Positioning is dead – it’s time to make yourself scarce

Positioning is dead – it’s time to make yourself scarce

Given the rocky road ahead, finding growth won’t be easy, so differentiation will be more critical than ever. Step one is to liberate your agency from outdated disciplines. Clearly the...

Given the rocky road ahead, finding growth won’t be easy, so differentiation will be more critical than ever. Step one is to liberate your agency from outdated disciplines. Clearly the pandemic has hit the agency world hard. And with talk of a second wave in Autumn and the furloughing crutch about to be removed, driving growth will remain a real challenge.  And if you agree that differentiation will be essential, then the priority is how to create it - not least in a market where traditional positioning statements feel so limiting.  No-one’s ‘just’ digital, advertising or design anymore, or SEO, experiential or PR. Being defined by a single discipline is deeply dissatisfying.  It’s the biggest single reason why agencies struggle to stand out. But that said, although it’s a big strategic question, it’s not as important as you think.  What do you do?  Nothing divides an agency Board more than identity. What kind of agency are we? Will our clients - or our people - abandon ship if we get our discipline wrong? Someone always argues for being ‘creative’ and another will say “but ‘Creative’ means ‘advertising’”. To which the first replies, “but how else will people know we’re creative?”.  Face-palm.  Adjectives are in play too. ‘Integrated’ gets pitted against its cousins, ‘full-service’ and ‘multi-channel’. Some argue ‘full-service’ only means media-plus-creative. Others worry that ‘integrated’ is shorthand for jack-of-all-trades.  Even the word ‘agency’ ties people in knots. Are you a studio, firm, business, consultancy, company, collective or even - Jesus wept - a ‘group of people’?  Although the intellectual gymnastics are impressive, the endless debate is exhausting. And the result is either a flimsy consensus that no-one likes, or a diktat that no-one uses.  Everyone does everything It all used to be so simple - few disciplines, all neatly defined. Clients knew what they wanted and where to find it. But they don’t buy like that any more Now that traditional channel boundaries have melted away, single-discipline positioning statements just don’t do you justice. UX specialists do service design; shopper agencies offer experiential; everyone does social media. And so it goes on.  You become a hostage to how clients choose to define the language - not least in how you optimise for search listings.  Of course it helps if you’re in an emergent discipline, like digital transformation, innovation consultancy or digital product and service design. But even these overlap.  And besides, an in-demand positioning won’t differentiate you for long. Not only will other specialists flood in, but dabblers soon squeeze out the credibility from your expert language. Surely ‘agile’ just means ‘fast-and-cheap’, right?  In recent times, agencies have understandably converged on the multi-disciplinary holy grail of ‘customer experience’, so discipline-based positionings became blurrier still.  And then along came COVID-19.  The death of positioning As an accelerant to existing trends, the pandemic is proving to be the final death knell for traditional positioning statements.  Suddenly traditional selling felt crass, so ‘helping’ and ‘empathy’ became essential - as if they weren’t before. But in particular, it became clear that simply listing your disciplines was an ineffective - and often insensitive - way of communicating why clients should choose you.  Your first task was plotting a course through the initial disruption, but now it’s time to maximise differentiation as you power through the ongoing uncertainty.  So what are your options?  Standout in a positionless world  Some agencies invent their own pseudo positioning. But if you’re ‘The XYZ Agency’ and have to immediately explain what your all-new ‘XYZ’ discipline actually means, then you’re burying your value not surfacing it.  Others recognise the need to focus on their proposition, defining an outcome for a discrete audience. But they often falter at the first sign of sacrifice, defaulting to offering their generic discipline to anyone with a pulse - maybe adding a superlative for insecurity’s sake.  

  • Awesome PR for ambitious clients 
  • Digital Transformation for the world’s best brands 
  • Advertising for brave CMOs. 
In fairness, none of these are wrong, they’re just stale and undifferentiating. Which causes way more problems than an empty pipeline As a sense-check for standout, ask ‘could the opposite ever be true?’. Clearly ‘so-so SEO for unambitious brands’ would be madness.  The one exception to discipline-for-great-clients falling flat is where you’ve earned serious recognition in your field. Check out Work & Co. Not much of a proposition, but a Who’s Who of clients, with a simple, confident site to match. But for the vast majority of agencies, positioning isn’t enough. So your proposition needs to work much harder.  Becoming truly client-centric  By solving a specific audience’s problem, a strong proposition makes your whole business more client-centric and empathetic. It shifts your emphasis from services to outcomes. 
  • We’re spinal surgeons for sportspeople, getting athletes back to the top of their game
  • I’m an artist creating multi-sensory experiences for the blind
  • We’re social media experts for listed companies, here’s what happens if the shit hits the fan. 
In all these examples, a generic positioning - or discipline - only serves to tee-up a far more differentiating proposition, i.e. a defined outcome for someone in particular.  Note that your outcome must be specific to your target client. Just as ‘marketers with money’ isn’t a discrete audience, helping clients ‘sell more stuff’ won’t make you stand out.  Proving your promise  Another tip is to hold fire on proof points like services, clients and case studies - they’re the ‘how’ that follow the all-important ‘what’. Until you’ve stated your proposition, how you do it lacks context. You’re selling a meal, not the ingredients.  Back in the day, an ‘advertising’ agency buying an internal comms specialist would have confused their positioning. Were they still an ad agency? An internal-and-external brand specialist? Or - kill me now - the world’s first ‘Intern-vertising™’ agency? But with a modern proposition around ‘reinvigorating retail brands’, acquiring skills that impact shop floor staff would add valuable proof. Their ailing clients don’t care about positioning, as long as that promise is kept. A rose by any other name would stop my retail chain going bust.  So once your outcome captures attention, that’s when proof matters. And it’s not just what you say, but also what you do. Your entire agency customer experience should substantiate your proposition.  Be hard to ignore Ultimately, demonstrating your expertise in delivering an outcome is what creates standout. That means scarcity, which gives you leverage to get upstream, leave the pitching merry-go-round and command a premium.  Will you ever be in a market of one? Perhaps. But will endlessly rephrasing your discipline ever create standout? No chance. Although proposition development can be tricky, searching for a unique positioning will drive you to distraction. So accept the fact that all the good words are taken. Just be comfortable with the least worst option.  And the next time your Board is arguing over your discipline, remember that clients don’t give a toss. They ignore dozens of positioning variations every day. But they don’t ignore a powerful proposition - especially now.
Image: Robert F

Time to embrace agency transformation

Time to embrace agency transformation

The pandemic has accelerated the need for fundamental change - this is achieved through nuanced adaptation not wholesale reinvention. Having made tough decisions, supported your team and...

