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What B2B marketers should learn from TV commercials

Most B2B marketers love to draw a solid line between B2B and B2C marketing, and pretend that never the twain shall meet. Smart B2B marketers, on the other hand, peek over that wall to find practices that work and can be adapted for their marketing and advertising.

TV commercials are considered firmly in the realm of B2C, but there’s a lot that B2B marketers can learn from the best practices honed by TV advertisers over the past decades.

4 things B2B marketers should learn from TV commercials

  1. Stay short and sweet.
  2. Assume your audience is disinterested.
  3. Know you’re making an ad.
  4. Invest in good writing and original ideas.

For more on each item, listen to the full episode of “Death to the Corporate Video” or read the transcript below.

You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.

Episode transcript

Hope Morley: Your videos should not be written by the same copywriter that you use for everything else. Like, you might have someone on your team who's excellent at writing whitepapers. They're excellent at writing the copy for your website. They can write case studies in their sleep. Great. They are valuable. Hold onto them for dear life, but don't have them write your videos. It's not the same skill. It's very, very different and very specialized.

Hope Morley: Hello and welcome to Death to the Corporate Video, a podcast of tools and advice to make B2B videos people actually want to watch. I'm Hope Morley.

Guy Bauer: I'm Guy Bauer.

Hope Morley: Today on the show, we're going to talk about what B2B marketers can learn from television commercials. And before you turn this off because you think the advice is going to be hire John Cena to be your spokesperson, that is not exactly where we're going with this. But we have about four things that we think that B2B marketers can and should be learning from television commercials and other direct-to-consumer, B2C type advertising. And we'd like to see that carried over more into the B2B realm.

Guy Bauer: Yeah, I think we all think of television commercials as like a dying breed, but there are really awesome paradigms that we can steal from television commercials that have been honed over the past... I don't know how long. I guess, 80 years, 70 years, 70 to 80 years.

Hope Morley: Something like that. Yeah.

Guy Bauer: That I think still fit today and can actually boost your results.

Hope Morley: So the first thing that we want to take away from TV commercials is their length. Most television commercials are 15, 30, maximum 60 seconds.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. TV commercials have to be brief. They have to get to the point. They have to get in and out, and they have to do all of that communicating what the brand is, what the product or service is, a unique selling proposition, and then somehow also entertain along the way. And so that's a skill that I find not in a lot of B2B marketing. A lot of B2B marketing, especially in the video realm, is long-winded, full of jargon, not brief. I could see play times just in my head of two minutes and 38 seconds on LinkedIn. I mean, you have to think if it takes you that long to explain what your product or service is, two and a half minutes... Even that is condensed, right? But in social-media time, that is an eternity.

Hope Morley: I think a lot of us in the video and advertising realm, when we first started putting video exclusively on YouTube and the web, we thought that how great is it that we don't have to be limited to 30 seconds? How great is it that we can just make whatever length we want? And that's still true. When you put up a video on YouTube, it can be whatever length you want. But what we're finding, especially in social, and B2B marketers are diving deeper into social, that brevity and conciseness really, really matters when you're posting on social. So a two-and-a-half-minute video is not going to perform well on social.

Guy Bauer: I mean, think about it. If the short TV commercial was so ineffective, why do big brands still, even if they don't do as much TV advertising, how come big brands are keeping their 15, 30, 60 convention as they transition to digital? It's because it has to do with attention of the audience and, like you said, conciseness.

Hope Morley: And even on digital, it's getting shorter and shorter. Like, we're getting more and more requests for six-second cuts. The short, concise video is always going to be a very valuable asset.

Guy Bauer: It's all about taking your value-prop and just boiling it and boiling it and boiling it. Our whole mission of this podcast is to... And we keep harping on this over and over and over, but a lot of B2B brands don't do the boiling. They don't. They just give you a tub of whatever the maple... What's maple syrup before it-

Hope Morley: Sap?

Guy Bauer: It's sap, right? They give you a tub of sap, and they're like, "Well, somewhere in here is syrup." But you have to... You can't sell maple sap. You have to boil it and synthesize and make cuts and keep boiling it and simplifying it and simplifying it until it becomes maple syrup.

Hope Morley: You can't ask your prospects to make the maple syrup. You have to make it for them.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. Hey, we just discovered a new metaphor.

Hope Morley: That was a completely new metaphor right here live on air.

Guy Bauer: That's so true. Those two-and-a-half-minute clunkers are the raw sap, and yes, there is... And that's the thing. Logically, yes, there's tons of stuff in there. There's tons of information. Just like how in maple sap, there is sugar in there, but it's not boiled down enough for consumption.

Hope Morley: It's not ready for the, yeah, the end user, the consumer to touch it yet.

