Getting Creative in B2B Marketing
Creative. Artist. Psychoanalyst. Marketer. These are just a few of the many hats DS Creative Supervisor Nick Vernetti wears every day in the business-to-business world of marketing. When he isn’t winning Advertising Awards or talking about his craft, you can find him working on Dixon Schwabl's creative floor. There, he infuses his passion for art into the slightly more rigid framework of B2B marketing. And it's clear from our conversation: This industry has brains and heart. It's a passion that gets results from intelligence and combines art with strategy.
This is B2B marketing from a creative perspective.
Q: What's your past with B2B marketing? What's B2B marketing to you?
A: A lot of it just comes from where I landed. I did my undergraduate at Cazenovia College and got an internship with EMA, which is now Mower. They do a ton of B2B work, too, so I kind of cut my teeth in it a little bit coming right out of college. Then I went to Roberts Communications in Rochester and immediately started working on Xerox. This big Rochester brand started my career. Since then, I've worked on all sorts of stuff, like Kodak, Frontier, a variety of local healthcare systems—and all of these have become a basis for a lot of the work I've done. I think a lot of people, even designers, think of B2B as more of a challenge. School assignments are always the glamorous stuff, a lot of B2C. But I like a good challenge, and I've found a good place in B2B.
Q: Have you always been interested in B2B? Or did you land here because of B2C?
A: I've always been interested in art, that’s my background. Advertising even came a little bit later—I went into college as a studio art major. Then I decided to make money and not be a starving artist my whole life. That's when I got into graphic design and it sort of tumbled right out after that. I think the amount of B2B—the challenge of it and the things that I do like—was sort of the fuel for eventually getting my master’s in strategic marketing. Not art-related, but it was more of the business side of things and solidified that I was in the right department (laughs). But it helps one get a better understanding of all of those connection points. I think B2B is a little bit more than skin deep when it comes to advertising. B2C is somewhat face value, where they're focused on volume. I think, with B2B, you're looking for those higher-value, smaller number of opportunities where you need to do your homework.
Q: B2B marketing focuses on logical process-driven purchasing decisions, while B2C is more emotion-driven. Do you work within those pillars or do you combine the two?
A: To be honest, we let our clients rein us back in toward the more “plain talk”—this is what the product is about and this is what we're trying to sell. So the short answer is no, and I think this is an old way of thinking. 10 years ago when I was coming out of college, I saw a lot of the remains of “You catch their eye, you raise awareness, make sure you're part of the decision set, give them plain facts and chuck it over the fence to the sales team.” I think we are soooo far past that. A good example is how, before, you could just drop some emails into the queue. It has to go beyond that now. Everybody gets their morning email rundown. All our email providers are even better at putting advertisers we don’t want in Spam Jail, right? You won’t get through if your message is just sales sales sales. I think you need value, timeliness, personal interest, connection—and that big helping of emotion encourages that. There's consistency, there's a bit of the expected and there's the knowledge gap. But there's also the unexpected in doing something different and making people feel something different about your B2B brand instead of every other one that's just this flat business sales pitch.
Q: Speaking of the unexpected, do you want to talk about that direct mail project? When I saw this, I thought it was the coolest thing.
A: Absolutely. I think this is a great example of the unexpected. This Frontier project was specifically run to target an E-Rate program that helps schools fund connectivity, online services and everything that is so relevant in this school-from-home model that the pandemic has forced us into. So we targeted a lot of IT leaders and that top-level principal/superintendent role, then we took them on a buyer journey. We used tactics like email, banner ads and an interactive content landing page, all of which are specifically intended to provide information. We want to make sure we're in the consideration set and helping them understand how they can get funding. Once they qualified and went through the email program, if they're clicking on things but not getting there, the question becomes "How do we close that gap?" Provide something unexpected. We had their contact information, so we thought, why don’t we send them something cool! So we ended up making a pop-out IT van. Kind of that classic, almost shady van that we left blank and included sticker packs so they could decorate. All the messaging included was about getting IT people the help and support they needed through E-Rate. It also had a sticker on it for an IRFD chip that went to the website so they could download the toolkit and apply for funding. And it was feel-good because it was a connection and our telecom provider could offer cheaper tech solutions to urban areas in need.
Q: What's the most important aspect of B2B?
A: There is a consistency of message and making sure you are in the consideration set as we said before, but it's also having these super target plans, doing all of the homework to build up a solid campaign. Whether this is nurture stream, automated marketing, something with a bigger splash, TV spots, and now this digital world of connected TV. I think the bigger thing here is this wave and desire to be genuine. This is when your clients come to you and say they only want to show real customers in their ads. This is really hard and even harder during a pandemic. I think there is a way when you are talking B2B to infuse that into brand positioning, who you are, what you look like and how you do business. I think being able to deliver on that is the other piece. You can say one thing in your marketing but if you’re not living up to this in the way that you service other companies it is not going to work.
Q: Who do you look to as a leader in this industry?
A: From an art perspective I look at major designers like Paul Rand, who developed these great branding case studies and made so many logos over the years. From a brand-specific perspective, I look to IBM. Everyone knows that they are a thought leader. They are huge, but they have specific industry and product lines. One of the things that have been catching me (probably because I am in this specific audience) is that they are doing a hybrid cloud campaign where they tapped huge talent like Celebrity Chef and Timberland, where they have these spots that are the attention grabbers. How is Timberland using a hybrid cloud to make all the pieces of his music come together and then making that a metaphor for a business? That is amazing.
Q: What's the most common difficult situation you deal with as a creative in B2B?
A: Canceled projects are a real bummer. That's personally my toughest thing. Navigating away after spending so much time on a project can be heartbreaking.
Q: What inspires you when working on a project inside or outside of work?
A: Getting away. Getting away from the screen, getting outside, riding my bike. Anything that's getting away from the computer.
Q: How do you define success?
A: The more we know on the front end, the more we can adapt creatively. Personally, it's nice to win awards, that is always cool. In another way, I like to think of little, tiny wins. So, getting the client to think differently about something, getting them to a silly van project where they say “I don’t see how this connects YET.” When you get them to the “yet” point, it's like OK, we got them. We can get this there. We can do it. It is all these little things in the day-to-day how we continue to like and love our job. That is success.
Q: How do you think COVID will change B2B marketing?
A: From what we're seeing, the B2B work has been a bit more resilient. Part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'd like to say we're through the worst of it, but if anything, what I am seeing on my end is this messing up the buying cycle for several industries. When people are spending is really changing. I know people have overused that uncertainty word, but it is uncertain. I also think there's another aspect of this, and that's "What are companies’ budgets going to target?" Even when we do have the “return to new normal,” companies aren't going to be as interested in buying a new production printer that will just sit at their office. People are going to be more interested in cybersecurity, cloud recovery, the IT spending that gets them out there and gets their employees working and mobilized. So there's going to be a shift, but all the ins and outs are difficult to predict. It’s Magic 8-Ball time.
What isn't uncertain is the impact these marketing techniques are having on the B2B industry. Nick is surfing on “this wave and desire to be genuine.” An informed and science-based approach to his work ethic leads to the honest creation of good B2B marketing. He's able to not only produce incredibly creative and stimulating work, but encapsulate what it means to be in a forward-thinking agency. "Informed," "impactful" and "creative" are terms that hold a lot of weight and should not be taken lightly. B2B isn't just one company to another—it's a human-to-human connection. Providing this service to the companies in need is why we do what we do. For your next B2B campaign, think the way Nick does, and make the connection.
Nick is DS+CO's creative supervisor.