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 Step one is to liberate your agency from outdated disciplines.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.  

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. 

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
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