The pandemic has accelerated the need for fundamental change - this is achieved through nuanced adaptation not wholesale reinvention. Having made tough decisions, supported your team and stayed close to evolving client needs, you’ve emerged into this worryingly open-ended ‘new normal’.  Now the big question is what kind of agency you want to be when all this is over. Or more specifically, how to create competitive advantage by finally adapting to the changes the agency market has seen in recent years.  It’s clear that differentiation, commercial models and leadership must evolve. And now is the time to act. 

The overdue evolution

Even before the pandemic, the pressures you’re facing were well established - from in-housing, new competitors and oversupply, to margin pressure, the talent crisis and a lack of differentiation.  No wonder IPA President Nigel Vaz’s agenda is to ‘reimagine’ the role of the agency. And now COVID-19 has accelerated changes in how clients buy. They’re facing new problems with less money, more urgency and higher risk.  This is a huge opportunity. But to capitalise in such a crowded market, agencies must become more client-centric and specialised. Rather than ‘targeting’ any CMO with a budget, you need to refocus on where your core expertise overlaps with specific client problems.  That means binning outdated habits like having a strapline masquerade as your proposition or assuming that pitching is the best way to grow.  You’ll also need to challenge outdated behaviours and mindsets. For example: 
  • Get upstream - make the brief, don’t take the brief
  • Be consultative - help don’t sell; be genuine partners
  • People don’t buy people, they buy experts
  • Classic ‘land-and-expand’ growth can hold you back
  • Evolve leadership from top-down to trusted collaboration. 
These are nuanced, business-wide shifts. And this step-change in differentiation has moved from important to critical. 

Build your agency’s customer experience

Real change starts at the top and doesn’t stop there. An ‘initiative’ or two won’t cut it. But you don’t need to tear everything up and start again. It’s about focus - knowing what to stop doing, as well as doing more of what already makes you effective.  Consider your agency’s entire customer experience. Just like brands in their own crowded markets, simply stating your case isn’t enough - you need to prove it. Once you’re clear on the promise you’re making to clients, everything you say - and do - should serve as proof.  This is evolution not revolution. It requires a more deliberate, agency-wide connection between strategy and tactics, as well as a leadership model tailored to make change stick.  On the commercial side, it’s about aligning your proposition, marketing and sales, plus roles, responsibilities and metrics, as well as structures, process and pricing.  And to establish the behaviours needed to embed these changes, your leadership team must be 100% behind you - and be able to collaborate with genuine trust.  Of course some agencies do need wholesale change to optimise for growth. Others just need a little course correction. But regardless of where you start, you need clarity and a plan. 

Your roadmap to growth

To build differentiation into every aspect of your agency’s customer experience, Co:definery works in partnership with creative leadership specialists Curve Together we’ve developed the Expertise-Led Agency Customer Experience (ELACE) framework - a tool that delivers a bespoke roadmap for tangible change. 
  • Validate strategy and define priority changes
  • Implement at the right speed and make change stick
  • Address the psychological, operational and cultural hurdles to growth
  • Accelerate progress with proven frameworks, designed for agencies to adapt.
By focusing on growth, holistic change is accelerated through a virtuous circle of commercial gains and demonstrably effective leadership. 

The window of opportunity

Transformation can no longer languish in the ‘too hard’ pile. But turning the tanker doesn’t mean boiling the ocean. Instead, fast-paced change prospers through targeted intervention. Agencies are people businesses. Although they often face similar challenges, every solution is unique. There is no ‘average’, ‘ASAP’ is too slow and ‘best practice’ sets the bar too low.  Both big picture and hands-on, Co:definery’s and Curve’s customer experience-led model for transformation provides bespoke guidance and embeds accountability for change.  The pandemic has created an opportunity to address fundamental issues that have been looming for years. But to thrive as the market recovers, agencies must take decisive action now.  Ask yourself - if not now, then when? Your competitors will be using this time wisely.  To find out more, get in touch.
Image: Cindy Tang

Get beyond the rhetoric of client/agency ‘partnerships’

Get beyond the rhetoric of client/agency ‘partnerships’

Lockdown offers agencies a unique opportunity – not just to define what genuine partnership looks like, but also how to achieve it. (This article first appeared in Campaign) The subject...

Lockdown offers agencies a unique opportunity – not just to define what genuine partnership looks like, but also how to achieve it. (This article first appeared in Campaign) The subject of agencies being partners not suppliers keeps cropping up. Hence Claire Beale’s rallying cry “to move on from the procurer / supplier mentality ...and redefine what a client / agency partnership really looks like" So without downplaying the pandemic, as many clients are now more willing than ever to collaborate, perhaps it’s the perfect time to finally make this happen. 

Defining partnership 

One hurdle is that the word ‘partnership’ is woolly. Agencies often use it as a lazy synonym for respectful relationships. Others argue that partnership resides in value-based pricing.  The latter has more merit, but many agencies confuse value-based pricing with payment-by-results. And even if you can agree on attribution, sharing a slice of risk and reward says more about incentives than partnership. Clearly skin-in-the-game and mutual respect aren’t trivial, but at best they’re symptoms of a partnership, rather than the causes.  So we need to consider where partnerships come from. 

