You’re standing in the elevator with a prospective client who turns to you and says, “I’ve heard of you guys. Tell me about your agency.” Here’s your chance to describe what makes your firm interesting, compelling and different. Instead, what comes from your lips is something like, “We’re a full-service integrated marketing communications firm serving a wide variety of clients.”
Alas, you’ve just missed an opportunity.
Unless you’ve made the effort to define your agency’s position in the market and to describe it in interesting, engaging language, you’re likely to miss one opportunity after another.
Here’s another way to look at it: Can you describe your agency positioning in a sentence, in a paragraph and in a page? You’ll need a version in each length to use in applications like your website, your online brochure and your listings in agency directories. Follow these steps to build your brand.
- DECIDING WHAT YOU’RE NOT
- GOING BEYOND AWARENESS
- DISCOVERING YOUR BRAND
- CONNECTING VALUE & AUDIENCE
- VALIDATING YOUR POSITION
- MATCHING POSITION WITH PRACTICES
- TURNING THE MIRROR AROUND
DECIDING WHAT YOU’RE NOT
Many creative-agency professionals believe everything in the universe can be branded except one thing: their own agencies. They preach differentiation but behave like commodities. They’re so eager to convince clients they’re “full-service” that they try to stand for everything.
But standing for everything is the same as standing for nothing.
It’s easy to define what you are. The hard part is defining what you are not. That’s because agencies want to be universally liked and appealing to everyone. But the nature of positioning is sacrifice. The goal of defining a strong agency brand isn’t to appeal to a larger number of clients, but fewer.
Imagine the credibility problem of a restaurant claiming to specialize in French and Mexican and Brazilian food. Ad agencies are no different. An agency that puts everything on its menu might as well have no menu at all.
GOING BEYOND AWARENESS
Just because others have heard of your firm doesn’t mean you have a brand. Name awareness and brand equity are only indirectly related. A lot of us have heard of agency names but we have no idea who they are, what they do or what they stand for.
These agencies have name awareness but no brand equity.
Branding puts meat on the bones of simple awareness. Once a prospective client knows the answer to the question, “Who are those guys?” the next question he has is, “What are those guys all about?” Just like any other product category, clients like to buy brands, not generic products.
DISCOVERING YOUR BRAND
You don’t define your brand as much as you discover it. It’s already there, deep inside the company’s soul, in the form of natural strengths and core competencies. As a starting point, consider what has made your firm successful up to this point. Consider these questions:
- What kind of clients have you been most successful in attracting?
- What types of assignments have you completed over the years?
- In what areas do you have superior knowledge or expertise?
- What do you do particularly well, perhaps better than most agencies?
- What do you most enjoy doing? What do you hate?
- What target audiences have you come to know and understand?
- As a result of your experience with the clients you’ve served, what distribution channels do you know best?
- What methods, approaches or philosophies is the firm known for?
CONNECTING VALUE & AUDIENCE
What qualifies as an effective agency positioning strategy? For starters, you have to have a good answer to each of these three questions:
- What value do we provide?
- Who do we deliver the value to?
- How do we deliver it?
At the intersection of the answers to these three questions lies a differentiating position: “We offer (your service) for (your market) by (your method).”
This process is challenging because it involves sacrifice. It means giving something up. In branding your firm, the goal is to be exclusive, not inclusive. Appeal to somebody, but not everybody.
VALIDATING YOUR POSITION
There are three critical criteria for a strong agency positioning strategy:
- It’s authentic. The position is an honest reflection of what the agency is capable of. It plays to the firm’s strengths. It can have aspects that are aspirational, but only if the agency has the knowledge, experience and firepower to truly deliver what the positioning promises.
- It’s exclusive. The position excludes as many prospective clients as it includes. It’s focused on what the agency does best. It demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice. It reflects an understanding that you can’t be known for everything, but you can be known for something.
- It’s polarizing. The position is designed to appeal only to a limited group of prospects. Some prospects will be attracted and some won’t. Some will be interested in what the agency has to sell and some won’t. It may even inspire controversy (kind of like good advertising).
MATCHING POSITION WITH PRACTICES
Now comes the really hard part: aligning your position with your practices. It’s through your practices that you bring your agency’s brand to life. Your positioning strategy points the way to your destination. But your practices are how you get there.
Ask the question “What needs to change in our organization in order for us to bring our brand to life in everything we do?” It’s not just a matter of ordering new letterhead, producing a new brochure and revising your website. Branding starts from the inside out. It’s reflected in five important areas of your business (which, coincidently, all start with the letter ‘P’):
- Your product
- Your people
- Your promotion
- Your process
- Your place of business
Socrates said, “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” Said another way, to be successful, we must align our practices with our position. When it comes down to it, the real difference between truly outstanding agencies and everybody else is that they not only talk the talk, they actually walk the walk. They have a strong alignment between what they say and what they do, between their brands and their practices.
TURNING THE MIRROR AROUND
Finding a brilliant positioning strategy for your own company is one of the most important and rewarding experiences a design-firm executive can have. You’ve spent your entire career working on other people’s brands. Now here’s a chance to work on your own.
As one agency executive remarked after leading his firm through this positioning process, “Why try to be something to everybody when you can be everything to somebody?”
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