Guy Bauer: It's not ready for them to put on their pancakes, which is their buying decision, and the digestion of the pancake is the...

Hope Morley: Nope. Too far, too far. Reel in.

Guy Bauer: If anyone listens to this podcast, I mean, man, I'm addicted to metaphors. I think in metaphors. Like, I... What is it about meta... Ah, that's another podcast. Metaphors are so powerful. They simplify ideas down so efficiently. It's crazy. I love them.

Hope Morley: They're a great way to help people understand a complex topic.

Guy Bauer: All right. So we've got a short spot. I like it.

Hope Morley: Yeah. So the next thing, and you touched on this a little bit, but something that TV commercials do that we think B2B marketers can learn from is that TV commercials assume disinterest in their audience. They assume that you are looking for a moment to get up and go to the bathroom.

Guy Bauer: That's right. So with working under that assumption, they know they have to bring it. They know you don't care. They assume that you don't care. So they have to make you care, whether it's through really funny copy or beautiful visuals, something emotional. A lot of B2B videos that we see assume that you're interested, and so they start giving you just maple sap, assuming that you're going to boil it down and put in the energy to make it into syrup. You're not. TV commercials give you the syrup right away.

Hope Morley: Yeah. And they do that by, like you said, they're well-written. They might be creative. They're good-looking. They just need to hook you right away, and they need to keep your attention because if they... Like you said, you have to keep earning it every couple seconds, or else I'm going to take the opportunity to go up and grab a drink from the fridge.

Guy Bauer: And isn't that just respecting your audience? The keyword now is empathy. You have to empathize.

Hope Morley: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Guy Bauer: Isn't that empathy? Like, assuming that-

Hope Morley: You're trying to provide value.

Guy Bauer: Right.

Hope Morley: Right? Like, I'm watching TV because I'm looking for entertainment, and if I can get that from the commercials too, that's kind of a bonus.

Guy Bauer: Totally. There was this... We may cut this out, but we may not. There's this manager. So did you ever watch the Ken Burns 26-hour series, Baseball?

Hope Morley: No, because I don't care about baseball.

Guy Bauer: I knew the answer to that question. Honestly, though, Ken Burns is so brilliant. I bet you you would still like it.

Hope Morley: I mean, I've watched his other... I've watched his Civil War, and I watched some of his jazz stuff. I've watched Ken Burns documentaries, yeah.

Guy Bauer: I'm a big Ken Burns fan. I watched The War. Anyway, Baseball is 26 hours, but there's this great story-

Hope Morley: That's how all baseball games feel to me, by the way, 26 hours long.

Guy Bauer: I love baseball. I'm going to fight you on that. What do they say on podcasts? Like, I'm going to challenge you on that, Hope. Okay. Anyway, Billy Martin was a famous Yankees manager, I think, in their heyday, right? Like, with Hank Aaron. Like, when they had all their superstars, Billy Martin was their manager. And correct me if I... I mean, I apologize to any of the listeners where my baseball is inaccurate, but this is accurate. So Billy Martin was so paranoid that the other team would have these complicated offensive plays that he started drafting these counteractive defensive plays. And so he came over-prepared with amazing, brilliant, surprise defense plays because he was so paranoid that the other team was trying to trick him.

Guy Bauer: Now, it never came true. None of the other teams ever played trick plays. But because Billy Martin had this productive paranoia, he had defense that other teams just couldn't play to. I mean, his defensive schemes were amazing. So I feel like there's the same thing there. If you assume the disinterest, if you assume the other team is going to get up and go to the bathroom and try to ignore your ad, now you will start doing countermeasures, creative countermeasures that will then increase interest.

Hope Morley: Yeah. It increases interest in those who are disinterested, but, and then it also serves the people who are genuinely interested because you are giving them better ads, better videos, better information. So it serves both sides. If you assume interest, you're only serving people who are genuinely currently interested. If you assume disinterest, you get to serve both sides.

Guy Bauer: I love that. What I just took, eight minutes from the side with my Billy Martin thing, you just - See Hope always does this.

Hope Morley: I just distilled it down from listening to you. Making syrup over here.

Guy Bauer: I guess if it was all Hope-driven, though, our podcasts would be like two and a half minutes long because it would just be just the nugget. Yeah. That's totally correct.

Hope Morley: So the next thing that we want B2B marketers to learn from TV commercials is TV commercials are very self-aware. They know that they're an ad. They know what medium they are. And because of that, they have very clear messages, very clear CTAs. They're not afraid to stick their branding all over the place, stick their name in constantly, put their logo up there, and have branding elements like colors or recurring characters. B2B seems a little bit more afraid to admit that their videos or their marketing content are ads.