Make yourself scarce

You can’t be a partner when you’re a commodity. That needs solving first.  Competition has expanded. Clients have changed how they buy. The old rules for standout don’t apply anymore. You can’t just rely on culture, your work or a slogan masquerading as a proposition Instead consider your agency’s entire customer experience. Just like brands in their own crowded markets, simply solving a problem isn’t enough; you need to prove it. Everything you say – and do – should serve as proof of the promise you’re making. Every little helps.  Embracing remote working is a case in point. Surely we’re all finally beyond miming inverted commas whenever we say ‘working from home’. That has big implications for talent, process and accountability.  Imagine if a unique model or having bespoke ways of working – like Croud – could help your ideal clients substantiate your proposition. It’s the same for how you price, sell, hire etc. They’re all opportunities to differentiate. And once your value is seen as scarce, genuine partnership can follow. 

Partnership is bespoke

Dreadful though this crisis is, as Uncle Rory argues with typical poise, it’s also a rare opportunity to change. If you want clients to see you as a valued partner – and heaven knows why you wouldn’t – then you need to get beyond the rhetoric.  Partnership is too important to be vague about. It’s too far-reaching to be left to individuals. And it’s too nuanced to just follow the herd.  Now, I appreciate there are plenty of moving parts here, from proposition, pricing and value, to accountability, culture and the future of work. But that’s precisely the point – bespokely joining the dots is where the value lies.  Ask yourself what kind of agency you’d like to become once all this is over. But don’t stop there. Define what ‘partnership’ means, as well as how it benefits you, your people and your clients.  Finally, do yourself justice – embrace the breadth of change required to make it happen.  Lip service is a disservice.
Image: Campaign

Accelerating out of the crisis

Accelerating out of the crisis

Being ready to thrive once the pandemic passes requires decisive action now. But as well as taking the right decisions, how can you make sure that change sticks? With forethought,...

Being ready to thrive once the pandemic passes requires decisive action now. But as well as taking the right decisions, how can you make sure that change sticks? With forethought, determination and luck, you’ve weathered the immediate crisis and emerged ready for the next phase - getting back to growth.  But in an uncertain market, how can you ramp-up revenue and profit by taking a more progressive, agency-wide approach to differentiation? As ever, the devil’s in the detail. 

Realigning for growth

Modern agency growth requires some reprogramming. And now is the perfect time to bin old-fashioned habits like conflating positioning with propositions or assuming pitching is the best way to grow.  This demands a more deliberate, business-wide connection between strategy and tactics. The smart decisions you take now will be wasted without relentless execution.  So you may need to realign your strategy, marketing and sales, plus roles, responsibilities and metrics, as well as structures, process and pricing. Also remember the drivers of change - from culture and behaviours, to mindsets and confidence - all in a WFH world.  And don’t forget your own headspace. Pulled in different directions at the best of times, having new worries and fears right now is natural - as is feeling unable to share them with colleagues. Perhaps you’re exhausted, but can’t allow the cracks to show? Or maybe you’re taking on too much of the burden yourself?  Regardless of where you start optimising for growth, even if you don’t need wholesale change, the nuances matter. 

Choose the right perspective

Getting good advice will accelerate your progress. So embrace your mentors, peers and networks - especially now that their experience and objectivity are so necessary.  Even just saying your challenges out loud will organise your thoughts and lead to better decisions. And a timely observation or suggestion from someone outside your personal vortex can be game-changing.  If you’re lacking an outside perspective, you have a range of options. But choose wisely, because compromise may be required. 
  • Many good advisors lack experience with modern agencies of different sizes, disciplines and life-stages 
  • Consider the breadth, depth and bespokeness of growth advice - NEDs often maintain a distance, mentors are less operational, Business Development consultants have a single focus 
  • Most require a hefty investment and long-term commitment.
These distinctions matter. Not only is every agency different, but also CEOs and Founders need different advice at different times for different reasons.  No wonder that on any given day, you might need a blend of consulting, coaching and mentoring. From shaping strategy to crafting that critical email; setting priorities to getting buy-in; handling bad news to making a plan.  And it shouldn’t cost the Earth to have someone to call.  Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is designed around these nuances - and to realise a significant new opportunity for growth. 

Differentiate through customer experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated changes in how clients buy. They’re facing new problems with less money and higher risk.  This creates an opportunity, but only if your agency can adapt. For example: 
  • Make the brief, don’t take the brief
  • Help don’t sell
  • People don’t buy people, they buy experts
  • Being easy to buy is paramount, but ‘land-and-expand’ can hold you back. 
This progressive approach to differentiation may not be news to you, but it’s moved from important to critical.  So how can you make these changes quickly? By considering your agency’s entire customer experience.  Just like brands, simply stating your case isn’t enough; you need to prove it. Once you’re clear on the promise you’re making to clients, everything you say - and do - should serve as proof. 

Create your roadmap 

Now more than ever, expertise defines your market, but it’s your provenance that drives revenue. Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is based on our Expertise-Led Agency Customer Experience (ELACE) framework - a roadmap for embedding your provenance into every aspect of your business.  With this roadmap in place, agency leaders can: 
  • Validate strategy and define priority changes
  • Implement at the right speed and make change stick
  • Address the psychological, operational and cultural hurdles to growth
  • Accelerate change with proven frameworks, designed for agencies to adapt.
Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service offers business-wide guidance for growth, designed around you and delivered where you need it most. 

Your personal trainer for growth

To thrive as the market recovers decisive action now. But focusing on a grand pivot or tactical tweaks won’t optimise growth. And one-size-fits-all advice won’t help you connect the two.  Agencies are people businesses. Although they often face similar challenges, every solution is unique. There is no ‘average’, ‘ASAP’ is too slow and ‘best practice’ sets the bar too low.  Both big picture and hands-on, Co:definery’s Growth Advisory Service is like having a personal trainer. You get bespoke guidance combined with accountability for change.  It’s delivered remotely via tailored three-month sprints and month one is offered with a money-back guarantee.  To find out more, get in touch.
Image: Tim Gouw

Design your roadmap for reinvention

Design your roadmap for reinvention

To adapt for growth as COVID-19 passes, agencies must develop their own unique customer experience. Step one is to prioritise what needs to change. Even before the pandemic, the traditional...

