It’s the agencies that are la différence in cross-Channel B2B
Imagine a world where, as an in-house or client side marketer working in B2B, you were forced to work with agencies who didn’t really understand your needs, and who saw you as a second class citizen - a kind of poor relation. As a result, you receive sub-standard service and sub-standard product from your marketing agencies, who generally appeared to be going through the motions with the work you commissioned from them.
Sounds pretty dreadful doesn’t it? Not a great environment to be working in. But it’s just this kind of scenario which many UK B2B marketers found themselves in ten years ago - and its exactly the scenario which B2B marketers in France find themselves in today. That’s because the specialist B2B agency community in France simply does not exist - bar the odd exception (SteinIAS’s longstanding Paris office being the only one that I know of) there are no B2B agencies in France.
The contrast is stark with the UK, where the B2B agency sector is in rude health, growing by the year as more and more established agencies align themselves with this market and others fragment to form spinoffs and startups. And the situation is not dissimilar in other parts of Europe - Germany, for example, has a healthy B2B agency community, as does the Netherlands, the Nordic counties and even smaller nations such as Belgium and Denmark.
Quite why B2B specialists have failed to emerge in the Eurozone’s second biggest economy, its seems, is a mystery; especially when you consider that France does have a thriving agency culture, providing the HQ for some of the world’s largest agency groups (Havas and Publicis). Perhaps the strength of these groups, and their inevitable preoccupation with big consumer brands, is the reason for the failure of B2B specialists to become established across the Channel. Alternatively, perhaps it is the result of an economy where the technology, financial and professional services sectors (which have been the cradles for B2B in the UK) are less well developed, as a result creating less opportunities for ambitious would-be French B2B agency startups. Or perhaps it relates to different cultural notions of entrepreneurship - the description of England as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’, eager to tout their wares, was used by Napoleon, although it originates from Adam Smith. Perhaps there is something in the British psyche which makes us more likely to sell the business of selling.
Whatever the reasons, the results are clear: development of the B2B industry in France is significantly behind that of the UK - perhaps more than ten years behind. It is less understood, less sophisticated (as an industry) and far more fragmented or piecemeal. Marketers working for B2B brands France may quite reasonably regard themselves as second class citizens. This is surely hindering France development in many key categories or sectors, and its competitiveness as a nation.
Perhaps it’s time, therefore, for UK-based B2B marketers to renew their respect for agencies and the role that they have played in nurturing the industry. None of us would be where we are without them - and for that we owe them a debt of thanks. With the establishment of the Business Marketing Collective, agencies will certainly have their opportunity to play their role in the next evolution of the B2B marketing industry.
But where does that leave B2B in France? Does the lack of agencies mean it will always be a B2B backwater? Well, perhaps not: there are signs that things may be starting to change. I was invited to join the speaker roster at an event in Paris at the beginning of Feb (organised by SteinIAS and sponsored by Eloqua Oracle) and was tentatively invited to a couple of further ones on the back of that. Clients and other service providers are clearly interested in B2B issues, and perhaps they can gather some momentum between them. We wish them bon chance and would love to hear from anyone else working in B2B in France, to be if we can be of assistance.