Differentiation is a universal conundrum. It plays a role in almost every part of our lives and our choices. Marketers are no different. Agencies are no different. Marketers, with their agencies, spend countless hours trying to find and exploit the difference between their brand and its competitors. They create, ideate, refine, test, revise and relentlessly monitor their brand vis-à-vis the marketplace to be sure it is performing at its best. It is arguably the most critical aspect of marketing and ad agencies know it too well. But when it comes to differentiating the agency, the cobbler’s children have no shoes.
There are roughly 50,000 advertising agencies of various stripes in the US alone. Census data shows that number is growing since the downturn in 2008. Those 50,000+ include traditional, digital, social, experiential and so on. Those differences are becoming less distinctive as digital firms expand, traditional firms become more digital, social firms go full service, and the morphing continues in every direction. Today we see agencies of all kinds take a lead role with clients who try to find an edge in their marketing during this rapidly evolving marketplace and consumer.
Where so many agencies get it wrong is defining their difference in exactly the ways that make them the same. Differentiation has such broad implications. In simple terms, it is the thing that separates you from others in the mind of the prospect. That difference applies to the other agencies pitching the same business, but it also applies to the agencies who are currently working for the brand. You don’t want to be more of the same or just one of the herd. We have all known marketers whose strategy is to be as good as their competitor. Wrong! Don’t be a bad client when it comes to your agency.
There is no doubt that differentiation is a big challenge. You might look to the tried and true for help like Jack Trout’s Differentiate or Die. Or you might look to the future with cutting edge research like Stephen Denny’s KGM2020 initiative. I suggest both – get insight and inspiration, but then get down to business. Remember, what marketers look for is a difference that is meaningful to them, and that answers the challenges they hire an agency for.
Results, experience, services, people are all important but typically not differentiators. Digital expertise, full-service capabilities, 100 years in business are facts but not differentiators. A packed trophy case, high energy office, a cute office dog – sorry no. All good things but they don’t win the business and rarely get you in the door. Every agency claims extraordinary results, lots of awards, years of experience. These are the table stakes and not the difference. It’s all the same stuff every agency claims as their difference but to a marketer why does it matter.
So what can an agency do to find its difference?
First, line up your competitors. I hear so often; we don’t have specific competitors. We compete with everyone. It makes no sense to compare yourself to agencies vastly different than you, even if you have competed against them once. Line up 10 of your peers from across the country, agencies of similar size, services, expertise, culture, even if you have never gone up against them. They are a good cohort to compare because they represent different versions of you. Do a simple SWOT analysis to see where your functional differences are. You might skip the threats for now but circle back when you are planning the future for your agency.
Next, select ten of your top prospects and look at what agencies they work with, look at the work, and what challenges they are battling with their agency. Do a simple ethnographic scan to understand what kinds of things they are doing with their agency and compare it to what you do and what you say about what you do. Pay particular attention to the gaps.
Finally, look at your best work, your best client relationships, your most fulfilling experiences. Get others in the agency involved in this introspection to help counterbalance biases. Identify what you do best, what you like the most and what kind of client sees that as valuable to them.
Overlay these dimensions to get a sense of where they overlap and let lose the creativity of your agency to define what those intersections mean to your prospects and how your agency can own the most relevant and compelling of them in a completely genuine and authentic way. Keep in mind the three facets of differentiation, introduction, complementary and closing.
What you will end up with is something that might look like this. While we have all the qualities of a full-service agency or ability to inextricably link a location with its culture allows destination marketers to tell their story in a more powerful way. Or, we are digital natives by trade but great storytellers by craft. I’m making this up, but hopefully, you can see the value. As a digital agency, you can stand apart from the competition by being great storytellers. Again, making it up to make the point.
Differentiation is the most critical asset in new business.
It may be centered around category expertise or services or point of view. In every case, it should represent a solution to a marketing challenge – the more widespread the challenge, the greater your appeal. By following these basic steps, or any of the competent methodologies available from many different sources, you will find a true distinction that is empowering to your agency and relevant to your best prospect. And it could be the difference between a strong second place and a win.
If you want help, email me or spend some time on my website www.jheenan.com to get more tips on ad agency new business. If you liked this post and want more new business advice delivered to your inbox sign up for my monthly newsletter. LetsGrow!