To adapt for growth as COVID-19 passes, agencies must develop their own unique customer experience. Step one is to prioritise what needs to change. Even before the pandemic, the traditional agency business model was creaking at the seams. Clients had changed how they buy - and from whom - and many agencies were struggling to adapt.  Now COVID-19 has accelerated the need for genuine transformation, the question is where to start.

Differentiate through expertise 

Having each advised dozens of agency leaders, Co:definery has partnered with creative leadership specialists Curve to develop a methodology for fast-paced change.  Using principles of Design Thinking, our ‘Expertise-Led Agency Customer Experience (ELACE) Framework’ acts as a diagnostic to define where you’re headed, what to change and where to start.  The ELACE Framework maps out differentiation across your entire customer experience so that everything you do - as well as what you say - demonstrates your specific expertise.  This refocuses your agency from capabilities to client needs; matching your skills, ambitions and resources to the market most likely to buy. From a single diagnostic workshop, the Framework establishes a manageable, bite-sized approach to change. So rather than boil the ocean, you can quickly prioritise the most impactful changes from the wealth of choices you face. 

ELACE Diagnostic Workshop 

Convening your senior leadership team, we focus on the nuances that make the most difference. Exploring everyone’s perspective, we’ll assess your aspirations and progress against each component of five company-wide pillars:
  1. Strategic: e.g. proposition, audience use-cases, internal buy-in
  2. Leadership: e.g. collaboration, innovation, trust 
  3. Operational: e.g. financial performance, growth metrics, talent plan 
  4. Marketing: e.g. infrastructure, outreach model, lead generation
  5. Selling: e.g. protecting your time, conversion model, capturing value. 
This shapes your adoption of a bespoke, expertise-driven customer experience by honing in on ownable strengths and agreeing where the gaps are: 
  1. Tailored priorities, agreed by all stakeholders
    • ranked for importance vs. urgency
    • clear owners, actions and deadlines
  2. Validation of what’s working well 
  3. Any specific quick wins that arise. 
With this roadmap in place, we then deliver the minimal blend of consulting, coaching and mentoring to build momentum and make change stick. 

Optimising for growth

As the global economy recovers from the pandemic, Co:definery and Curve’s ELACE Framework helps you evolve into the meaningfully differentiated agency you need to become. Creating focus amid the ongoing uncertainty, you immediately gain the necessary conviction to proceed with a minimum of energy-sapping doubt. Tailored to your unique needs, our approach combines commercial change and refocused leadership. And being highly collaborative, it also embeds accountability and makes you self-sufficient as quickly as possible. Together we accelerate your journey back to growth and finally address the competitive pressures that have been building for years. Find out more by getting in touch.
Image: David Przybyla

Should you be doing New-Business right now?

Should you be doing New-Business right now?

If there’s a single secret to winning new-business, it’s empathy. And now’s the perfect time to be more client-centric and do the right thing. Without downplaying the severity of the...

If there’s a single secret to winning new-business, it’s empathy. And now’s the perfect time to be more client-centric and do the right thing. Without downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, keeping spirits up is important. So I was heartened by some reassuringly British piss-taking on the socials; a friend sarcastically praised the heavens for finally finding that ‘guide to working from home’ that we’ve all been sorely lacking.  In fairness, the agency that produced it was probably well-meaning, if a little late to the party.  It’s certainly way more defensible than idiots failing to switch off their automated spam sequences (‘Hi Robin, I know you’ve ignored my first five emails, but who at Co:definery is responsible for sock purchase and sock repair?’).  And of course the COVID-crassness award must be reserved for any tone-deaf bellends trying to self-servingly newsjack the horror. No, I don’t want to read ‘why a pandemic is the perfect time to invest in branded pens’.  Anyway, all this highlights an important question for agencies - how should you be doing new-business right now? 

A risky time to sell 

There’s a fine line between welcome help and unsavoury opportunism. And given that we’re all a bit frazzled, if even slightly badly expressed, a genuine motive can easily be misconstrued.  So the stakes are high, with plenty of jeopardy. Looking like an arse is one thing, but it’s far worse to add yet more stress to another human being.  That’s why my best advice is to pause and reflect. Ask yourself if you’re truly helping. Do you have genuine permission and authority to offer this? Would you welcome your approach if you were in your prospect’s shoes? Measure twice, cut once. 

Have permission to help 

The easy win here is relevance. Stuck at home, we’re all doubly dependent on Ocado, Amazon, Netflix etc. And it’s the same in business - unprecedented times are creating acute demands.  So if you have authority to help, then do it - just choose your words carefully.  Good examples I’ve seen include leadership mentoring, free resources for performance coaching and guidance on making complex decisions This movie matchmaking service is another empathetic idea that meets simple human needs - be that combating loneliness or just entertaining your kids.  Another practical tip is to start with your current clients. It’s a great opportunity - not just to be useful, but also to learn how to be useful.  They already trust you, there’s rapport in place and you know their priorities. So as well as being at less risk of being misinterpreted, you can also offer softer support.  But don’t email - give them a ring. 

Running a remote pitch

Another question I’m being asked is how to run a pitch when the world’s in lockdown. If you’re lucky and demand remains, then this is a great problem to have.  Firstly, remember that the principles of mobilising, briefing and rehearsing your team haven’t changed. Your existing process, milestones and performance indicators still apply.  Of course you’ll need to make nuanced changes. Developing your response and, in particular, discussing subjective feedback will take longer when you’re not face to face. Lacking so much body language means you should check and double-check that your precise intention has come across.  As George Bernard Shaw said, ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place’.