Guy Bauer: I'm here nodding profusely. Totally agree. They know they are an ad, so they act like one. And I feel like it's the rise of content marketing that has made us afraid of being an ad because like, oh, well, no one wants ads anymore. That's an incorrect statement. No one wants to get a 1-800 mattress ad. No one wants to just be barked at. So that is accurate. And I think what we've done is, especially in B2B ads, is we've over-indexed on content marketing of like having no objective. And so we generate a bunch of these articles and videos, two-and-a-half-minute mini-documentaries about a customer, blah, blah, blah. But they never get to the point. Or the point... The advertising message is so watered down, it's kind of like that maple-sap thing. It's not distilled enough. It's not boiled down enough. It's not obvious enough that this piece of content you spent thousands of dollars on in hard costs and then also soft costs of all the things...

Hope Morley: And your team's time.

Guy Bauer: All the things.

Hope Morley: You know, things. Business.

Guy Bauer: The business. Be okay. It's okay to be an ad. It's not okay to not respect your audience and deliver them schlock and bark at them. That's not okay, but it's okay to be an ad. If it wasn't okay to be an ad, why would the Super Bowl exist? And I don't care who you are. The Super Bowl exists because of ads. Yes, people like the football. The Super Bowl-

Hope Morley: The Super Bowl doesn't get those view counts just because of the football.

Guy Bauer: It's the ads.

Hope Morley: It's become such a cultural icon because of the ads.

Guy Bauer: And think about what an ad is. An ad is just a piece of entertainment. Look at Apple ads now. Can you... And that's the thing. It's like can we even call them ads? Yes, they are because they are-

Hope Morley: Yeah, because they're trying to sell you something. At the end of the day, they want you to buy an iPad.

Guy Bauer: But they don't act like ads of the '80s and '90s. They don't act like, "The new iPad 3 sports a 147-inch..." You know what I mean? Like, they don't do-

Hope Morley: That's a giant iPad.

Guy Bauer: That's a huge iPad.

Hope Morley: That's what they're going to announce at their next event.

Guy Bauer: They don't act like ads, but they're still ads. They know that they're ads. They don't over-index... Apple doesn't just give you these, quote-unquote, content-marketing things that are so soft that they're nothing, right? TV commercials know they're ads. They respect you, but they act like them. And they're smart about every single second. Every single second of airtime they're paying for, so they better have some kind of branding element or some kind of value-prop that is driving you towards consideration of their product.

Hope Morley: Yeah. You mentioned content marketing. And I think around the time that content marketing has really taken hold as a key element of marketing in B2B, and people started to then say video content on top of just saying videos. And suddenly, this drive for content and for video content, I'm using air quotes, it leads to making more lower-quality videos that just you're trying to get more content up. We could have a whole podcast about how to develop your video-marketing content strategy, which you should have, but without that detailed strategy of where to spend your money and what these videos are doing for you and creating different... knowing what the goal is for the video and how much money you should allocate to it, there's just so much there that I think that nuance gets lost for a lot of teams who are thinking about video purely as content.

Guy Bauer: TV commercials have a very clear, clear mission. In fact, as an exercise, the next time you're watching a TV commercial, hit pause and try to guess what the objective of the ad is. And I guarantee you, you will get it. You won't have any insight into their brief, into the internal goals of the organization. But I guarantee you, if you just take a second and analyze that 30-second spot, you'll understand, you'll be able to reverse engineer their creative brief very easily, very easily. Can the same be said for your B2B video content? Can I take your B2B ad and reverse engineer and fill out a creative brief? And a lot of times the answer is no.

Hope Morley: That's a really good challenge. I like it.

Guy Bauer: That's the pull quote for this episode, too. Well, let's see. Let's see, Hope. The gauntlet has been thrown down.

Hope Morley: Let's see. Okay. Now there's a challenge. We've got one more thing we want people to learn. Let's see if we can get a better pull quote for the episode. So the last thing that we want B2B marketers to learn from TV commercials, and this is related to brevity but a little bit different, is TV commercials tend to be well-written scripts and they have short, direct sentences. And this is so huge in B2B especially, that when videos get long and people tend to write their videos like they're writing a whitepaper or like they're writing the product page on their website, and they write voiceover lines that read well, but they don't sound like the way that people speak. And that's hard to understand.

Guy Bauer: TV advertisements are extremely well-written. They waste no part of a sentence. They eliminate all extraneous, and they are written to be punchy, poppy. Like, pithy is the word? I'm not sure.

Hope Morley: Mm-hmm (affirmative), pithy.

Guy Bauer: My roommate in Hollywood, in Hollywood-

Hope Morley: Oh, you're just going to throw that in there?

