How Oz Clarke and James May helped me get in touch with Small Business owners

14 mins read

It was exactly a year ago this week that I realised I couldn’t drive.

Sure, I’d passed my driving test 13 years earlier, but when I turned the key in my hired Skoda, it quickly became obvious to me that I was in fact still unable to drive.

A mere 30 seconds after picking up Claudia, a film producer who was joining me on an 800 mile trip around the UK, I had stalled trying to drive up the small ramp of the exit to Reading car park, rolling us backwards into the abyss.

It was a bad start to a long journey that I really wanted (and needed) to go well.

It all started on a lazy, hungover Sunday watching reruns of ‘Oz and James Drink to Britain’  – one of my favourite easy watches about a wine expert and that guy from Top Gear driving around the UK, visiting pubs and learning about our love for a pint.

It got me thinking – if two professional, famous and hard working TV presenters could get paid to take a couple of weeks in the summer driving round Britain visiting a series of pubs, why couldn’t I? I’d always wanted to emulate Oz and James’ adventures, but I needed a bloody good excuse.

Luckily, we’d been doing some work at Earnest that was looking at helping big businesses market and sell to small businesses. Andrew Last, our Client Services Director, had given a standing ovation worthy talk at ‘B2B Ignite’ on the topic and we had partnered with Imperial College London to do research into How Small Businesses Really Buy.

Most agencies would have stopped there, but Earnest has a philosophy of doing something unexpected and humdrum crushing, and I had a latent desire to have my Oz and James moment. So I decided it was time to up the ante and spend two weeks travelling the length and breadth of the country to meet and interview real small business owners outside of the London bubble to see what’s really on their mind (and stop off at a few pubs along the way).

And so the idea of ‘The Trip’ was born.

The plan was simple. I’d put together some slides on why exactly we needed to do this (TOP TIP: if you’re ever trying to sell in a mental idea internally say the words ‘Good for PR’ and most people will nod along politely). Hope and pray Chris (Earnest’s MD) would sign it off. Gather a film crew, ring up some businesses, hop in the car, chuck a film together and get back in time for Love Island.

I put together some slides, Chris signed off the hairbrained idea and we hired the excellent Enclave Films to join us to document the people we met along the way.

The first bit was easy, admittedly finding the businesses was slightly harder. Our main insight had been that small businesses were over represented by flower shop owners in London, so we needed a wide variety of businesses to meet and film.

Few issues here – i. It was kind of impossible to explain what we wanted to interview them for (turns out people in the real world don’t have a clue what marketing, let alone ‘b2b’ marketing actually is) ii. The likes of Julie from the butchers in Wolverhampton are none too keen on going on camera (‘I don’t like you poncy media types’) iii. Real small business owners, actual people who are giving their very own blood, sweat and tears to building a business, have little time to put their own kids to bed, let alone talk to me.

But, persistence prevailed and after many Google searches, a lot of begging, some friends pulling strings and a bribe or two we had 18 kind small businesses owners scattered across the UK to meet.

Driving licence dusted off. This is happening.

“Why are you doing this?”

Claudia had asked a good question.

We were driving the country roads to the Cotswolds to meet our first business, and I began to explain: I blame Brexit.

During the lead up to the big referendum, I hadn’t seen a sniff of hope from anyone you spoke to in London that we could even consider leaving the EU. Sure, there were 6% of UKIPers who would vote to leave, but apart from that this would be all forgotten about in a few weeks.

But of course that was all wrong. I, along with many others, had failed to look beyond the London bubble, and see that there was a whole world out there I failed to understand.

And it had got me thinking about what I do for a job. As an agency, our role is to understand everything about who we are selling to, and with over 99% of businesses in the UK classified as small businesses anyone claiming to be an expert in b2b had better know that audience. But we didn’t really, no one did.

So the answer to Claudia’s question was that this was a humble journey to find out about the people we (and our clients) should know a lot more about, and hear from real stories away from yet another blog post in Marketing Week and share them with others who might be interested.

Around 750 miles into The Trip I realised that you don’t have to buy yourself a plane ticket to Thailand to have said you have been travelling. There’s a lot to be said for exploring what’s closest to home.

Our journey took us from Reading, to the Cotswolds, down to Somerset, up to Bristol, through Wiltshire, over to Stratford, via Nottingham and the Peak District, through York, up to Middlesbrough before finishing in the Lake District (followed by a long old ride back to London) – many of which I have never visited before.

The Trip map

Along the way I met nervous people at the start of their business journey, excited people flying (and some stumbling) in the middle and others coming to the end ready to pass on the fruits of their hard work and wisdom to the next generation.

We met bike makers, woodworkers, cafe owners, owl adopters, eBay Millionaires, shoe designers and everyone in between – each with a different story to tell.

Some talked about the importance of the foundations of their business and how success had come out of always remembering why they were there. Others told us about their networks – the hidden ecosystems of people that sit behind every small business and keep the engine running every day. A couple of braver interviewees told us of their struggles – and how they had overcome some of the biggest lows that come with running your own thing.

Every story was as eye opening and inspiring as the next and each person not only talked with so much passion about their business, but their life as a whole, how as a small business owner there really is no line between their working and personal life – telling stories that laughed in the face of user personas in a PPT deck.

If travelling is about opening the mind, a trip around the UK should be every marketers dream gap year. It certainly was one of the best things I, as someone whose job it is to know about businesses, ever did.

If a client came to me and was only willing to pay for one piece of advice on how to sell to small businesses, I would give them this simple 5 step plan:

  1. Find two days in your diary and delete all the meetings (unless one is about a pay rise or something)
  2. Book yourself a train to the town of a football team outside of the M25, in League 1 or below that scored the first goal in the previous week’s Saturday football.
  3. Book yourself into a 2 star B+B for the night (and make sure to talk to the owners over breakfast)
  4. Google 4 different businesses in the town, and ask for 30 minutes of their time to ask some questions about what they do.
  5. Come home and present your findings to your whole marketing team.

Any CMO looking to sell to small businesses would see that your audience is so much more than a Londoner holding an open sign outside a flower shop.

They are people that want and need the help of big brands who have the skills and tools that can enable them to grow.

They want love and attention, not just ads thrown in their face all day every day.

And they want you to live up to what you promise because work is more than work to them, it’s their whole life.

While The Trip has long been over, the Think Small journey rumbles on.

Over the last year we’ve teamed up with ‘B2B Marketing’ to create a whole series of content looking at Small Businesses and helping big businesses best sell to them.

We continue to meet and interview small business owners whenever we can, and share our insights with our clients and anyone else who will listen.

We’ve been lucky enough to win a few awards for our efforts, including best Micro Site at the ACE Marketing Awards in New York.

If you want to learn more you can…

_ Read a long write up of The Trip and how you can earn ‘The Nod’ with Small Business owners.

_ Watch all of the short films we made of the businesses we visited on the trip

_ Explore our Small Business Marketing insights and guides

_ Ask us to come in and talk about all we have learned about Small Businesses to you and your business (or just how to get your boss to agree to signing off what some of your colleagues may call a ‘caravan holiday’)

_ Come in and have a chat with us about how we can help you connect better with small business owners, whatever you’re selling.