Presenting in unfamiliar conditions 

When it comes to pitch day, there are obvious challenges. For example, reading the room is way trickier via video conference. Even knowing who’s speaking can be a challenge, depending on the software in play - especially if you’re suddenly having to use the client’s platform (pro-tip: don’t).  So the old cliché of ‘failing to prepare means preparing to fail’ has never been more true. You’d like to think the client would forgive some clunkiness, but anticipate and prepare like never before.  Case in point, rehearse like mad. Do a dry run with a remote audience. Think about stage management. Who’s handling client questions? How will you avoid multiple voices weighing in and a cacophony of ‘no-sorry-after-yous’?  Appoint someone to lead on the new playing conditions. It’s their job to learn how remote presentation experts do it. Adopting a few novel gestures and conventions could differentiate your pitch, remove awkwardness and help you perform well.  

How to NOT pitch remotely 

Beyond the practicalities of running a WFH pitch process, don’t forget that it’s still one big diagnostic. The client’s weighing you up and you’re assessing them too - not least to infer your chances of success.  For example, walking away when you’re not going to win is something few agencies find easy. We’ve all heard the immortal line ‘I know we won’t win, but we’ve come this far…’. Now is the perfect time to develop this skill.  Yes, a win would be doubly valuable right now. But there’s also more risk. From protecting fragile morale, to the unique opportunity cost of wasting this relatively free time, think extra hard about whether the client is serious - about the process, but particularly about your agency.  Ring them. Will they take your call? Are they definitely going ahead with the work? How clearly can they articulate your potential fit? Are they willing to discuss adaptations to the process, like extending deadlines or adopting different formats?  This kind of probing should already be second nature, but if you’re ever going to raise your threshold for agreeing to competitive pitching, then do it now. 

Use your time well 

I mentioned time - all of a sudden, it’s at far less of a premium. Many of us haven't been this unburdened by deadlines since…. ever.  It’s a massive opportunity to invest in your future, nurture your soul and do some good.  What’s that article you’ve been meaning to write? Maybe finish reading that business book? Perhaps finally plan that thought leadership initiative?  Can you support your local pub like Lucky Generals? Maybe set-up a WhatsApp group to tell your neighbours when Sainsbury’s have got eggs in.  It sounds trite, but get a hobby. Don’t sit hunched over your screen fretting 24/7 - I’ve just started drawing again for the first time in 30 years (am no better, sadly).  Help your fellow agency leaders too. The likes of Agency Hackers, MAAG, BIMA and Agency Collective are facilitating free-of-charge spaces where agency communities can talk, joke, commiserate, learn and share.  None of this is rocket science, but it’s all productive. And more importantly, it will help you adapt to the new normal when we get past the immediate crisis. 

Selling is helping 

For now, obviously the most important thing is everyone’s health. And hopefully the Government’s measures will help us all weather the economic storm.  But at the same time, despite these unprecedented (definitely word of the year) events, you can keep the sales and marketing engine running - as long as you proceed with caution.  By picking up the phone, carefully testing your offer and maintaining a complete focus on your audience’s needs, you can - and should - keep on ‘selling’.  And once this crisis passes, perhaps agencies will realise two things - firstly, in difficult times, selling is helping. And secondly, it always was.  Of course being compelling and persuasive is important, but fundamentally you’re just helping get clients from A to B. And that is built on empathy.  So good luck for now. And if you want to stick the kettle on and call for a natter, just shout. I’ve got a brilliant guide to remote working that I can share.
Image: Medical News Today

Going ‘niche’ is a duff steer

Going ‘niche’ is a duff steer

Becoming more focused is transformational for your agency, but narrow application of words like ‘niche’ and ‘specialise’ can cause all sorts of trouble. The Bee Gees sang ‘It's only...

Becoming more focused is transformational for your agency, but narrow application of words like ‘niche’ and ‘specialise’ can cause all sorts of trouble. The Bee Gees sang ‘It's only words. And words are all I have’. Despite their wonky grammar, when it comes to the importance of words, the brothers Gibb were spot-on.  They were almost certainly singing about the modern malaise of agencies saying much the same thing using much the same words.  Hence so many Founders and CEOs looking to stand out by specialising. But why is this transition so tricky?  The answer is words - the language of specialisation is too loaded and too simple. 

The problem with ’niche’ 

Suggesting ‘niche’ to an agency chief often elicits wide eyes, raised eyebrows and - one assumes - clenched buttocks. But ‘niche’ means ‘small’, they protest; that’s not the road to riches.  They also tend to overestimate the sacrifice needed to ‘specialise’, assuming they’d have to bin half their clients and - worse - half their team.  So why the knee-jerk terror? 

What specialisation means

The specialisation debate is usually based on a fairly obvious Boston matrix: The four quadrants are:
  • Generalist: selling a range of services to everyone - often ‘integrated’ or ‘full-service’ agencies
  • Vertical specialist: selling a range of services into a single sector
  • Horizontal specialist: selling a single discipline to everyone
  • Full specialist: selling a single discipline into a single sector.
First of all, none of these are wrong. And despite the success of plenty of generalists - many of whom, it has to be said, succeed in spite of their generalism - let’s accept the implied hierarchy that the more specialised you are, the better.  But - and it’s a big but (and I cannot lie) - there’s a world of nuance that gets lost in the language. I’ll come back to that.  For now, let’s look at the three types of specialist. 

In praise of vertical positioning 

Vertical positioning is offering a range of services to a discrete audience, i.e. every-thing for some-one. It’s usually defined by industry sector - like finance, healthcare or travel. Think Digital Dialog or DDB Health Happily, vertical audiences are easy to reach via dedicated media, awards, trade shows etc. They often use specific jargon too, so you can ‘show them you know them’ with your industry language. Vertical specialists can be highly prized; making better margins and being easier for your clients to take with them as they change jobs within their sector. Your specialism helps them avoid being seen to be hiring their mates. Despite all this, most agencies don’t position themselves vertically. It feels boring or limiting. They make the same argument against in-housing - looking at the same problems every day surely kills innovation and repels talent.  So what about horizontal positioning? 