Guy Bauer: When I was a young man, I lived in Hollywood, and my roommate went to NYU. He went to NYU Tisch for film for their writing program, and he said his professor regarded Back to the Future as the perfect film script because if you think of Back to the Future, not necessarily two and three, but in Back to the Future, no word is wasted, and every part of the script comes back to loop around and mean something. Like, everything is in absolute balance in Back to the Future. That's how your ads should be. And even if it's a mini-doc about a customer testimonial, it's still an ad. You're doing that testimonial to sell. You're not doing it to make it on a PBS for the betterment of humanity. You're doing it to sell your solution. Come on, let's be real here. That's point number three. Know thyself. You're making an ad.

Hope Morley: If listeners take one thing away from this podcast episode, I want that takeaway to be your video should not be written by the same copywriter that you use for everything else. You might have someone on your team who's excellent at writing whitepapers. They're excellent at writing the copy for your website. They can write case studies in their sleep. Great. They are valuable. Hold onto them for dear life, but don't have them write your videos. It's not the same skill. It's very, very different and very specialized.

Guy Bauer: That may be the pull quote. Maybe there's two pull quotes, but that was really good. And that's nothing against your copywriter.

Hope Morley: No, they're excellent.

Guy Bauer: Yeah.

Hope Morley: Your web copy is probably excellent. Your whitepapers are probably very well written. There's a lot of excellent B2B copywriters out there, but that doesn't make them excellent video script writers.

Guy Bauer: It's still words in a Microsoft Word document, but it's a completely different set of rules to write for a 30 or for a 15. And I took the MasterClass on the... Oh, what's that... Goodby and Silverstein, I think. Yeah, Goodby and Silverstein did a MasterClass, and even their own copywriters in their own company, who are veterans, struggled to write for 30 or 60. So Goodby and Silverstein were complaining that they'll get scripts that are 65 seconds. They'll get scripts that are 48 seconds. It was like their unanimous, universal gripe with writers is... And their own writers who do ads all day, every day. To hit a 60 is really hard. And people will say like, "Well, wait 15, 30, 60, these are arbitrary numbers that were determined by broadcasters to fit into ad inventory." And the answer is yes. So I don't think you need to hit 30. If you can do it in 32, great. If you could do it in 58, great.

Guy Bauer: But what I think is we use those lengths as a guideline so that we know... It's forcing us... It's a container to force us to be concise, because if you can't say it in 60... It's the same thing as an elevator pitch. If it takes you 10 minutes for an elevator pitch, either your business stinks, or you've stunk at just synthesizing it.

Hope Morley: Explaining it.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. Yeah. It's a container to force you to make decisions. So that would be my single takeaway too, is just think in terms of 15, 30, and 60. Try that as an exercise. And it's okay if you don't hit it exactly, but use that as an exercise. I think 90 seconds, honestly, when clients say, "We're thinking 90," I think that that's way too long.

Hope Morley: For most people, yeah.

Guy Bauer: It's like who's going to give you 90 seconds? 90? Why is it taking so long? Why is it taking so long to say what you do and why people should care?

Hope Morley: I think we need to wrap on that point because, yeah, that's a perfect summation of what we were getting into in this show. It shouldn't take you so long.

Guy Bauer: Yeah. That was like a talk-show moment too. You know how when talk-show hosts say something and then there's silence?

Hope Morley: Yeah.

Guy Bauer: I love that. That was the first time in my life that's ever happened.

Hope Morley: Congratulations.

Guy Bauer: Thank you. All right, so the four tips are...

Hope Morley: The four tips are: keep it short and sweet, assume that your audience is disinterested, know that it's an ad. Know thyself. Be okay with being an ad. And have well-written copy written by someone who is good at writing video scripts.

Guy Bauer: Boom.

Hope Morley: Boom.

Guy Bauer: That's awesome. Well, thank you very much.

Hope Morley: The four lessons.

Guy Bauer: This was a fun episode.

Hope Morley: This was fun.

Guy Bauer: I'm going to leave it mostly unedited.

Hope Morley: Listeners, let us know what you think of today's episode. Did you have fun listening? Did you learn something? Are you going to look at TV commercials differently this weekend when you're watching some baseball? Let us know. We're all across the social media channels at Umault. You can also send us an email at hello at umault.com. That's U-M-A-U-L-T.com. Thanks for listening.

Guy Bauer: You're welcome.





Picture of Guy bauer, founder of umault

Guy has been making commercial videos for over 20 years and is the author of “Death to the Corporate Video: A Modern Approach that Works.” He started the agency in 2010 after a decade of working in TV, film and radio. He’s been losing hair and gaining weight ever since.

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