Liberating your agency from outdated disciplines is the first step to being more client-centric and differentiated. 

Twitter can be grim. Under any decent, kind or vulnerable tweet, you’ll find dozens of anonymous arseholes – and Piers Morgan – spouting bile. 

On the plus side, social media also gave us memes (in fact, it was Richard Dawkins, but whatever). And nothing sends a meme viral faster than being relatable. Sidenote: if none of these make you smile, then you’re very special. In a bad way. 

Anyway, what do agency leaders find most relatable? The frustration that traditional positioning statements don’t tell your whole story. 

No-one’s ‘just’ PR, experiential or design anymore, or digital, SEO or advertising. Being defined by a single discipline is deeply dissatisfying. 

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 ‘creative agency’ 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, 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 from on high that no-one uses. 

The slow death of positioning

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. Shopper marketing agencies offer experiential; PR shops do content and SEO; everyone does social media. And so it goes on. 

But once your positioning statement needs immediate explanation, then it ceases to inform a client’s thinking.

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 the credibility out of experts’ language. Agile just means ‘fast-and-cheap’, right? 

Now that all agencies are understandably converging around the multi-disciplinary holy grail of ‘customer experience’, positioning as we know it is dead. 

So where will your differentiation come from? 

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?’. Would ‘so-so SEO for unambitious brands’ work? Exactly. 

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. 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. 

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 off 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 semantics, remember that clients don’t give a toss. They ignore dozens of positioning variations every day. But they don’t ignore a relevant proposition.

Image: Robert F
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