Let’s get horizontal, baby 

This is about offering one thing to a broad audience. It’s where most agencies end up - discipline specialists open to any client, like Sunday (content marketing) or every ad agency in the universe.  Clearly the variety is attractive and you’re less likely to come unstuck if the bottom falls out of your specific market sector.  Better still if you’re a leader in an emerging discipline. Imagine being into web design in the 90s, social media in the 2000s or service design since 2010. Ch-ching! Ditto these days for specialists in, say, developing Alexa Skills.  On the flipside, you lose the vertical benefits. For one, it’s harder to command a premium. And without a readymade audience and deep sector-specific knowledge, demonstrating expertise to new clients relies even more on thought leadership.  No wonder horizontally aligned (and generalist) agencies are so quick to shout about their ‘sector experience’. But really, you’re damning yourself with faint praise. It’s not a differentiator; it’s barely table stakes. You’re better off trading on your fresh eyes, objectivity or the applicability of proven thinking from another sector. 

Best of both worlds

The final quadrant combines vertical and horizontal, i.e. a specific discipline for a single sector, like Editions Financial or Taste PR. Surely this is the best of both worlds? Maybe.  On the face of it, combining the benefits makes a lot of sense - especially if you’re unknown, so your depth of knowledge mitigates your lack of badge value. Knowing their sector and a discipline can also make clients more forgiving of conflict. But the risk here is going too deep. There may well be a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?  Perhaps you’re a Magento expert for greetings card companies. Even if that’s in real demand, what happens when you’ve re-platformed them all?  It takes courage to focus, but don’t be reckless.

Why positioning is still a headache

So, four options - you pay your money and take your choice, right?  Well, no.  All this theory is fine. But if it’s as easy as deciding on either or both vertical and horizontal, then why do so many agencies waste years trying to resolve the question?  As mentioned, it’s because we’re glossing over a tonne of nuance.  Most obviously, the boundaries between ‘horizontal’ agency disciplines are getting blurrier every day. Also, a vertical sector, like the greetings card example, can be big or small. So targeting ‘B2B’ vs. ‘dry cleaners in Staines’ is a completely different business model.  In fact, ‘vertical’ doesn’t even have to mean ‘sector’. It might be company size, age, culture, mindset, geography, budget or anything. It’s better to think ‘audience’ rather than ‘industry’. Similarly, ‘horizontal’ doesn’t have to be an agency discipline. You could address a specific use case or problem, like inertia, a competitive threat or operating in regulated markets. So focus less on services and more on outcome and proposition. Most importantly, broadening your definitions of vertical and horizontal mean they're no longer mutually exclusive. For instance, ‘companies that need international growth’ is both an audience and a problem to solve.  Likewise, does helping clients target a 50+ audience make Older vertically positioned for those companies or horizontally aligned because reaching those people is the outcome? For these reasons, take a more modern, client-centric view on how your positioning and proposition work together. Discipline still matters, but focusing on an audience and adding an outcome changes the game. 

Become a beacon

Most agencies understand that these nuances make specialisation harder than it sounds. The trick is to understand the interplay, resolve it quickly and commit to your decision. Remember, this isn’t packaging; it’s deciding what business you’re in. But once you expand your definitions, the world opens up. As long as you can demonstrate it, you can claim any expertise you want.  Your target audience can be big or small, niche or mass market. You can be a beacon for anyone with that need.  As long as there are enough of those people, with deep enough pockets to support your chosen commercial model, then all the benefits of specialisation can be yours - including genuine standout, as well as faster sales and higher profits And in a competitive market, this could be the difference between falling flat and Stayin’ Alive. 
Image: My IELTS Classroom

Why ‘nearly’ is nowhere when it comes to your proposition

Why ‘nearly’ is nowhere when it comes to your proposition

Take care when you’re close to unveiling your new proposition. At best, the last yards are the hardest. And at worse, misplaced urgency will blind you to any flaws.  About 30 years ago, I...

Take care when you’re close to unveiling your new proposition. At best, the last yards are the hardest. And at worse, misplaced urgency will blind you to any flaws.  About 30 years ago, I used to be a half-decent artist. Then I was lost to all things football, kiss-chase and Mad Dog 20/20 (no, you shut-up - we’ve all done it).  Anyway, I picked up a pencil again recently and drew a so-so picture in about two hours. I was pretty chuffed. Turns out drawing is like riding a bike.  Then I started tinkering. And tweaking. And twinkering. It was hard to stop. I didn’t ruin it, but I seriously could have.  As Canadian painter Harley Brown said, “the painting is always finished before the artist thinks it is” But when it comes to your agency’s proposition, it’s rather the opposite problem - thinking you’re done too soon. So how do you know when it’s ready? 

Articulation should be easy

One common sign that your proposition isn’t right is when only your senior people can articulate it. This is a major red flag.  It should be simple to say out loud; clear, succinct and - crucially - not reliant on getting every word right.  If you’re trying to convince clients that, say, ‘creative that performs’ is meaningfully different to ‘creative that works’, then you’re scuppered.  As well as playing superlative bingo and confusing propositions with straplines, you’re probably just re-articulating what every agency in your space does.  That’s why your team struggles to say this nonsense out loud. They’d sound like a tool in the pub.  It’s also weird for most people to have to learn something word-for-word. This isn't am-dram. And more importantly, if your proposition is carved into tablets of stone, then you're restricting their ability to read the room and adapt what they say. 

Empathy not desperation 

I say ‘read the room and adapt’, but that doesn’t mean completely changing your proposition depending on who you’re talking to.  This is another red flag. There’s a big difference between rephrasing and changing a proposition.  Rephrasing is an act of empathy. Changing is an act of desperation.  You’re an expert in what you’re expert in. That’s essential to having any kind of strategy. And of course it’s good business to adapt your message to better connect with an audience who might be facing the problem you solve.  But on the flip side, it’s bad business to change your story altogether to ingratiate your agency with people that you’re clearly not best placed to help.  Ever wondered why some clients (mis-)treat you like an easily replaced, jack-of-all-trades commodity? Exactly.  Think of your elevator pitch like a fairy story. We’d all tell the story of Goldilocks differently, depending on the audience, your energy levels and whether The Crown’s about to start. But we’d all get the core story across. 

