In Conversation: Pushing the Boundaries of B2B Communications

How-to get stakeholder buy-in for creative B2B communications

How-to guides

In a fast-changing world, tried and tested strategies no longer fit the bill, and B2B marketers need to take risks with innovative ideas to capture their audience’s attention. B2B marketing has a rather unfortunate reputation as B2C marketing’s duller relation, but there’s a lot that can be done to push the boundaries of B2B communications.

In order to develop exciting campaigns that provide an impressive ROI and disrupt industries, there’s a very important puzzle piece needed: stakeholder buy-in. We know that clients need support in selling innovation and creativity internally, and to get the sign-off on the budget necessary to bring their ideas to life – and that this isn’t necessarily the easiest of tasks.

On September 30th, we invited a panel of industry experts to discuss strategies to bring stakeholders alongside them on the creative journey, and how to step away from doing the same old campaigns, with the same old results. Joining us to share their insights were Michael DaCosta Babb, EVP at Films Angel, Jack Dyson, Global Head of Content Strategy at SAP, Stephen Fitzmaurice, Senior Marketing Manager at Clifford Chance, and Maria Jennings, Head of Marketing and Brand at PwC UK. Read on for their insider advice on injecting creativity into your campaigns – with everybody on board.

In Conversation: Pushing the Boundaries of B2B Communications
In Conversation: Pushing the Boundaries of B2B Communications

Manage risk safely
In periods of business uncertainty, risk isn’t particularly enticing to stakeholders. If you’re looking for buy-in for an innovative campaign, ensure that you’re managing risk in a responsible way. Maria Jennings, Head of Marketing at Brand at PwC UK, says that “simplicity is best.” Marketers need to cut through the noise to grab the attention of their audience, but that doesn’t have to mean launching an innovative yet risky and unpredictable campaign. “For me, a great way of breaking through the noise is to deliver creative messages in the most simple way. It may involve a few risks, but it’s more about having the right message and talking to the right people in a very simple way,” she says.

Jack Dyson, Global Head of Content Strategy at SAP, agreed with Jennings: “you don’t need to go too far out of your comfort zone,” he says. “Risk can also mean experiment, which can be as simple as finding alternative ways to reach your audience and keep them engaged. This could be something like trying out a conversational style with your audience through Tweets or podcasts.”

While risk-taking can lead to big wins for your company, it’s important to be wary of the fact that risk inherently involves the possibility of failure. Stephen Fitzmaurice, Senior Marketing Manager at Clifford Chance, favours taking small, steady steps. “I like the idea of keeping it simple and incrementally moving forward, and then investing heavily where you do see a big opportunity,” he says. “You have to invest in the future, but it can take a long time, and you’re not going to win every time.” Proving to your stakeholders that you’re aware of the risk involved with pushing innovative campaigns – and that you’ve taken steps to mitigate the risk as much as possible – can help you achieve that all-important buy-in.

Use internal constraints to your advantage
Internal constraints can be a pain, but as our founder Stefano Marrone points out, “creativity often works best within limitations.” Rather than seeing internal constraints as obstacles, try and refrain them to work to your advantage. The most obvious constraint, and often the one that’s most difficult to circumvent, is budgetary. Stephen Fitzmaurice notes that when it comes to budget, “it’s great to work alongside a good agency that makes your budget run well. Once you have successes, you can repeat those successes – people see stuff, they like it, and they want more of it.” Ensure your budget is working well by partnering with a reputable agency for your communication campaigns.

Your internal teams can also serve as a helpful benchmark when it comes to testing your campaigns. Maria Jennings of PwC describes a time where internal questions about co-brand Strategy& helped inform a brand campaign. Jennings explained that some employees didn’t fully understand Strategy&’s remit. They were asking questions like “what is it?” and “what is it designed to do?”. If internal team members had these questions, it’s likely that the confusion was shared by external partners and potential clients, too. “We invested heavily both from a cash perspective and a resource perspective in developing a brand campaign to promote that co-brand over a period of about 12 months,” says Jennings. “For this co-brand, we needed to think of something imaginative, creative, innovative. We created content partnerships with the FT and the World Economic Forum, which was a first for us as a firm. The creative territory that we explored was really different for us.”

These challenges can actually be used to your advantage when it comes to injecting creativity into your campaigns. “I had to go to the board, selling three adverts about drones, robots and pizzas, and all sorts of new concepts,” explains Jennings. “They were looking at me saying, ‘really, is this going to work?’, but we got the buy-in, and we got a lot of traction internally. People loved it in the firm and really got a sense of pride and confidence about how to talk about that co-brand going forward.” This example serves as a good reminder: investment in creativity in marketing isn’t just for external benefits: it can also help build community internally as well.

Play the long game
If your stakeholders aren’t yet on board with adding some creativity into your communications, there are a number of steps you can take to help get that buy-in. For Jack Dyson, it’s about being able to answer tough questions – “especially if what you want to do is outside the expected norms,” he says. “You need to make sure you’re regularly aligned with your stakeholders anyway – that’s just part of being a good business!” Make sure you’ve got solid answers to the expected questions: who am I doing this for? What’s its purpose? Will it be good?

