There are tens of thousands of advertising agencies selling the same products and services. Almost as many of them claim to be unique, different, or better using mostly the same words like the others. It is one of the most significant challenges for agencies universally. The result is that too many agencies strive to define themselves in the same ways that make them look and sound the same. From a prospect’s perspective, how can they tell the difference?
Agencies who don’t have a specialty or niche and are often frustrated by futile attempts at defining their differentiation. They’ve been told they must specialize, find a niche and go all in. If you specialize in something; millennials, AI, or digital, for example, the task of defining differentiation is, in part, inherent in what you do, but the underlying fundamentals still apply. If you are a full-service generalist, have broad industry expertise, or target highly competitive verticals, defining and articulating your difference among all the others is much harder, maybe the hardest thing of all.
Start by looking at your agency through the eyes of the marketer. Of course, they expect to work with nice people, get the attention of top management, and be confident the work will be creative, strategic, and executed flawlessly. Above all, they expect results. They want reasonable pricing. They don’t suffer fools or inexperience. However, those are nothing more than the basic requirements for any marketer. Of all the things you do and what you believe, where does meaningful and relevant differentiation come from?
Clients can provide a few clues. When asked why they picked one agency from the rest, we typically hear things like these.
- They’ve done this before with great success, exactly what we need
- The extent and detail they provided proves they understand our challenges
- They brought us a fresh perspective and a new way to attract customers
- They demonstrated a deep understanding of our customer
- They showed innovative thinking we had never considered
- Their strategy goes against the status quo
- We fell in love with the concept right from the start
- Their campaign stood out from the rest
- Their creative style connected with me
- They get us and what we are trying to do
Let’s put this client-speak through the AI machine learning algorithm translator to understand the 5 things they are actually saying.
- Industry experience made the difference
- Audience understanding was the difference
- innovative and strategic thinking is different
- The work, the creative was the difference
- Team chemistry, cultural fit stood out
However, these things alone aren’t differentiating because everyone says they have innovative strategies, a deep understanding of the audience, and compelling creativity. Moreover, the quality or degree of any of these is subjective. One likes a creative idea or doesn’t regardless if it is ‘good.’ Either strategy would be just as effective, but one stood out over the other. Again, these qualities are table stakes, the minimum requirements necessary to get into the consideration set. If you think these things are your difference, I’m sorry to say you are no different from everyone else.
But wait, the client said one or more of these things made all the difference to them. That means IT IS our differentiator, right? Not so fast. Take ‘strategic’ for example. There is the ‘strategic approach,’ and then there are the tangible outcomes from applying that approach. It’s not the approach, per se, because everyone else has some kind of strategic approach. It is the insight, the idea, the inspiration, the output of the approach that resonated with the client to compel them to pick you over the others. Something in the way you looked at their audience, the environment, the challenge that they hadn’t seen before is the thing that resulted in your agency being ‘different’ from your peers. If you can put your finger on why the other agency didn’t come up with the same insight, you might be on to something.
A meaningful differentiator probably lies somewhere within any of the five things that clients cited as important to them. I can’t tell you what your differentiator is. Only you can do that. I can lead you through a process to discover it, believe in it, and define how it positively impacts your clients, but you have to uncover what it is. Whatever it is it has to have three ingredients.
- You have to be able to describe what it is, in a way they understand it. I hear too many agencies say they can’t express their differentiator. It just exists, and clients value it. I call BS. If it just is then you can describe it; otherwise, you picked the wrong career.
- It has to have some demonstrable outcome you can attribute to it. Again, I hear too many agencies say they can’t take credit for a lift in sales or they won’t say their work will cause a 5% increase in whatever. If what they do doesn’t have a result you can stand behind, why would a prospect care?
- It has to solve a critical problem the prospect is facing. If it doesn’t lead to problem-solving, it has no value to the market. Marketers look for new agencies because they have a problem. More sales or slow sales. High churn or low frequency of purchase. Whatever the case, if your particular difference can’t be tied to solving the problem, why would a marketer need you?
Whatever the differentiation, it is not something that will have universal appeal. For example, you may have a creative style that stands out, but if a prospect is primarily interested in deep audience experience, your creative style won’t matter. In the same way, having a differentiator will help find and attract prospects who value it above other things. It will also reduce those low probability prospects who waste your time. It becomes a primary filter for new business and permits you to say no to those who don’t see the value so you can focus on the ones that do.
Once you settle on your differentiator, you have to make sure it works in the market. As you begin to position the agency in your prospecting activities ask your prospects what stands out about you in their mind, what attracted them to you, what is it about what you say you do that convinced them to take a closer look. Be mindful of the examples at the start of this post. Prospects and clients don’t always articulate their experiences the same as you would. You’ll have to use your client translator to judge whether your difference is coming across positively, negatively, or at all.
Ask your new client what it was that they initially liked about you and what ultimately made them decide to pick you over the others. Moreover, don’t just accept a courteous answer. Probe deeper to understand the real criteria. Make it a habit of asking these questions every time. Use the feedback to fine-tune your positioning or recalibrate it if it isn’t coming across as intended. It is a process that you should continually monitor and optimize. Above all, don’t let one opinion dictate your actions. If you hear negative feedback probe others in the same area. If it comes up frequently, it’s time to change. If it doesn’t, that one opinion is likely an anomaly.
The bottom line, no matter what your differentiator, you have to be willing to put all your energy and effort behind it otherwise it will languish and fade leaving you right back where you started. Make it integral to everything you do and get the entire agency behind it. Be the industry leader. Be the subject matter expert. Post, blog, tweet about it often and everywhere. Speak about it at seminars and networking events. Demonstrate it in everything you do. Prove its magic in your work and your clients’ successes. If it isn’t synonymous with you and your agency it will come across as pure hype. As they say, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
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