"We’re nearly there, but..." 

I hear this phrase a lot. Agencies often approach Co:definery when they’re sure their proposition is almost there, but they just want a last minute steer.  I get it. You’ve toiled hard aligning the team and crafting the words. Maybe you’ve begun updating your assets. And although you really want it to be finished, there’s a nagging sense that something’s not right.  This is another serious red flag.  Unfortunately, the reality is binary - you’ve either nailed it or you haven’t, regardless of how close the answer feels. 

Racing through treacle 

Creating a new proposition is like a 100m race. The good news is that no-one begins at the starting line - without any kind of proposition, you’d have gone bust by now. And you may think you’re nearing the finish, perhaps just needing a nudge to help you dip for the line.  But the distance you’ve covered doesn’t matter. Some agencies start miles behind but fly through. Others feel ready to celebrate but grind to a halt.  For the latter, developing a proposition can feel like running through treacle. And the closer you get to the end, the thicker the treacle becomes.  The more you search for a eureka moment - like the perfect strapline or genuine USP - the more your progress slows. 

Explore a lack of alignment

Here's one last red flag. If your senior team can’t agree on whether you’ve nailed it, then you almost certainly haven’t. But it’s also possible that you have and they just need to catch-up. The creatively minded often struggle the most. Their restless desire to improve can mean a great idea only ever feels 90% right. For them, it’s more of a leap of faith - they need to see a new proposition work in the real world before they’re convinced.  Unapologetically money-driven people also find this process hard. Because strategy requires sacrifice, a proposition needs focus. So for them, specialisation often feels scary As hard as these hurdles might feel to address - or even admit - it’s reckless to ignore them. 

Beware the opportunity cost

In the current market, a differentiated proposition is non-negotiable. You need one to stand out, convert well and justify a premium.  No wonder being nearly finished is so seductive. Unfortunately, it’s usually wishful thinking - ‘nearly’ is nowhere and progress stalls for good reason.  So what next?  Well, cracking on might work. But the risk is that you mistake strategy for packaging and barely scratch the surface of the impact your proposition could’ve had.  Instead, take a breath, remember that important beats urgent, and do your agency justice.  Either way, watch out for the warning signs that things aren’t right. The risk of delay is dwarfed by the opportunity cost of getting it wrong. 
Image: Recruiting Daily

The Power and Pitfalls of Agency Purpose

The Power and Pitfalls of Agency Purpose

I love Lucky Generals’ Andy Nairn. He talks a lot of sense. So if you didn’t see his Campaign piece on The Power and Pitfalls of Purpose, then do check it out.  Or rather, don’t -...

I love Lucky Generals’ Andy Nairn. He talks a lot of sense. So if you didn’t see his Campaign piece on The Power and Pitfalls of Purpose, then do check it out.  Or rather, don’t - because I’m about to plagiarise the living shit out of it.  Reason being, his reflections on brand ‘purpose’ apply just as much to agencies - especially in the current market, where chunky new-business wins are dwindling and standout, great briefs and decent margin can feel elusive.

1. Be true

As Andy said of brands, it really should go without saying that your agency’s purpose must be true, otherwise it will age faster than a Boris Johnson promise.  But alongside the need for truth, it should also be ownable.  I recently asked my LinkedIn network for examples of agencies that talk explicitly about doing ‘good’. I stopped counting at 80. All very laudable, but not a rich source of standout.  It’s good to be good, but you'll do more good if you’re different.  

2. Be humble

Just as many agency purpose statements fail the ‘could the opposite ever be true?’ test, they also often lack the self-awareness to express why anyone should care.  Agencies love to talk-up ‘creativity’ and ’the work’, but clients need to know what problem you solve. Heaven forbid you talk about benefits.  No wonder IPA president Nigel Vaz is focusing on outcomes - which itself brings agency leaders to a tricky crossroads

3. Be specific

Bravo if you’ve got something real, unusual and client-centric. Now it’s time to prove it.  Facing unprecedented challenges, clients have changed how they build trust in you. A slick pitch with a great idea is no longer enough. Your agency’s actions demonstrate expertise just as much as what you say and the work you do.  I recently heard Axe / Lynx’s Global Brand Director Caroline Gregory describe what made their transformation successful - in short, they did more than they said. Less talk, more action.  Case in point, she was speaking at a BBD Perfect Storm event on marketing to men. Nice event idea, but better still that the agency's New Macho division is a leading voice in that debate. 

4. Be surprising

Remember Bill Bernbach’s quote that "a principle isn't a principle until it costs you money”? Every application of your purpose is a moment of truth.  One of the great agency self-delusions (and there are loads) is that you ‘challenge’ your clients. Declining a 14-way pitch with a budget of tuppence isn’t a challenge, it’s self-respect.  So how could your purpose inform a genuinely principled stance with a client? Not flogging fags and guns is easy, but when might standing your ground be surprising? 

5. Be distinctive

The way you reflect your purpose also needs to stand out. It has to inform behaviour that’s different or memorable.  Claiming to be good, generous or progressive soon sounds flimsy without teachable moments to counter people’s natural cynicism.  When I first heard about Brighton agency Propellernet’s commitment to ‘Make Life Better’, I rolled my eyes. Then I met their CEO Nikki Gatenby and heard how they literally make dreams come true (no, seriously). Check out her book, Superengaged. 

6. Be committed 

As Michael Caine said in Get Carter (ask your dad), “this is full-time for me”. You can't have purpose half-heartedly.  No shit, right? Well, you’d be surprised how easy it is to convince yourself that a worthy initiative will be the start of something beautiful. But you don’t have to be an evil bastard for BAU to get in the way.  Also take care that your personal passion makes sense for the business. I once worked for a CEO who was big on saving the oceans, but it wasn’t baked into the agency’s strategy, so it felt like a distraction. 

7. Be careful

Finally, be ready to listen and improve. Let’s be honest, agencies talk a lot of bollocks, so don’t be surprised if your people and clients don’t buy-in straight away.  So stay the course - iterate, don’t panic. Just like when you’re in a new-business lull - don’t rush to bin your strategy and chase briefs that don’t fit. 

