Marketers are looking for new agencies right now. Recent research suggests as many as half are planning to make changes. They may hire search consultants, visit agency search websites, or do it on their own. Will you stand out or be overlooked? Does your agency brand and positioning separate you from every other hot dog? Are you tired of being ignored? Maybe it's time to rethink what sets you apart that will catch the attention of the prospects you want.
When I work with agencies to improve their business development program, there are usually three interdependent areas that need help; agency brand and positioning, prospect list, and prospecting process. All three contribute to success, and each informs the others. The agency brand is the why and what it sells. The prospect list is the who might want to buy it. The prospecting process is the method of informing the who about the why and what. Sound confusing?
The agency brand and positioning are always the most challenging yet the most critical. Agencies often struggle in this exercise because they don't want to spend the necessary amount of time required to get it right. They want new clients fast, and I get it. But to get more and better new clients in this hyper-competitive marketplace, you must have a relevant, authentic, provable, and differentiated positioning and value proposition or you will be ignored.
Of the three, the agency brand and positioning are the hardest for a couple of reasons. The brand and subsequent positioning are what you do and how you do it differently from other agency choices. It's your differentiator. High-growth agencies are more likely to have a strong differentiator, which defines their difference, sets them apart from their competition, guides more targeted prospecting efforts, and engages marketers in relevant, authentic, and provable ways.
There are several reasons why defining a brand and positioning is difficult for agencies.
It's personal. Agency founders, owners, and leaders are inextricably linked to the brand, bringing individual emotions into the process. They are not the target audience yet bring their own biases, perceptions, and experiences as if they are.
It's competitive. There are 50,000 to 100,000 other agencies, depending on who is counting, that do almost the same thing in the same way with essentially the same results. We can argue this point but in the interest of time, let's say it is generally the same. An agency that does branding is essentially doing the same thing as all its competitors.
It's complicated. Agencies claim to be unique, different, or better, mainly using the same adjectives as each other. The result is that too many agencies define themselves in the same way, making them look and sound pretty much the same. From a prospect's perspective, how can they tell the difference? Some try to stand out by making wild, unsubstantiated claims and promises about what they do. Others try to differentiate by claiming intangible qualities like a true partner, a collaborative team, or accountability. What does that mean to a prospect?
Some agency leaders believe their competitors do it better than them, have better branding, or win new clients more often. They attempt to model their brand and positioning just like those competitors, resulting in even less distinction, and believe they have improved. They end up simply saying the same things in the same way with different words, but it's still all the same to the prospect.
Some agency leaders lament that nothing is differentiating about their category or service offering. What we do has become a commodity where the price is the only difference. Others say the process is designed to strip any differentiation out of the decision-making. Yet, the category is full of examples of agencies who have successfully defined a difference and thrive. If you have any doubt, just look at the most basic commodity ever - water. How many different brands have exploded on the market with previously unimaginable variances on the most basic challenge known to man - thirst?
Done right, brand differentiation is the way your agency stands apart from the competition. It must be guided strategically. It must be relevant to what you offer and the most pressing needs of your prospects. It has to map what you do that they need and your competitors don't provide or don't do well.
The top-level differentiators are the things marketers initially look for to distill a broad list of potential agencies down to a manageable group worth exploring further. Specialization, industry experience, audience experience, capabilities and services, geography, or size are typical high-level criteria. If you don't meet their criteria, you won't get a chance to demonstrate any more nuanced differences. Or worse, they might invite you to pitch only to end up hearing why industry experience was the deciding factor.
Industry experience is the easiest and most powerful differentiator. If you have worked with clients in specific industries, you likely achieved outstanding results that prospects within that industry can relate to. Audience experience is the same way. Capabilities and services are easy to define and demonstrate. Size and geography are obvious. These characteristics narrow the field from thousands to hundreds or hundreds to tens depending on how strict. But what sets those ten apart from each other?
What I find helpful is to develop a list of 10 or 20 peer agencies, those you compete with or who most closely match your top-level criteria, size, services, industries, etc. I research what those agencies are saying about themselves on their website, social posts, press releases, trade articles, anything I can find to compile meaningful comparisons. An analysis of this group simulates the experience marketers go through when they start their search process. It also makes clear the similarities, differences, and opportunities to refine differentiation possibilities further. Agencies often conclude the process here, missing the voice of the customer.
A crucial part of brand positioning is relevance. It's one thing to be an expert at something or the only agency that does something, but if that something is not what a marketer is looking for, it gets ignored. I develop a framework of what the market is seeking, what problems need solving, and what challenges are most pressing from the voice of the customer. I research what marketers are talking about most recently in articles, surveys, posts, conferences, and any other place they speak out. I reverse engineer their comments to align with agency services, capabilities, processes, culture, and more and then overlay it on the results of the agency analysis to identify unmet or poorly met needs.
By laying one over the other, the similarities become apparent, and the differences stand out. The gaps between them emerge from identifying relevant, authentic, and provable opportunities to support a competitive brand positioning and differentiation, which is a meaningful and useful solution to your prospects. Further research, data, and analysis will provide an expert understanding of the competitive landscape and a convincing case that your vision, services, and perspective are the best way to solve timely and relevant problems. Use those qualities and your creativity to spark an emotional connection that will better resonate with your prospects.
Those opportunities are weighed against the capabilities and culture of the agency to combine or blend, further focus, and competitively sharpen the brand and positioning. The results are a clear brand framework that can guide agency prospecting, messaging, website, case studies, thought leadership, blog post, anything and everything the agency says and reinforces what it stands for and its value to the marketplace.
Easier said than done. The time and effort spent will make the result an authentic, competitive, and convincing place to play. No matter what approach you take, identifying multiple differentiators will help you stand apart and be more relevant and interesting to prospects looking for a new resource.
Let's get more clients
If you'd like help turning your positioning into a competitive advantage, let's talk. I am always open to discussing your business development challenges. If you like this post, sign up for my new business newsletter. Let's connect on LinkedIn to network, share resources, new ideas, or talk about the latest ad agency business development news. #LetsGrow!