You don't have to be a genius to work out that there's not a hell
of a lot of good news in the online advertising world these days - but
there does seem to be one sector that's managing to resist the slowdown
better than most. We're talking about business to business - especially
business to business with a slightly techie slant.
Take, for instance, last week's big digital account move that saw the
telecoms giant Cable & Wireless appoint Agency.com and its interactive
marketing division, i-traffic, as its lead agencies for all interactive
services on a global basis. The partnership is expected to run much
deeper than the superficial digital marketing bolt-on asked for by many
clients - and the appointment comes at a time when the agencies can make
a huge difference to the future direction of the company.
After all, C&W is in the process of reinventing itself. Decades ago, C&W
was all about the technical nuts and bolts of getting messages from A to
B. It was basically an infrastructure provider. Then, more recently, it
flirted with the consumer, owning cable networks and seeking to build a
domestic telephony customer base. Now all that has gone and it is
emerging as a communications software company that can provide
big-picture solutions for businesses.
Arguably there is something slightly circular about this - Agency.com
will, after all, be providing e-commerce expertise to help C&W convince
prospective clients that it, in turn, can offer them e-commerce
expertise. But there's no doubting that it's an intriguing task. Neither
the client nor the agency will reveal what the first concrete
initiatives will be but they hope to release details over the next few
So is business to business the sexiest place to be in the digital
marketplace these days? There are any number of reasons why this might
be so. There's compatibility - a meeting of minds as regards goals,
methods and, above all, cultures. Business-to-business clients are more
likely to understand the net and their products and services may sit
more happily in that environment. More happily than, say, your average
It's not just that revenues in the consumer market continue to look soft
but that there's now an undercurrent of scepticism about the internet's
effectiveness as a consumer marketing tool. Banner advertising formats
have struggled to prove themselves as branding vehicles while mainstream
marketers have often failed to establish a clear role for their
websites. Are they shops, marketing theme-parks or electronic billboards
by the side of the superhighway?
On the other hand, no-one has ever had any doubt about the internet's
potential in the business-to-business market. During the day, people
come on to the net with clear objectives. And often they're looking to
find a solution to a pressing problem. It can be an ideal environment to
Are we coming to realise that the internet is primarily a
business-to-business medium? And are agencies realising that this could
be a highly lucrative sector of the online economy?
Ajaz Ahmed, the chairman of AKQA, says it's not quite that simple: "It's
true we're seeing consultants writing reports saying that business to
business is the sector to be in. We've always believed in having a
balance between the two - consumer and business to business. One of the
things we find worrying is the fact that this industry continues to be
plagued by buzzwords and fads. It's probably a measure of how quickly
people in this industry get bored. The business audience is just a
different audience group, it's not a different skill."
Ahmed adds: "We see our role as helping clients see opportunities and
find success. We tend to work for clients who are very brand focused and
even in the business-to-business market it's important to build brand
equity. I think that approach will stand the test of time. When everyone
was chasing dotcom clients, we were staying focused on existing clients
and it's exactly the same now - we look for long-term relationships.
That's more important than chasing short-term spikes in revenue."
That's the view of many in the sector. They resent the implication that
the medium has failed to meet the expectations of mainstream
One source argues that the analogy is with direct mail: "It's like
saying, 'Is direct mail primarily a business-to-business medium?' Of
course it isn't. Direct mail is an incredible effective
business-to-business medium but it's also an incredibly effective
business-to-consumer medium and specialist agencies are continuing to
hone their skills. You could argue that we are now where direct mail was
a couple of years back."
But Daryl Arnold, the chief executive of Profero, points out that the
industry can learn much from the business-to-business sector.
He states: "If a person is on a mission and you put the right type of
communications in front of them, then you are clearly on a winner. And
it's easier through the day - when people are using the internet for
business purposes - to understand what sort of mission they are on and
in that way to pigeon-hole them. There are important lessons to be
learned in business to business that can be applied in consumer. On both
sides of the market, it is about selling to the right audience but
working in business to business is great for developing certain
Arnold concludes: "One of the problems recently is perhaps that those
clients are not getting the support that they deserve from the
advertising agencies which find it difficult to see the broader picture.
The consumer market is as strong as it ever was and, in fact, what we
are finding is that our relationships with clients are continuing to get