International Business Media: Death by Corporate Creative

Business advertising is hardly synonymous with exceptional creativity, because of the demands of clients, but some companies do defy the stereotype. The pages of the business press are not the first place you would turn to find award-winning creative advertising.

True, there's a smattering of eye-catching consumer ads in any issue of Forbes or The Economist, and there are some business ads close to the cutting edge. But there's also an awful lot of drab stuff designed to appeal to a rarefied audience, with messages briefed by nervous employees, underpinned by a straight-talking gravitas.

The evidence is in the not-so-startling headlines on full-page ads in the business press. Take "At the end of the day, it's all about results" for the Mellon Financial Corporation. Or "Internationalisation, moving at stock-market pace?" for the pharmaceuticals group Altana.

Even Orange seems to downgrade its standards of creativity for the business audience - a none-too-exciting product shot and the strapline: "Bright business." On the business television front, the likes of Rolls-Royce and Chevron Texaco, wanting to seem reliable and safe, could be a little more zippy.

"They are definitely dull," Russell Ramsey, the deputy executive creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says.

He thinks too often advertisers talking to a business audience lose sight of the fact that the businessman is as human as the next person. "They start by thinking people have got to be interested in what I am going to say," Ramsey says. "Mainstream ads start from the standpoint that people aren't going to be interested."

Over at the specialist financial advertising agency Citigate Albert Frank, the agency's executive creative director, Paul Anderson, does not entirely disagree. He explains that corporate advertising briefs often come from somewhere other than the client's marketing department, that they can be hidebound by restrictive legislation and the need to express several messages in one ad, and that there may well be a high degree of sensitivity.

"Creatively, it can be very frustrating to see a great concept hit the bin because it is felt to be too edgy. Edgy, in corporate terms, is usually very tame," Anderson says.

These days, there are fewer so-called "tombstone" ads, making announcements in black and white about, say, big business deals. But advertisers do still pay good money to place such ads from time to time. Of course, for these matter-of-fact announcements, as for more subtle messages targeted at just a few influential members of the business community, it may be almost entirely unimportant that the ad looks good. The targeted reader knows that the message is for him and will read it. "Many corporate ads sit in the media like silent gentlemen in their private club - never causing a stir but acknowledged by those who know," Anderson says.

The European advertising sales director at The Economist, Alan Dunachie, says corporate ads normally have an agenda. "Corporate advertising has a difficult job. It is usually trying to get a message to a specialised audience. For those of us not in the specific target, it's difficult to judge the effectiveness of an ad." Often ads that seem dull get the desired result. The software giant Oracle is one advertiser for which creativity is not a priority, and short, sharp, competitive messages to a business audience work.

Oracle is unlikely to have budgetary issues with its ad campaigns, but many corporate or business-to-business ad budgets just do not attract anything like the sort of investment that you might get behind a consumer brand. Of course, less money can mean less creative sparkle. "There's a stock-shot feel about some of the ads," Ramsey says.

It is easy to think the creatives working on business accounts just do not cut the creative mustard or that creatives in specialist agencies are not so inspired as their counterparts in mainstream shops. But the demands for a business ad can be altogether different.

Anderson argues that briefs often need a trained eye: "As a specialist agency ourself, we see a lot of our new business migrating from mainstream agencies, as the client feels that the main agency doesn't understand its products or service offerings and creatives have proposed what are considered by the client to be naive solutions."

Some business-to-business advertisers, however, opt for a consumer feel to their ads and stick with mainstream agencies. IBM, one of the highest profile examples, uses Ogilvy & Mather. Guy Lambert, the managing partner, client services, for OgilvyOne Worldwide, says the client-agency relationship has given the ads extra shine. "IBM's advertising has proven IT and business-to-business advertising can be every bit as creative as consumer advertising," he says. "Our advertising has both audience appeal and effectiveness. Some people are happy with one dimension or the other. We are only happy when we have cracked both."

It's true there are exceptions to the dull corporate ad rule. There are corporate and business ads that are creatively strong, both from big-name advertisers and from smaller but braver companies. The bigger brands that stand out include HP, IBM and Xerox.

At CNBC Europe, the vice-president and director of sales, Liz Jones, says business TV tends to attract creativity. "At the end of the day, the products are not that sexy, so they might do the unexpected and use humour, or sometimes they talk about business partners," she says. Jones cites IBM, Computer Associates and Xerox as having a more creative approach.

Others such as General Electric or HP successfully illustrate what they do with associated partners.

GE, which owns CNBC, is another advertiser that has chosen to aim for a consumer feel to its advertising.

GE's general manager for marketing in Europe, Martin Campiche, says the company's approach is common among other big technology companies, which are looking for a broader approach. "It has become important to bring the advertising alive in a consumerised way," he says.

Even if you're stuck with representing the voice of the chief executive, business ads don't always have to be grey. In 1998, the 36-year-old president of the software company CrossWorlds, Katrina Garnett, had her portrait taken, wearing a plunging neckline, by the photographer Richard Avedon, created an ad talking about her and splashed it across Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, as well as business titles such as The Economist. The results, in terms of publicity and business leads, are still talked about today.