BBN Celebrates 30 Years

As part of our 30 year celebrations, BBN’s executive director, Annette Fernandes-Poyser interviews BBN’s founder and B2B marketing guru, Tim Hazlehurst to find out how and why BBN was formed and what he thinks of the industry in today’s climate.

Why, how and when was BBN formed?

From 1979 to 1986 I had a business in the USA, introducing clients to the USA market, conducting feasibility studies, producing feasibility studies and overseeing sales and marketing activities. This was in addition to managing and developing a UK agency. It is difficult to envisage post Brexit that in the late 80s all thoughts were on the trade barriers coming down in the European Union.  It seemed essential that, as the leading U.K. B2B Agency at that time, we had to offer an integrated, Pan-European service.

In 1986/7 I instigated a search for suitable partners and met Sven Ake Armandt (Owner of Swedens leading B2B Agency) at a conference in Brussels. Between us we built what was then, a Pan-European network called the B2B Network. Germany, France and Italy were immediately on board, with Spain, Finland, Norway, Belgium, Czech Republic and Holland soon following. The message to prospective agencies was “BBN is what you make of it, not what you get from it”.

The vision was to clearly lead the way in providing the B2B network necessary for our clients to reap the advantage of a European free trade area from 1991. To achieve this we targeted the leading B2B agency in each country other than Italy and Spain where they didn’t exist! We had to train those two! It was not until 1992 that we expanded the reach of BBN to USA, Brazil, Japan, China and Australia. This was when we became the world’s premier B2B network.

Tell us about some of BBN’s early clients

Our Italian agency brought in our first major BBN client: Novaceta and subsequently our first integrated project. They produced a synthetic thread that was used to make suit linings and we had to help them penetrate a new market – High-end couture fashion, as the thread was considered great for lingerie and other types of fashionable clothing. There were four agencies involved: Italy, UK, France and Germany and interestingly, the work was divided by discipline rather than geography. While Italy took care of the client relationship, UK delivered direct mailings, France took care of events and Germany, the PR.

A great memory of working with that client was meeting and hanging out with Bruce Oldfield (now a couture fashion superstar) who back then was working out of a little studio in London and was an early advocate of this new material.

Leaseplan was one of our most significant wins in the early days. They were a BBN client for many years. They were led by BBN France and we delivered several international workshops in the late 90’s. ABB and Altro were also pretty significant clients for us back then.


What do you believe was the most significant advancement during the first 10 years for BBN?

One of the most significant advances we made during this period was to create the ‘BBN college’, later re-named ‘multicultural Workshops’ (now called the BBN Academy), where agency staff could learn and develop contact and brand strategies together thus forging a common way of working.

Major clients were encouraged to sponsor these events in return for using the techniques developed to solve international, integration problems for them. Remember that in the main, overseas companies were very much left to develop their own, local market strategies; encouraging them to meet with BBN and their subsidiaries pioneered an integrated approach and universal or Pan-European Branding. The client was involved in the learning process and we put aside one day of the event to work on a solution for the client based on a given brief.  We had about 5 or 6 of these types of BBN colleges, the first one was sponsored by ABB. 


If you were to start BBN now, what factors in today’s market might influence your objectives, would they be very different from 1987?

The problem with B2B marketing is it tends to go in an up and down cycle of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Back then quantitative was more dominant in the form of direct mail, which was a trend at the time, and so less emphasis was given to brand importance. However, there was still a need for good strategic planning practice, so we developed best practices for both. We seem to be in another quantitative cycle where marketing automation and other digital marketing is favoured. So, in answer to your question, the objectives probably wouldn’t change much, but clearly the tactics would.


What do you think are B2B agencies’ biggest challenges today?

As I mentioned earlier, the typical cyclic nature of qualitative / quantitative approaches in B2B marketing will always be challenging. This tends to be client driven and agencies that were once niche specialists, suddenly find themselves in a more competitive space. The speed of technical advancement means that agencies will need to keep up and ahead of clients if they are to succeed. But luckily, I believe BBN still has partners who won’t let clients forget about the brand.


What do you think a BBN of the future might look like?

An approach that focuses on the skill / service matrix model is I believe the way forward. 

Internally, building friendships and trust is also very important and without that there is no successful work-based collaborations. Owners used to meet officially 3 times a year, that did not include the BBN college and other client specific workshops. In the 90’s these events were well attended and strong relationships were built which in my mind was one of the most important aspects of BBN’s success.


What do you think is most important for international clients today when considering an agency?

I think clients will vary in their requirements, the clever ones will see the strong skills and services on offer, but they need to be convinced that these can be delivered seamlessly across their markets.

For BBN, I think it’s being able to demonstrate the genuine solidarity and trust that exists between its partners.


Tim was involved with BBN for many years and since he stepped down in 2008, we’ve had three Chairman lead our executive board and partners and continue to build on the great work that Tim lead in the early years. We are delighted and very honoured to  have Tim attend our Annual Academy in October, where he will be our guest of honour at our Gala Awards dinner.

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