What makes a successful B2B marketing agency?

B2B Marketing’s annual Agencies Benchmarking Report represents an extremely valuable insight into the B2B marketing agency scene in the UK and beyond. Alex Clarke casts an eye over the top performers

We’re in quite a privileged position really: the ability to provide objective commentary and analysis, without hidden agenda, is a rare commodity in this space, which is what makes the B2B Marketing Agencies Benchmarking Report such an exciting industry resource.

Aside from the top 70 agencies in the UK, the report lays out the fastest-growing marketing outfits in the country, the top international agencies, and also the best-in-class PR companies specialising in B2B. But for this particular nugget of B2B Marketing editorial gold, I'll be looking at the overall league table (ranking the top 70 UK agencies), with special focus on the top five, and exactly why they hit the jackpot this year.

Does less mean more?

At first glance, perhaps what's most noticeable about 2018’s league table is the number of agencies included has dropped from 75 in 2017 to 70 this year. The slightly trimmed ranking is most likely indicative of poor annual performances from those previously featured in past reports, as B2B Marketing’s editor-in-chief Joel Harrison speculates.

“A significant number of those who have previously featured have declined to be included,” he says. “In most cases, this is likely to be due to their figures showing a lack of growth, or even a decline in revenues over the previous financial year.

“It will be interesting to see if they reappear the following year, as is often the case.”

Indeed, this theory is reaffirmed by this year’s league table, with a handful of agencies making a triumphant return to 2018’s ranking following at least one year’s absence, including DWA, Earnest, Tomorrow People and Napier Partnership.

And a further 19 agencies are making their very first appearance (welcome!) on the report, reflecting both a rise in awareness for the annual rankings, as well as improved financial performance as a whole across all the agencies included (the UK gross income of B2B agencies saw consecutive double-digit growth, rising 14% from last year).

Collaborating equals moneymaking

Agencies Realise Group and Radley Yeldar made their league table debut in impressive fashion, ranking fifth and sixth place respectively. And, as Realise’s commercial director Neil Clayton explains, his agency’s success is largely a product of fruitful collaboration.

“There are five agencies in the [Realise] group that are operating in the digital space,” he says. “They’re all separately branded and commercially independent, but increasingly collaborative. This means we don’t need to build teams for each specialism in each agency – we can leverage expertise from within the group.”

Indeed, second-placed OgilvyOne Business also cites internal opportunities as a real driver for growth. “What was once the ‘dirty secret’ of doing B2B has become a highly valued specialism, and much appreciated,” explains its CEO Sam Williams-Thomas. “Other parts of the group are coming to us for advice and support. Their clients are looking for people who understand B2B, and speak their language.”

Words from the table topper

Analysis of the top-performing UK agencies wouldn’t be complete without commentary from the top-placed brand. Sharon Whale, CEO of runaway winning agency Oliver, explains the company’s success has been largely down to its vast international expansion and augmentation of its existing business model, which is squarely aimed at managing in-client marketing teams.

“Our ethos and model has really taken off,” she says. “It’s always been successful, but increasingly so over the past two or three years. Knowledge of this model is significant – and understanding of the market has fuelled our growth.

“Competition is increasing, but we’re still the only people set up from scratch to enable this. The speed of our expansion has increased recently.”

Oliver must be doing something right – its £71 million annual gross income dwarfs second-placed OgilvyOne Business at £23.3 million. And while this colossal figure is most likely supported by an equally mammoth 1258 company headcount (compared to OgilvyOne Business’ 165), Sharon explains there are numerous variables pointing to Oliver’s success, including the aforementioned focus on in-client agency teams, but also increased pressure from clients on delivering more value.

“Clients are looking to reclaim more value from budgets, and they’re coming to us to achieve this,” she says.

Raffaele Apostoliti, CEO of third-placed Expandi Group, agrees. “Everyone is under pressure to do more with less,” he admits. “There’s lots of downsizing inside clients, but at the same time, they’re being asked to do more with digital and social.

“We’re finding clients are buying into an omnichannel agency approach that can manage all solutions and touchpoints. And they’re looking for better data and analytics capabilities.”

What does the future of B2B hold?

If you’re looking to completely re-define your marketing over the next year with a shiny new toy that will magically solve all your issues, you’re in the wrong industry, I’m afraid.

As Kate Cox (CEO of fourth-placed agency Bray Leino) concludes, “Excellent B2B marketing is rooted in great insight, it’s customer-obsessed, it’s measurable and measured, it’s a blend of paid, owned and earned, and it’s built on great creative.

“This is the same as it’s always been. Different elements of this mix have been more in focus at different times over recent years, but today we need to be more balanced and to do all of them well.”

B2B Marketing Agencies Benchmarking Report 2018

Who are the UK’s best B2B marcomms and PR agencies? Revamped and expanded for 2018, this report is jam-packed with more analysis on the state of the B2B agency market, where it’s heading and what it means for you.

Access the full list of agency league tables

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