You know they are out there. Lurking in the shadows. Poking and probing your site. Looking for answers. Sizing you up. Judging your work, your people, and your point of view. Spending only seconds reviewing what you’ve got to offer. And then they vanish. Gone without a trace. What did they want? What were they looking for? Did they find what they needed? Will I ever hear from them again?
Marketers start on the web when looking for a new agency. They will have seen some work, read some posts, asked around, and searched for specific experience, services, or point of view. They will bounce from one website to the next, one agency to the next, taking notes about which agency piqued their interest. They will dig deeper to learn more, compare one to the other, and ultimately decide who they want to talk to and who they want to hire. You may see their visit in your website analytics, what they viewed, and how long they lingered, but do you know what they concluded about your agency compared to the others?
Agencies, like any business, must make their positioning, value proposition, and differentiation unique, compelling, and up-to-date. In the course of my work, I’ve analyzed hundreds of agencies, comparing one to the next. I’ve read countless positioning statements, service offerings, case studies, and other descriptions to experience what a marketer experiences as they go through the vetting process. And the results are telling – so many agencies with so little difference.
You should do an agency analysis at least once a year. But you shouldn’t do it alone. Your agency positioning was created by you, either directly or from influence. You can’t be objective. An outsider’s impression is one of the most valuable things you can get when it comes to fine-tuning your agency for a marketer on the hunt. There are many different ways of doing this. Many agencies do it themselves, and that is a mistake. A few lucky ones hire me. Others do formal quantitative and qualitative research, and that is a good option too. I’ve heard of a few who merely ask their friend, their spouse, even their hairdresser, not so good.
I do this kind of analysis by loosely following a practice inspired by “first principles,” which removes the bias of assumptions and conventions. I didn’t invent it. This approach was first used by Socrates and Aristotle and is still used today by people like Elon Musk. You start with what is true, the facts of the marketplace, not intuition. Instead of focusing on the prevailing wisdom of outdoing your competitor or having innovative processes, or a smarter staff, you focus on the basic things that solve a marketer’s problem and build back from there.
I am a fan of Shane Parrish, and he describes it so well, “First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.”
However you do it, there are three important perspectives to gain meaningful and actionable truths. There are others that can add nuance, but these three are, in my opinion, critical. They aren’t definitive by any means but will provide better-informed guidance quickly and inexpensively. No matter what approach you take, the goal is to eliminate the exceptions and focus on the common denominators. It’s not surprising that when an agency does it for itself, it can’t help but be tainted by bias, be misleading, and cause well-intended leaders to make their agency look more similar to others.
What do marketers want to know?
If you have been in this business for any length of time, you probably have a pretty good idea of what marketers want, but you may not have the whole picture, or more likely, your perception is out of date. I’ve done research with senior-level marketers on this subject, which you can find here and here. I also collect industry data, analyze articles, do executive interviews, and review expert opinions on the subject. For every agency I work with, I dig deep into their specific markets, categories, specialties, and prospects to gain more relevant insights into the things their prospects want. I look for the challenges, business drivers, customer issues, and any clues I can find to understand what might be motivating a marketer to make a change. I collect broad and diverse data, focused on the facts, and then boil it down to the most common concepts that indicate what the triggers are that compel a marketer to look for a new solution and what they want to learn when they go searching.
When I ask agencies who their competitors are to understand who the marketer might be comparing them to, it's often the same response. We don’t have any competition. We compete with everyone. We never run up against the same agencies. But that is not what the marketer thinks. They group agencies for practical reasons. Sometimes those reasons make sense, and other times, not so much. They use more functional criteria like industry experience, size, service offering, location, and other tangible, quantifiable factors, along with personal subjective criteria like work product, creative quality, strategic orientation, and others. They sift through all the agency hype for the keywords and concepts that match their criteria.
What are agencies telling them?
I identify a broad range of agencies and then narrow it down to what is more likely a comparable group to my agency client from a marketer’s perspective. I analyze each agency on a variety of factors; first impressions, demographics, services, people, culture, the promotional concepts they express, quality and style of work, along with many other characteristics. I look at each value proposition and then combined those value propositions for an overall sense of competitiveness. I put it all into charts and graphs to visualize the common and distinct truths. It is a very informative analysis and always provokes a lot of “I didn’t know that.”
Looking at your agency’s competition this way makes it easier to see what the marketer sees. Overlaying the results of the marketer analysis on the agency analysis gives a clear picture of where they align with marketers’ interests and where they don’t. It is always surprising to see the gaps and misalignment in this way. You can easily spot which agencies have not kept up with changes in the marketplace and marketers and the trends and innovations impacting their business. Today, marketers believe the industry has changed more in the past two years than in the last fifty. This kind of analysis proves many agencies are seen as outdated or out of touch.
Where is your opportunity to differentiate?
To complete the process requires a thorough and objective analysis of the agency to know where you can and can’t stand out. It requires brutally honest introspection because your prospects will quickly discern hype from reality. A SWOT analysis or other similar exercise is an informative method to use. When you put your agency analysis, overtop of the competitive set and the marketer analysis, the opportunities for differentiation begin to emerge. You will see the gaps and openings for differentiation and where to sharpen and focus your value proposition. You can then make data-informed decisions about what you should emphasize and deemphasize, where you might need to add capabilities and expertise and choose where you can and want to stand apart from the crowd.
For example, do you know the top ten challenges that marketers say they struggle with today? I recently analyzed a competitive set of agencies, and very few talked about those challenges or offered expertise or solutions. Instead, they emphasized values like high-quality creativity, an excellent working relationship, strategic focus, and other similar claims. These are the minimum expectation of any prospect and are not differentiating in any way. If you were a marketer ready to leave their current agency because they can’t solve a big problem in the marketplace, would you stop to learn more about an agency that is pleasant to work with, creative, and strategic? I think it would be better to demonstrate those qualities in the way you would solve their problem.
Perfect is the enemy of good.
This approach is not a perfect process but it will provide insights that are good enough to work with quickly. By using these insights and your expertise as an agency, you can create a more interesting, more competitive, and more successful positioning. Remember a few simple things. Always keep the prospect at the center of every decision. Be creative but don’t let creativity lead you astray. Be bold and lean forward but don’t be arrogant. And above all, practice brevity. Your prospect will spend mere seconds to form his or her first impression. That first impression will determine if you get a second look and, ultimately a new client.
The benefits of differentiation are wide-ranging. Once you renew yours, your business development approach will become better focused. You’ll have a clear idea of what kinds of content to produce, how to complement it with your case studies, service offering, capabilities, etc., and be able to narrow in on what kinds of prospects will be more likely to value what you do. It’s not perfect, but good enough to increase your odds and improve your go-to-market process.
I’d like to help you find your difference and make 2018 your year to grow. I’m always open to a conversation regardless of your needs. If you like this post, click the thumbs up, so I’ll know, and then sign up for my new business newsletter. Follow me on LinkedIn for daily tips, tricks, and insights. #LetsGrow!