Clients buy emotion too

Everything I have learnt during my time in ad land suggests that humans are driven by emotion even when they aren't supposed to be, says Will Harms, head of planning at independent media agency Half Dome.

Pitching is well and truly back on the agenda, and we are evolving the way we go to market. As such, I’ve started to dive into the world of B2B marketing for the first time in my career to see what I can learn.

To be honest, I’ve always tried to stay at an arm’s length from B2B stuff, I was always told it’s a fundamentally different game to B2C, driven by overly rational messaging and a reliance on super-efficient, hyper-targeted, lead-driven media – in other words a brand guy’s worst nightmare. But my gut told me this shouldn’t have been the case, everything I have learnt during my time in ad land suggests that humans are driven by emotion even when they aren’t supposed to be. So why would a client going through an agency pitch process be any different?

Well, it turns out it’s not, and the B2B Institute (backed by LinkedIn) has assembled a supergroup of marketing science rock stars to prove it. Evidence presented by Ehrenberg Bass suggests a stunning amount of similarities between B2B and B2C marketing, but one of their findings really got me going – building brands matters! Just like in B2C, marketers need to consider how they build mental availability and leverage emotion to create meaning, ensuring they take a balanced approach to short term sales and long-term brand building. Hallelujah.

For me, these findings were only further cemented after reading a piece of work by Bain & Company from 2018. After some very comprehensive quant and qual diagnosis, Bain compiled a list of the top 40 ‘elements’ that clients most value when making a decision. They landed on what can only be described as a B2B version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which, like the original, found that although clients need to tick the box on the rational stuff, it was the emotional stuff that really mattered. In fact, Bain called out that ‘considerations such as whether a product can enhance the buyer’s reputation or reduce anxiety play a large role’ in who clients choose to work with.

So how does this apply to our industry?

Firstly, I think we need to get better at building our own brands to increase the chance of landing on a pitch list in the first place. I have always found it fascinating how little we take our own advice, shying away from promoting our agencies for fear of appearing uncouth or arrogant to our peers. Honestly, I’m still coming to terms with it myself, but on reflection I think it’s a combination of self indulgence and tall poppy syndrome. We all believe in the power of marketing to help our clients’ businesses grow, so why are we any different? The research shows us that having a strong brand will significantly increase our chances of cracking into clients’ initial consideration set, so let’s put our money where our mouths are and do it.

When it comes to pitching itself, I think the process needs to be more reflective of what actually matters – the vibe. The rise of pitch consultants and procurement teams has seen clients and agencies forced further and further apart at a time when they should be as close as possible. The time consuming (and expensive) written submission seems to have come at the cost of the old school, kick-off chemistry session that sees a pitch list immediately cut from five agencies to three. I honestly believe both clients and agencies learn more out of that meeting than at any other stage in the process and shouldn’t be afraid to part ways if the spark isn’t there. If it’s less about what we do and more about how we do it, let’s have a procurement process that reflects that. More chatting and less reading I say!

We know clients buy emotion too, so let’s do what we are good at and build brands they can connect with. Surely that’s the best case study of all.


Will Harms, head of planning, independent media agency Half Dome


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