, because we have already immersed ourselves in the industry and understand how to speak their language on the most important and timely issues for them,” Almond said.

Clients get a more personalized and relevant version of Henkel’s content, while Henkel creates more valuable content more efficiently for a greater number of accounts and industries.

Sköna: Striking a balance between performance and brand marketing

In a challenging economy, it’s tempting to focus on easy tasks that keep the business humming. But this short-term mindset can deliver diminishing results.

Jenny Sagström, founder and CEO of B2B creative agency Sköna, has worked with cloud-based firm Snowflake, expense-management platform Findity, and communications-software company Sinch. In her experience, tech firms need to balance short-term concerns with long-term plans, which has yielded a marketing strategy Sköna calls “BrandGen.”

For the last seven years, Sköna has explained to clients that B2B spends roughly 92% of its marketing budget on performance marketing—which only addresses the 5% of B2B consumers who are currently in the market to buy something. But spending on brand, Sagström said, allows companies to give their landing pages “a juicy piece of content” such as “sexy video that sits in the corner of it that actually has more of a consumer angle and talks to people as if they’re humans.” Meanwhile, maintaining a bit of performance marketing spending allows B2B companies to hedge their bets during a long, tumultuous year.

Wasabi: Appealing to B2B clients on social media

When your CEO’s first job involved creating synthesizers for Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, being boring isn’t an option.

David Friend now leads cloud storage company Wasabi and has adapted his star-powered approach to marketing for modern audiences. His company uses music videos and short social clips on TikTok, Instagram, and elsewhere to speak directly to B2B decision-makers and treat them like human beings. It teams with Fenway Sports Group’s Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC to reach local B2B clients during Sox games and college football’s Wasabi Fenway Bowl in Boston and potential overseas customers during matchups in Liverpool, European tournaments and beyond.

“We’ve always approached marketing with a consumer mindset,” said Julie Barry, Wasabi’s VP of global brand and communications “It’s a different flavor than what typical B2B marketers do, but more importantly, every tech purchaser, IT developer, chief security officer and chief technology officer is a consumer.”

Creating videos of Wasabi staffers just hanging out during Sox games, Liverpool women’s team members playing “Hot or Not” or the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins scoring in front of a Wasabi sign targets a B2B audience that—much like everyone else—watches an average of 17 hours of online video each week. By being focused solely on cloud storage, Wasabi has given itself the latitude to take chances with digital and social media while wooing new clients at home and abroad with sports hospitality.

“Having that mentality of always punching above our weight has helped us to achieve that creativity,” Barry said. “We can’t outspend the big spenders, but we can outsmart them, so we have a mindset of never being satisfied with boring tech marketing.”

Pega: Forging a creative partnership between humans and machines

Marketers have found tremendous success using third-party data to customize and personalize the buying experience. But those analytics and artificial intelligence may require a human touch to make them uniquely personal.

Software firm Pegasystems Inc., for example, offers an AI-powered solution that tracks customers across many channels, incorporating data from transaction and browsing histories, customer service interactions and product usage so the AI model can make suggestions on the next-best action to take (e.g., an offer optimized for their needs). This allows real-time insights about customers’ behavior—in effect, isolating moments when the company can influence the journey—and permits customized messaging or functionality. For its own marketing campaigns, however, Pega is testing ways for humans and machines to work together more creatively.

On landing pages personalized for clients as part of Pega’s ABM program, the company is combining chatbots with human marketers. Catherine Dutton, vp of global ABM at Pegasystems, said the trial is meant to give Pega’s marketers a better sense of client pain points as well as how their marketing content is resonating with different buying cohorts.

“What better way to do that than to have marketers speak and work directly with our clients?” Dutton told Adweek. “Sure, we can do that through traditional methods like A/B testing and client-user groups, but you don’t necessarily get that real kind of interaction and feedback as you would with a marketer interacting directly with a client.”

Ultimately, Pega wants its account-based marketers to form new insights into Pega clients and act as an internal “CMO for the client organization.” In many ways, the trial is a creative detour around b-to-b marketing personalization’s technological disconnect.

B2B organizations face myriad problems that require creative solutions. But those problems can’t always be solved by those who are going to curate a gallery show after they wrap up a campaign. It’s an important distinction of B2B marketing—one that agencies would be wise to keep in mind when working with B2B clients.

This story is part of Adweek’s Creativity x Culture digital features package, which spotlights the people, marketing strategies, and creativity driving lasting cultural and societal change.

Originally published in AdAge, 2023, by Jason Notte and Paul Barbagallo.

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