If you show clients what you truly believe in, then they’ll repay your faith in yourself.

Last month I gave a talk to a group of agency CEOs. My deck included a slide of famous agency propositions. When I say ‘famous’, I mean the agencies, not their propositions – without the logos, no-one could tell me whose was whose.

The audience looked pretty uncomfortable – which, of course, was precisely the point. Really, agencies need to do better here.

Thankfully, fast forward to last week in Cannes and – just like buses – two lovely counter examples arrived at once. And they both offer important lessons for agency leaders who are seeking competitive advantage. 

Give clients what they need

Firstly, I watched a panel discussion where Logitech’s CMO Najoh Tita-Reid was asked by Adweek’s Shannon Miller to share why she hired Virtue, who were represented on the panel by their co-president, Chris Garbutt.

For context, Virtue talk about ‘building brands from inside culture’ – a claim that’s given real credibility by them being part of Vice Media. 

And in her answer to ‘why Virtue?’, Najoh echoed this proposition. She explained that she’d been looking for “a partner at the centre of culture – a superpower we don’t yet have”.

A great example of agency differentiation meeting a clear client need.

Powering the client’s vision

Also at Cannes, I was delighted to be part of a joint initiative between Campaign and Worldwide Partners Inc., the global community of independent agencies. They convened a powerful group of senior marketers and agency owners to explore how both sides could improve partnerships, work and outcomes.

More on that in the write-up from Gideon Spanier, Maisie McCabe and John Harris. Spoiler: it was empowering and energising stuff.

Anyway, I was sat in a team that included Formula E CMO Henry Chilcott, who works with the independent creative agency, Uncommon. As part of the workshop, he shared that when he’d joined the business, he explicitly needed an agency that understood how to “build a brand that people wanted to exist” – which is precisely Uncommon’s proposition.

No wonder they stood out to Henry – and they’ve clearly built a strong client / agency partnership together. 

Going beyond straplines

Now, quite rightly, clients like to say nice things about their agencies, especially when they’re sat together in public forums. But far from politely toeing the party line, these examples demonstrate deep differentiation.

Agencies talking about culture is nothing new, but Virtue’s connection with Vice gives them a depth of provenance that represents a clear and ownable point of difference.

In Uncommon’s case, even without Virtue’s birthright differentiator, they’ve consistently shown that, alongside being a highly creative and effective agency, they seek out clients who see the world the same way they do.

Five years ago, soon after Uncommon launched, I sat down with two of their three co-founders, Lucy Jameson and Natalie Graeme, to talk about propositions and differentiation. Their passion for ‘brands that people in the real world actually wish existed’ was obvious. And now time has shown that it’s deeply rooted.

I’d also argue that this depth of belief is just as critical to their success as their ability. Great agencies are selective in who they work for and then staunchly defend what they believe in.

Stand for something

Generic straplines about ‘applying creativity’, working with ‘ambitious clients’ or creating ‘meaningful brands’ won’t take your agency where you want to go. They reveal an endemic insecurity that powers the misplaced need to be all things to all people.

In fact, the opportunity to stand-out is very much within every agency’s grasp, as long as you’re willing to define what you believe in – and then promote, defend and celebrate it every day,

Ask yourself, who are you for? Who are you not for? What matters to you? The clichéd need to say ‘no’ more often goes way beyond just qualifying out of pitches – in fact, saying ‘no’ is essential to strategy.

By sticking to your strengths and priorities, you’ll consistently deliver work that demonstrates your beliefs and proposition. This creates a virtuous circle whereby you keep attracting the right brands and the best talent, and make better profits.

So, it’s nice if your peers can pick out your schtick in a crowd. But it’s even better if your ideal clients hear it and then give you a call.

Image: Dilok Klaisataporn