* * * 

Andy’s piece rightly emphasises that purpose can be a powerful weapon for brands. He ends by unloading a clip-full of munitions-based imagery to gun-down the risks. So do read it, because agencies also need to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.  Also think about your agency’s entire customer experience. Just as for many brands, agencies face oversupply, little differentiation and low barriers for clients to switch.  Your only antidote is to focus - decide what problem you solve, then prove it in everything you do, not just everything you say.
Image: Telegraph

It’s time for marketers to show procurement some love

It’s time for marketers to show procurement some love

It’s not just agencies who hold outdated views on Procurement, so how would Marketers benefit from a refreshed perspective?  (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written...

It’s not just agencies who hold outdated views on Procurement, so how would Marketers benefit from a refreshed perspective?  (This article first appeared in Marketing Week and was written for a Marketing audience) Regular readers of this column (hello Mum!) will know that I’m partial to a dated cultural reference point. I blame my past career in agencies - they love it.  Case in point, a week rarely passes in agency-land without some plum using Sun Tzu’s The Art of War - written in the fifth century BC - to illustrate his (it’s always a bloke) point about dealing (it’s always ‘dealing’) with Procurement.  I doubt Procurement’s been around for two and a half millennia, but this adversarial nonsense certainly feels like it has.   And while agencies are the worst culprits for tarring all of Procurement with the same brush, many Marketers would also benefit from updating their views. Let’s start with what good looks like. 

Choose the right role

Unsurprisingly, the ideal relationship between Marketing and Procurement is mutually knowledgeable, respectful and aligned. All the cuddly business words, basically.  But even though this isn’t new news, it seems to only be true around half the time. Why is that?  The obvious early warning sign for Marketers is the absence of specialist Marketing Procurement. And if the function reports into Finance, it may be a cost-focused barrier to brand building. In contrast, a Board-level Chief Procurement Officer often suggests a more value-driven remit.  So choose your next job wisely, yeah? 

Engage early

Once you’re on board, Procurement adds most value when you communicate early and often. As Bob Hoskins opined in the 90s, it’s good to talk (oops, I did it again).  It won’t make you very popular to get your agency primed and giddy before rocking up to Procurement, demanding a PO number by 5pm. When criteria are clear and time is a factor, a good Procurement person can help you shorten - yes, shorten - the agency selection process without sacrificing accountability.  And remember that progressive commercial deals with agencies can increase the likelihood of great work.

Protecting you and your brand

Perhaps the strongest case for embracing Procurement is to mitigate risk. Richard Woodford, Pearson’s Global Procurement Category Director for Marketing and a former Chair of COMPAG at ISBA, describes Procurement as your “first line of defence to corporate governance” From usage rights and talent costs, to Data Protection, GDPR and Modern Slavery legislation, it’s risky-a-go-go these days.  Are you best-placed to judge whether your agencies offer adequate protection? Not sure about you, but I’d rather a specialist translated these risks between business and agency on my behalf.  But with the honourable exception of more regulated sectors like Finance or Pharma, a casual attitude to risk amongst Marketers isn’t uncommon.  Might a time-pressed member of your team toss a slug of customer data over the wall to their agency, reasoning that ‘it’s only a little social media campaign’?  No? Fair enough. But I bet you’ve set agency hares running before their contract’s signed. That’s a sackable offence in some companies (and regrettably few agencies).

Boosting Marketing’s credibility

Avoiding disaster might save your bacon, but getting more matey with Procurement can also boost your career.  As Marketing Week recently reported, many Marketers struggle to market the discipline internally. A closer partnership with Procurement can help.  In addition to reducing risk, better collaboration around terms and KPIs can also improve outcomes and visibility of your successes.  So if your Board still thinks Marketing’s a bit ‘fluffy’, Procurement can boost your commercially credibility. 

Join the Procurement party 

Now, being right-on about Procurement is one thing - let’s get #ProcurementPositive trending! - but let’s be honest, the discipline does have an image problem.  That said, while ‘Procurement-led’ remains a shorthand for cost-cutting not rigour, might we have reached a tipping point?  Audi’s recent ‘Procurement-led’ UK advertising review is a case in point. Although BBH retained the business, Procurement Consultant - and former agency staffer - Tina Fegent reckons the story has changed attitudes, so behaviours should follow.  “People are finally realising that procurement is here to stay,” she says. “The sooner the industry accepts it and works positively with them, the sooner everyone will benefit.” Or to put it another way, whether you like it or not, if Procurement can question a relationship as strong as the one between BBH and Audi’s presumably satisfied Marketing team, then it’s time for everyone to make nice. 

Give agencies a wake-up call

I mentioned agencies being the worst Procurement bashers. And although some are engaging Procurement earlier as they rethink how they go to market, many still default to lazy stereotypes. This isn’t helping you.  So if your agency rolls their eyes at Procurement whilst mumbling about ‘pounds of flesh’, then try this. Cite the classic ‘nightmare client’ (they’ll shudder) who demands two dozen amends on a Friday evening. Then explain how Procurement is there to avoid that; mediating on deliverables, ways of working and mutual value.  Also remind them that management consultants are hammering them on process, rigour and commercial nous. Maybe even lob in a cheeky ‘just sayin’’? That oughta do it. 

Three-way love-in

John Lennon sang ‘imagine all the people, living life in peace’. Most Beatles fans recognise that he meant Marketing, Procurement and agencies.  Imagine you’re all In-jokes, birthday cards and BFFs; knowing the names of one another’s kids - the whole nine yards.  Ridiculous utopia, right? That would be like… literally every other group of colleagues in the known universe.  Seriously folks, this isn’t rocket science. Effective Procurement helps Marketing build Boardroom credibility and it helps agencies succeed.  That’s a clear win, win, win. More winning than Charlie Sheen - which is a cultural reference point from this millennium, so even I’m making progress.  And alongside Procurement, you can too.
Image: Marketing Week

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