A sharper point of difference for your agency


Excerpts from a presentation given at the CBI Conference Centre for the Design Business Association

It’s not easy being a small/medium sized agency. You are in a difficult place, squeezed between the big agency groups and the very small operators. Both pose different threats.

In this environment, the need to differentiate your agency is greater than ever. The following are some useful tips to remember when thinking about how to sharpen your agency’s competitive point of difference:

It’s not just about hygiene factors

Yes, of course you’re creative, deliver effective communications, bring fresh thinking and ideas. Yes, of course you’re enthusiastic, eager to exceed expectations and committed to great client service. Any client or potential client would expect no less. These are givens. They are hygiene factors.

When thinking about your agency positioning it’s important to understand the difference between motivators and discriminators. Motivators are those things a brand must have if it wants to be considered. All lagers should be refreshing. All agencies should be creative. Discriminators, however, are the attributes or benefits that truly differentiate your brand.

Be ruthless

Sometimes there is a tendency to say too much and stand for nothing. The most distinctive agencies tend to have one clear overarching hook. They are ruthless about headlining their message and then consistently weaving it through all their communications, both externally and internally. What is the one central message that you want to distil and dramatise?

Four elements to your positioning

Consider the four basic elements of your agency’s positioning:

  • Understand your target audience

  • Who are you aiming at and why? Equally, who aren’t you targeting? Don’t just think about sector and company size. There are many different ways of looking at your target audience. Perhaps you focus on newer, emerging companies? Perhaps you look at some off the radar areas, particularly in the business to business arena? Perhaps you concentrate on challenger brands? Perhaps you put your effort into client development, not new business?

    As well as thinking about who you target, how about actually stating in your website the type of clients you want to work with – their vision, ambition, attitude and approach. Very few agencies do this.

  • Understand the market

  • Your point of difference is only relevant within the context of your competition. Are you Jobbing, Willing Dog or an agency with a big Viewpoint? Jobbing agencies are executional, briefed but not consulted. They concentrate on who they are, what they do and who they do it for. They often have a functional, shopping list of services.

    Willing Dog agencies are buzzy, sparky and eager to please. But the focus is all on themselves – their own creativity and passion. Where’s the insight?

    Finally, the Viewpoint agency has a bigger vision about their role, approach and how this will benefit their clients.

  • Your offer

  • It is sometimes difficult to succinctly express what the agency does. Be honest about your core competency and don’t pretend to be something you are not. There’s really no need to call yourself an ‘integrated brand communications agency’ when your core competency is design. Similarly, be honest about your capabilities. Clients realise that a small/medium size agency can never have ‘a worldwide network of marketing consultants’ or ‘scour the world for future trends’.

  • The element(s) that makes your offer unique or truly distinctive

  • This is the most important and most difficult part. And it’s for you to determine. Perhaps you need some expert, external help to arrive at it. However, the final point of difference should always be true to you, never contrived. It’s usually something you’ve always done but have now found a great way to encapsulate and express it.

    An involved, not passive, agency culture

    An increasingly effective differentiator is your agency culture – your overall style, your valued behaviour. A few tips for how to start creating that more ‘involved culture’:

  • Company meetings

  • Do you have them? If you do, are they an excuse for a beer or are they about company ambitions, your blueprint for growth and how the staff fit in. Do staff know where the business is heading? Importantly, do they believe that you know where the business is heading?

  • A learning culture

  • Encourage every external influence beyond the four walls of the agency – popular culture, films, galleries, external speakers. A well known agency gives every member of staff a small allowance to do exactly that. They realise how much a positive, ‘learning culture’ can benefit their agency and their clients.

  • Client presentations

  • Ask new clients to give a short presentation to the agency. It speaks volumes about your enthusiasm for the client and involves all staff in client issues.

  • Personal goals for all staff

  • The best people are often ambitious. They will probably always leave at some point to start their own agency. But how do you retain them for as long as possible? Give all staff something to aim for – the next stage and challenge. Don’t give anyone that most common of all reasons for leaving – ‘There was nowhere else for me to go at this company…next year will be the same as the last one.’

  • Importance of skills training

  • Presentation skills and negotiation skills are so important. No small/medium agency can afford to have well paid ‘back room’ staff not fully capable of giving confident and impressively delivered face to face presentations. Many clients have had the benefit of negotiation skills training. Most agencies tend to give away too much, too early and focus on price, over and above value. Negotiation skills training makes staff realise that small amounts can make a big difference.

So, in conclusion:

Realise the difference between motivators and discriminators.

Be ruthless – one clear, overarching and consistent hook.

Remember the 4 elements to your positioning.

State what type of clients you are looking for.

Are you jobbing, willing dog or consultancy with a viewpoint?

Create an involved culture, not a passive one.