Dyson says that another way to convince stakeholders to give you the green light is to create assets that last. Involving the whole team – not just the marketing department – is a great way to do this. “I’ll talk to people in sales and ask them how we can support them, so that an asset created in marketing can do more than just be part of this early awareness campaign, for example,” says Dyson.

There’s also no harm in piloting small new approaches and campaigns – “as long as the brand voice is satisfied that it’s not going to dip too far into uncomfortable waters,” warns Dyson. “You’re not going to say ‘I’m going to boil the ocean’ or any other crazy metaphors. You can just try something small in one market, for ten customers, and see how it sits with them. You can then roll it out and scale it later, in a way that’s based on fact rather than hope.” This is actually a more sensible option than launching a massive campaign with no hard evidence of how it’s going to land with your audience – so this suggestion could well help you secure stakeholder buy-in.

Build trust through proof
Building trust with the people that matter is also a solid strategy. “Work out how you can develop trust with the stakeholders sitting around the table,” says Michael DaCosta Babb. “Build up a relationship in which people feel that they can trust the expert who’s putting forward the campaign.” Stephen Fitzmaurice agrees that trust is key. “Don’t try too hard to be different for difference’s sake,” he advises. To push creativity, try to connect with your audience through other means, like sponsorship, a co-publishing venture, or client partnering. “You have a license to drive things in a new, different way,” says Fitzmaurice. “When you see those opportunities come down the line, really push the boundaries in those contexts because you have the license to do so. This will also give you permission further down the line, because people see what’s happening, they like it, and they want more of it.”

It’s also important to make sure you’ve got proof to bolster your case. “You get buy-in if you can use data and evidence as a way of describing why something should work a certain way, versus an alternative that may have been put on the table previously,” says Maria Jennings. “It’s not about packaging everything up with a big red bow and having a ta-da moment, it’s about gradually dripping stuff into the market, testing it, and seeing what will work. Have evidence in your back pocket.”

If your stakeholders still aren’t convinced, consider putting forward Jack Dyson’s 60/20/20 approach to budget. “60% goes to what we know works: our webinars, our landmark reports, our whitepapers. 20% is for innovation: let’s try out new stuff. And 20% is to invest in last year’s innovation: to back that up and see if it works. This model is basically saying, let’s always look forwards, but also shore up what we’ve tried once and see if it works more than once.”

Balance innovation with staying true to a traditional audience
There’s always a balance to strike: at the end of the day, your campaigns serve your audience, so there’s no point bringing out something ultra innovative and out-of-the-box if your audience responds to very traditional campaigns. We asked our panel of experts how they suggest balancing innovation with staying true to a traditional audience and traditional brand.

Steven Fitzmaurice points out that there are a number of ways to bring a traditional brand to life without rocking the boat too much. When he started his career, brand books were the bible to which everyone reverted. “Now, the brand is live,” he says. “One opportunity we have is to introduce more dynamic brand assets: it’s no longer a visual identity in a brand book, because the visual identity is interactive.” Simple changes can often have a significant effect. Maria Jennings supports this, saying “you don’t need a huge budget or 12 months of activity behind something. It’s about recognising what the need is, and why people are listening to you about this topic now.”

Again, innovation doesn’t have to mean changing the status quo: it can also include tweaking your existing strategy. Jack Dyson recommends starting with a big rock piece of content, like an analyst report, and then slicing it up from that central proposition into other forms of content. “You can start with a very traditional PDF, let’s say, and then splice it up and send it out as freemiums, and spit it off into webinars and blog posts,” suggests Dyson. “Your choices to innovate based on that big rock depend on your resources, but you’re still producing that core content that people want and expect, and that hits your main KPIs.”

Try to focus on the ‘why’: Stefano Marrone explains that at Nucco, “what works best is when we prod the brief and there’s a reason to do something other than ‘somebody else did that, and I want it.’”

Create an environment in which ideas circulate
In order for your team to be able to come up with innovative ideas, you need to foster the right environment within your place of work. So what suggestions do our experts have for creating an effective and stimulating culture? “Strike the right balance between collaboration and decision making,” says Steven Fitzmaurice. “If you’ve got global products, you don’t want people to feel left out, but don’t let collaboration get in the way of you being decisive.”

Maria Jennings agrees, and adds: “we often talk about the fact that marketing can’t just be done by marketing. It’s a 360 deal. Sometimes collaboration can create chaos, but it’s about ensuring that it’s not just marketing creating something for you.”

Michael DaCosta Babb suggests incorporating innovation into your company’s value system, so all employees know what you stand for. “Try to nurture creativity by allowing teams to actually do stuff,” he recommends. “When I worked at Mother, a creative could approach a founder asking to do something, and they’d say yes.” It’s also a good idea to try physically switching things up once everyone’s back in the office. “At Mother, we had to shift positions – you couldn’t stay in the same place,” says DaCosta Babb. “Clients were seeing this environment, and it would somehow become contagious. People take risks – and they come off!”

Jack Dyson agrees with DaCosta Babb: “softer in-team things are often really helpful. We have a monthly call in our team, inviting an external expert to talk about anything from data visualisation to diversity and inclusion. They inspire us and open up our eyes to how conversations can be had, and other ways of doing things. Invite stakeholders too! This can start the kinds of conversations where stakeholders get excited about a more creative or experimental approach – and that’s where opportunities come from.”

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