Keep the Customer Satisfied: The differences between B2B & B2C advertising

Ask a B2B shop about their B2C cousins and invariably you will hear something like this: “B2C agencies are a bunch of undisciplined, overpriced children who should stay away from the serious business of B2B marketing and leave it to the adults before they do some real damage.”

Ask a consumer agency a similar question and they’ll invariably reply: “B2B shops should keep their second-rate versions of ideas that they stole from outdated back issues of B2C awards annuals and leave the creativity to the real agencies – the ones who do the consumer marketing that those B2B shops only wish they could still do.”

And while this animosity is always just below the surface, the acrimony usually ratchets up whenever B2C agencies come sniffing around B2B agencies’ clients. Usually when the former’s consumer business starts slipping and they’re desperate for some revenue. When their senior management suddenly gets the bright idea that these poor B2B clients aren’t really philistines per se – they’re just ignoramuses in desperate need of a big, smart, warm, friendly B2C shop to show them how to do really good work. Someone who could easily produce some quality advertising that would win awards, fill agency coffers, and, of course, drive sales. Or whatever it is B2B companies need agencies to do.

Smart B2B shops who are under siege usually, to their clever credit, take a very interesting tack. They tell their clients that far from being ignoramuses, they’re actually geniuses - and shame on those fatuous B2C shops for treating them otherwise. For how could they be otherwise? It takes a genius to understand all the regulations, requirements and rules that govern B2B advertising. None of that stuff exists in the devil-may-care world of B2C advertising! Those clowns can say and do just about anything and the public will lap it up! But here in the real world of B2B advertising, rules and regulations, um, rule, and woe to the client who ignores them. (Or, for that matter, the agency that lets them).

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Yes.

For as with most eternal arguments, we’re not really talking about two sides of the same coin here. We’re talking about two utterly different coins. Actually that’s wrong. It’s more like we’re talking about a coin and a fish, with one side arguing that a coin is a lousy fish and the other that anyone who would use a fish for a coin should have their head examined.

In short, B2C shops think B2B agencies lack creativity, and are thus incapable of connecting with customers, thus losing their client sales. And B2B shops think that B2C agencies lack the discipline to work within the strict rules that many industries are governed by. Rules that, should they flout them, would result in serious financial disaster for the client and the agency alike.

But both of these criticisms are looking at the work from the wrong end of the telescope. They ignore the core challenge of any advertising problem – which boils down to four basic questions – and which applies whether you’re doing B2B, B2C or B2whatever-the-hell-else-there-is. And those questions are:

Who are we talking to? What do we want them to do? Why aren’t they doing it? Why should they care?

If you can’t answer those questions, you can’t make good advertising. Full stop. Whatever industry you’re in.

You start with those questions, and then as you’re answering them, you test your answers against the rules, regulations and requirements of the business you’re working in. And that’s true whether you’re talking to a B2C client or a B2B client. Don’t believe it’s true on the consumer side? Ask anyone who’s ever tried to sell beer or spirits to your friends, your neighbors, you. The state and county laws restricting, curtailing and monitoring the sale of alcohol – and the promotion, advertising and mention of it – are so byzantine, contradictory and fluid they would make Franz Kafka put away his pen in admiration. Ever try to market financial products? Health products? Beauty products? Same story.

Now are these consumer agencies dealing with exactly the same issues that business agencies are dealing with? Of course not. But are they capable of meeting this additional layer of criteria in order to produce great work. Yes.


If they are willing to respect the business they are working in. If they are willing to respect the customer they are talking to and the problem they are trying to solve.

And by respect, I should be clear that I do not mean simply adopting a tone that is serious, boring, dull, devoid of creativity and/or god forbid, fun.

Because dull is not respectful. It is insulting. And every consumer knows it whether you are foisting your boring message on them in their living rooms or in their offices.

“Respect” means answering the questions above deeply and thoroughly and honestly. Respect means doing your homework. A lot of homework. Respect means learning and thinking and arguing and thinking again. And frankly, if your agency – or any agency knocking on your door, filling up your inbox, or stalking you via social media - believes that that kind of respect – the respect of understanding the business of your business, understanding the competition, the category, the customer and your particular product or service within all of those things is unimportant or a hindrance to great work – then you should fire them.

And that’s true whatever you call your customers.