When it comes to refreshing your agency positioning, rushing into the writing is a painful way of discovering that your underlying direction lacks clarity. 

Having helped close to a hundred agencies develop their differentiation strategies, Co:definery is often asked to ‘take a quick look’ when CEOs and Founders are close to revealing their internally defined new positioning. 

First of all, hats off to any leader who seeks an external view here. It demonstrates an appreciation of how important it is to express yourself clearly, distinctively and, better still, with meaningful differentiation.

After all, despite this stuff being the day job for many agencies, it’s never easy to turn the lens on yourself

These conversations tend to go one of two ways. Either their strategy is nailed down and they just want a sounding board to fine-tune the expression, or there’s a nagging doubt – often some Board disharmony – that the thinking isn’t quite where it needs to be. 

To work out which boat you’re in, what should you consider? The following three questions might help. 

What do you actually do?

From a strategy point of view, expressing what you actually do is the most important question of all. It’s also where your wording matters least. Focus eats elegance for breakfast here.

It doesn’t get more fundamental than clarity on where your agency’s heading and how you plan to get there. 

More specifically, how are you defining your core strategic building blocks, like positioning and proposition? How do they fit together? What services do you offer? How do they serve as reasons for clients to believe your proposition?

Jargon-free, functional language works wonders here. If you can’t express what you do clearly – to an intern, your bank manager or your mates in the pub – then your thinking probably isn’t crisp enough.

Who’s your target audience?

In all honesty, agencies are often terrible at defining their target audience. Answers tend to be superficial and self-limiting. 

Even excluding the bizarrely prevalent ‘decision makers with money’, other responses based solely on sector or job titles can be equally unhelpful. It’s not that these are wrong; they just rarely demonstrate enough discretion. That makes targeting, lead generation and new-business qualification pretty meaningless.

Going too detailed doesn’t help either. Of course, pen portraits of key buyers can add texture to your marketing plan, but not if they’re the same buyers – and the same textures – that your competitors are bombarding. 

Ultimately, differentiation is based on demonstrating specific expertise to the specific people who need it. That’s why focusing on a need, use case or belief is often a far richer space to explore.

Bottom line – if you can’t define a discrete, ownable audience, then you don’t have a strategy at all.

What makes you different?

This question often polarises agency leaders. Remarkably, many don’t even believe that differentiation is possible. They look at their competitors and see a dispiriting sea of sameness – similar services, similar experience, similar words.

So they default to a watered-down distinctiveness – following outdated norms like pithy but opaque straplines that demand explanation. If you immediately follow-up your elevator pitch with ‘…and what we mean by that is…’, then you’re in trouble.

This differentiation defeatism is madness. At best, it’s woolly thinking. But at worst, it’s a failure of leadership and imagination.

Ironically, far from demonstrating the impossibility of standout, in fact a homogenised market makes it easy. If everyone says the same thing, then saying anything different will ensure you stand out.

So if you can’t define what makes you tangibly different, then you’re certainly not ready to start writing about it. That way, word soup beckons.

Strategic rigour, clearly expressed

Whether or not these questions are familiar, Co:definery can help. From vision and strategy, through to expression, writing and rollout, a robust process can help you create a powerful outcome quickly.

If your strategy is sound and all you need is help with expression, then a speedy sense-check and some tone of voice guidance is all easily done. 

And if your underlying direction isn’t completely clear, then it’s critical to resolve that now, before you get into expression and rollout. 

Of course, if you’ve already put in plenty of work, then you won’t want to feel like you’re going back to the start. But you’re really not. None of your time spent to date has been wasted. And more importantly, the pain caused by the wrong strategy will be far greater than the frustration of refining before you proceed.

Like good advertising being the best way to kill a bad product, endless rewrites are a costly way to diagnose a lack of focus.

Image: Denis Novikov
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