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Global B2B: vive la différence

Can B2B marketing really be a global industry? I’m pondering this question as I sit on a Eurostar train in the Gare Du Nord, preparing to depart for...

Can B2B marketing really be a global industry? I’m pondering this question as I sit on a Eurostar train in the Gare Du Nord, preparing to depart for London, following last night’s formal announcement of the acquisition by UK-based agency IAS of its French counterpart Aastroem Munier BBN, which it billed as its first step in the road to global domination.

The deal was announced in the suitably grand surroundings of the British Embassy, which seemed appropriate to unveil a plan for global domination by a UK-based company… albeit one headed up by a fiercely proud and patriotic Scot (Rob Morrice).

As someone with immense passion and determination, I have no doubt that Rob Morrice is extremely well equipped to make this dream a reality. But my trip to Paris illustrated that making B2B truly global will require more than just simply stoicism and an acquisition warchest. B2B is profoundly different in different countries – Paris is an excellent case in point. Whilst in the UK and Germany there is a distinct B2B agency sector, with largely independent specialist consultancies dedicated to this field who compete with the big global agency groups, in France B2B is dominated by the so-called ‘corporate agencies’ who handle both B2C and B2B – the latter often very badly, so I’m told. Specialist B2B agencies are conspicuous by their absence – Munier was one of only a handful that had any credibility.

That’s not to say that B2B isn’t important in France, or that French B2B practitioners are not just as keen on advancement, recognition or learning from their peers as those in the UK, US or Germany. But it does suggest that in France, B2B is just that much less appreciated and understood – it still suffers from the stigma and prejudice that was apparent in the UK ten years ago.

Moreover, this is just one example of the challenges of conducting B2B on a global or international scale. More significantly, cultural differences run deep – for example, really engaging creative ideas are hard to implement across broad territories because cultural nuances are lost or offence is inadvertently caused – although as Bill Bellow, creative director of Munier (who is a Los Angelean living in Paris) was quick to point out, it makes the challenge more difficult, but far from impossible.

Of course, IAS isn’t the first agency to attempt to make a bid for global scale. Gyro famously established a number of offices in Europe and the US and then merged with US-based HSR, with the balance of power ultimately shifting from London to New York. Whilst it still has a significant presence on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond?) my personal impression of them is that these days they are very much run out of the US, with the other offices falling into line. Gravity is global group of specialist B2B agencies who are making great strides, including the UK agency formerly known as AGA, whilst Base One have established presences in four European countries. Recently WPP attempted to formalise its technology specialist agencies into a coherent network, including UK-based Banner Corp. From the US, only Doremus appears to be actively pursuing a global strategy – which suggests that the depression era US policy of isolationism may be a little more contemporary than we might think.

Whilst those agencies focused on globalisation are certainly in the minority for the timebeing, there is a sense of the gradual building of momentum. Just as successful brands need to think globally to survive, so too are the days of top tier agencies working isolation within a limited geographic territory and limited horizons numbered.

However, it would be unwise to regard the development of the agency community as a direct reflection of the development of the B2B industry in general. The relationship between the two is complex and multi-dimensional. Despite this, as a crude measure it is useful, and the success of agencies is both a demonstration of how clients’ thinking is evolving. Furthermore, agencies play a key role in educating clients about what they can and should do, and how they should be thinking. There is an element of ‘chicken and egg’ here.

Given the prevailing economic trends, it is beyond question that businesses of all kinds and in all sectors will be increasingly focused on globalising. Marketing should obviously be absolutely key to delivering this, but equally obviously, most brands are quite a long way from thinking, acting and behaving globally. The challenge from practitioners and agencies alike is to adjust their thinking and embrace a broader market view as quickly as possible. Time is most certainly of the essence, and companies like IAS will be in the vanguard.