4 types of B2B agency

I’ve worked agency-side most of my career. As a full-timer, and over the past couple of years, as a freelancer, too. I’ve seen loads of agencies from the inside. Every one is different, of course. But if you look a bit more closely, a pattern emerges. Here are some types of B2B agencies I’ve come across.

“Figure out who you are, then do it on purpose”.

Allegedly, Dolly Parton said that. I think it’s a terrific summary of what a brand is. And whether you’re a freelancer, work in an agency, run one, or appoint them once in a while – it makes sense to understand who you are, where you are in your career or project, how you see your job, and where you want to get to. And while I clearly have an opinion on the type of agency I prefer, there’s no right or wrong here. Maybe this totally non-objective and definitely not double-peer-reviewed typology helps you understand what works for you. Or you might think it’s bollocks. (In which case I’d appreciate a strongly worded letter from you).

1. The ones who think B2B means you get away with bland creative.

…And who often do.

B2B’s reputation as boring is pretty dated by now, but some of the big international B2B shops do fall into this category. And they serve some big, moneyed clients. These agencies are often really good at process, and tend to be quite profitable businesses. But let’s be honest. Their creative often sucks, or is non-existent. They have the resources – but they don’t have the appetite (anymore?). Their Creative Directors won’t “re-invent” for you there, and their Heads of Copy won’t push back when your reviewers overdo it on the buzzwords.

I’m not saying these agencies do terrible work. They definitely deliver the goods if you want all the B2B staples: websites and ebooks and blogs and videos – the large ones can even deliver your enterprise-scale ABM programmes. But it’s not going to stand out. They’ll put the standard messages out there, the ones that your competitors use, too. Packaged up in a formal, professional, industry-standard sort of way.

Self-conception: Unapologetically B2B. As in serving-the-industry-but-not-challenging-its-methods.

Creative output: Usually solid, but run-of-the-mill. I’m generalising of course.

Choose them as an agency if: you want to look professional, and like other players in your industry; or need continuous campaign support (But I wouldn’t go there for a re-brand.)

Choose them as an employer if: you want to do steady, grown-up work, not rock the boat.

2. The ones who’d rather be B2C.

Really conflicted on these. They’ve understood a fundamental truth – that a lot of B2B marketing has traditionally been boring and bloodless and needs injecting with a bit of oomph – but they’re the victims of a fallacy: that they’ll get away with not really engaging with the particular B2B niche and its context; that B2B just needs some brand-level fun; that barely scratching the surface of their client’s proposition is the remedy to product-sheet-level boringness; or that (visual) branding is all that matters.

Unfortunately, that often goes along with a lack of understanding of the space their client is in, and the belief that a campaign involving something cute (think animated cuddly animals) will do the trick. Can also sometimes fall in love with an off-piste creative idea that ends up not answering your brief. They mean well but don’t follow through (you know what I mean). Not my favourites.

Self-conception: Secretly a bit ashamed that they’re “only B2B where none of the cool stuff ever happens”. (And that sort of self-loathing would be an issue for me if I were a client.)

Creative output: Often design- (not strategy- or copy-) led. Fun, a bit goofy, or brand purpos-y, with a definite consumer feel to it.

Choose them as an agency if: you’ve got really solid messaging (don’t let them touch that) but would like to inject some life into a campaign or an event.

Choose them as an employer if: you like varied, shooting-from-the-hip type work. (Don’t go there if you want to learn B2B planning from scratch)

3. The ones who’d rather not be an agency

Bit of an overlap with #1 here. Why is it that every other B2B agency is trying to re-frame itself as something else these days? Usually a consultancy. (Hello dark-blue 100-slide strategy deck, my old friend). First of all: haven’t good agencies always consulted their clients on good brand strategy, positioning, copy, design…? So if you haven’t in the past, did you do it wrong? Secondly: are you so in love with your abstract frameworks that you’d rather not have them sullied with brainstorming sessions or – god forbid – tested in creative execution? Are you ashamed of your creative? Do you think it’s just fluff?

This sounds a tad belligerent, but I think it’s important to talk about. Clients go to agencies to get access to a team of experts. Ideally, they choose you because they like your approach, your ideas, your style, your opinion on how things should be done… When you let core agency offers – insight, copy, design, etc – become outsourcable commodities, you de facto abandon ship. You allow direction to be separated from execution. You wash your hands off it. And, as far as I can tell, the Accentur-ization of the agency landscape rarely produces good work. Just like Accenture’s move into marketing is creating some awful shite. (If you haven’t seen it, Ryan Wallman has written a beautiful post about it).

[I’ve also seen some who don’t go down the consultancy route, but veer into tech or martech territory – that seems fair enough – it feels like an evolution of the agency model that might produce a category of its own.]

Self-conception: Definitely B2B. Less definitely an agency.

Creative output: mostly strategy decks – creative is often an afterthought.

Choose them as an agency if: I don’t know…maybe if you have in-house creatives? Tbh I find it hard to think of a reason.

Choose them as an employer if: you need a stepping stone before you join McKinsey.

4. The ones who are squarely B2B and proud of it

Finally. And you were wondering if I’d ever stop ranting. These are rare, but of course, they’re my favourite people. Simply because here you tend to find less self-hatred that keeps them from focusing on good work. And if you’re lucky, a genuine understanding of the B2B buying/selling dynamic. Which ideally pairs up with a real desire to understand your industry, your buyers, their obstacles and motivations.

There’s a downside to this, of course: they want to be taken seriously. They’re opinionated. So if you’re a client, they’re going to push back on your amends; they’re going to want to experiment; they might be a bit difficult, and may not be the most organised. And if you work for them, they’ll be demanding, too.

Self-conception: B2B2theBone.

Creative output: strategy-led, but with good understanding of design. Most importantly though, an opinion on everything.

Choose them as an agency if: you want to be challenged on your point of view; want to stand out as a brand; are happy to shake up the status quo. (Don’t go there for execution-only projects. They’ll take long, charge a lot and hate the work).

Choose them as an employer if: you want to work somewhere ballsy and smart (and accept that it’s likely to be disorganised and require long hours).

What do you think? What did I miss?

Does this make sense at all? What agencies have you come across? I’d love to hear your take. And if you feel I got it all completely wrong, I can’t wait to see that strongly worded letter.

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