How to make your B2B marketing more creative

Ahead of his joint Ignite London session with Brian Macreadie, David McGuire suggests three steps to get more creative work from your team.

Frankly, it’s bizarre that B2B ever got pigeonholed as marketing’s less creative half. 

Think about it. We have long sales cycles, career-defining purchase decisions, and limited options for differentiation. There’s often detailed data on buyers, and lifetime customer value can be dizzyingly high. What better conditions could you want to create memorable campaigns that challenge, delight, and connect at a deep level?

Research from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute shows that emotion is actually more important in B2B decision making than in B2C. So when B2B marketers report their organisation is getting more supportive of creative risk-taking, or that creativity is critical to achieving marketing KPIs, the only real surprise is that we didn’t get there sooner.

All the incentives are there to create marketing work that’s impactful and inventive. So why are so many of the campaigns in B2B so… well… not?  

There’s a big difference between saying you want your marketing to be creative, and actually delivering that work. And in our joint session at this year’s B2B Ignite London, Brian Macreadie and I will explore how you can get from one to the other.

Wanting creativity is one thing; delivering is another

From my perspective as creative director at a writing agency, I’ve seen firsthand how a brief that looks creative at the outset can gradually turn into something much more ordinary. 

Maybe other stakeholders got involved. Perhaps sales insisted on adding more and more product information, or broadening the audience, until the message was no longer distinctive. Possibly someone insisted on making the wording “more businesslike” (for which, read “vaguer and harder to understand”).

Usually, it’s the stakeholders.

It’s not hard to see why. In many B2B markets, there’s a well-defined consideration set: the usual suspects that’ll make up a buyer’s shortlist. So for a B2B brand, there’s a strong reason to look like your face fits. Stepping outside the established approach carries an element of risk – and that can make innovative ideas tricky to approve.

As a result, the recycle bins of B2B marketing teams and agencies are overflowing with the remains of creative work.

Three steps to make creativity happen

Thankfully, I also get to observe the clients who do consistently get creative ideas to market. And if you’re serious about using creativity to give your marketing an edge, I see three clear steps which will make you more likely to succeed.  

1. Focus on small, deliberate tests

Creativity doesn’t have to be a big splash – and you don’t have to suddenly risk everything all at once. Instead, you can test a creative approach to one particular challenge or area within your market; that way, even if the idea falls flat, you’ve learned something.

Crucially, this also makes your creative ideas easier to sign off. The stakes for each individual bet are relatively low, and “We’re testing a new approach” is simple to explain and agree to. Then, when you need to make bigger changes, you’ll have more data to inform your choice.

2. Set clear goals and limits

Creativity is intelligence at play. So you have to set the rules of the game.

You might think creative people want the blankest sheet of paper, the largest canvas, and the fewest constraints. And that the more freedom you give, the more inventive the work will be. But usually, the right limitations can serve as inspiration; knowing what you can’t do is a great starting point.

 “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl"

TS Eliot,

Clear parameters don’t limit creativity; they grant permission. Because by defining where the boundaries lie, you’re also saying everything between them is up for grabs. And as a bonus, you’re less likely to get work that’s completely unusable.

As David Ogilvy put it: “Give me the freedom of a tight brief.”

3. Follow through – and do it consistently

In Return of the Jedi, there’s a bit where the rebel commander Admiral Ackbar declares: “It’s a trap!”

It's a trap!

And here’s a secret: writers and designers can easily start to feel the same way when a client’s brief asks us to take a creative approach.

That’s because we know there’s a fair chance we’ll put in extra effort to come up with something really new – that we really believe in – only to have it watered down or rejected outright the first time it reaches a wider stakeholder group. 

Submitting a creative idea can make you feel vulnerable; it takes a degree of trust. And it’s hard to motivate creative people to give their best when the “creative approach” often ends up being a slight variation on what the client already had – which is fine, but feels disappointing.

But there’s a flipside. If you consistently follow through, manage stakeholders’ expectations, and bring those treasured ideas to market, your creatives will notice. Quickly, you can become a favourite client, with everyone going the extra mile.

Stack the odds in your favour

There’s no judgement here. With complicated subject matter, interference from sales and technical colleagues, and strong reasons to avoid risk, being creative in B2B marketing is no picnic.

But remember, all your competitors’ marketers are facing exactly the same things. And that gives you a real opportunity to stand out, gain attention, and improve share of mind if you can manage to be even a little bit different.

At Ignite, Brian and I will dive a bit deeper into the challenges our audience see – and bring agency and client-side perspectives you can use to unlock that creative side.

In the meantime, start by tackling small challenges, define them as clearly as you can, and show your creative people they can trust you with their ideas. You might be surprised how far you get. 

Want to learn more about transforming your marketing?

Attend Ignite London, the UK’s leading hybrid conference on all things B2B on 6 July. With six streams laser-focused on solving your challenges, there’s something for the entire team. You’ll leave with actionable insight from the best in business to re-ignite your marketing the next day!

Sign me up!

Ignite London