Positioning Your Creative Agency for Growth

How to Get to Your Value Proposition

I hear and see so much about agency positioning these days. It seems as if agencies are constantly re-inventing themselves to adapt to market conditions. So I thought I’d weigh in on this topic since it doesn’t seem to take Einstein to opine on positioning.

When discussing a positioning for a creative agency, I’ve found it helpful to consider these three questions first:

  1.  Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’/prospects’ business?

These questions should lead the discussion and bring some clarity and simplicity to the process. Positioning a creative agency for growth is an arduous and daunting task. Without the proper structure and road maps it can also lead to frustration, bitterness and worst of all, paralysis.

Can you articulate who you are in one or two sentences? Can you explain why you are different – truly different — in ONE sentence? And NOT how you think you are different – but the reality of your point of differentiation. Do you have a point of differentiation? Finally, do you understand your value – what it means to your clients’ businesses? Do you have a value proposition?  Can you state it simply? Can you articulate it in an interesting way? In a creative way? Your value proposition will be at the core and essence of your positioning.

Let’s look at what a value proposition is NOT:

  • A process. It’s not a TM of some special proprietary mystery procedure.
  • A self-promotional rally cry, also TM’d
  • A place or region (“Texas-sized solutions”)
  • People. Talent is not a positioning. Everyone says they have the best people.
  • Products. Cookie-cutter solutions. Offerings. Widgets. Technology. Disciplines.
  • A Mission.
  • Creative or “Creative-driven” (this is assumed, it’s like ketchup brands talking about being “tomato-driven”)

All of these elements are part of a creative agency’s value proposition, but none of them can stand-alone or hold up as THE POSITIONING.  Worse, over-reliance on any one of these elements becomes oversimplification. A position should be as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler (paraphrasing Albert Einstein).

When embarking on any positioning exercise, go back to basics. I like referencing Jim Collins’Good to Great”.  This bestseller is on the bookshelf of every CEO in America. Most have implemented its recommendations at their companies. It has been the “positioning bible” of the past decade. I remember in 2004 at BBDO, we were pitching Delta Air Lines. When we advanced to the final three — their CEO Jerry Grinstein sent the agency two copies of “Good to Great”. Until then, I kind of scoffed at business books that claimed to solve company-wide issues and problems in one easy read. But, then I learned that MOST CEO’s of major companies were forming hedgehog councils and treating Collins’ tome as gospel. Marketing directors began talking about Bhags.

The crux of  “Good to Great” is the Hedgehog Concept. It looks like this:

Collins uses the word “world” in the lower left circle. But for our purposes, we can effectively substitute the word “class” or even “region”. What is your agency best-in-class at? Or what can your creative agency be “best-in-class” at? What can you own within your class? What positioning is unique and “own-able”? If it is not own-able, it’s not a powerful positioning. That does not include “share-able” or “borrow-able”.

What are you uniquely passionate about? What drives your economic engine (where do your clients place the most financial value)?  What can you be the best at within your class? Dialogue centered on these questions lead to lively discussions and healthy debates. Monday morning meetings are ideal for engaging in such banter.  But at some point, you need to put a strategic stake in the ground. Don’t allow these positioning discussions to dissipate into paralysis of analysis. That happens all too easily when the first client emergency arises on your desk.

There are, essentially, two kinds of agency archetypes:

  1. Those that solve problems (stop the bleeding)
  2. Those that create opportunity (add revenue)
The first type requires COLLABORATION. These agencies stress collaborative processes. They reflect their clients’ cultures. They are problem-solvers; therefore they need to understand the problems. They speak the clients’ language. They are not usually entrepreneurial or independent. They stay in the present and address the now. They ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?” and “What are your marketing objectives?”.

The second requires LEADERSHIP. These agencies stress thought leadership, and cultural “curation”. They are opportunists, therefore they need to understand potential. They take risks (educated and strategic risks, but risks nonetheless). They make language new for their clients. They have their own culture. They are independent and maverick. Because they are ahead of the curve, they create revenue opportunities for their clients. They make them money. They ask questions like, “What is your vision for your brand?” and “What’s the one thing you would do for your brand if you thought it was possible?”.

Most agencies try to be both. And as a result, they are neither.  Of course, both types of agencies are collaborative AND leaders in various junctures of the marketing process. But I’m talking about how they tell their story and what they do best – that’s their value proposition. Identify what your creative agency does best.  Where do you shine? Where do you play best? In short, don’t pick a fight you can’t win.

If you remain steadfast and disciplined in your positioning discussions, you will arrive at an insight that is compelling. You will discover your true identity. It will be an epiphany. It will give you goosebumps. It will be that “aha” moment. The germ of your insight will lead naturally to your positioning.

But, start by trying to answer the 3 questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’ and prospects’ business?

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