I spend my days looking at agency websites, reviewing creds and asking agency owners to explain why a prospective client would choose to work with them. Sometimes people even pay me for this privilege.
It goes without saying that there are a lot of agencies out there. A LOT. And more popping up all the time.
What is perhaps less obvious to those working inside an agency is that when it comes to positioning, the same statements, words and phrases are regurgitated and recycled. A LOT.
This raises the question; have we reached the point where such statements have lost all meaning or affect?
Worse, are agencies mistaking these ‘bells and whistles’ for actual points of difference? (Spoiler alert. I think they might be).
We need to talk about positioning. And cross stitch.
The agency / client ecosystem is a lot like dating. Out there, somewhere, there is an agency for everyone. But time and time again agencies and clients aren’t well matched. A few dates in, and one too many glasses of vino, and the whole thing falls apart.
For me, agency positioning is the root cause. When so many agencies are broadly saying the same thing, it makes it nigh on impossible for prospective clients to tell the difference. Agencies fail to attract the ‘right’ clients. Clients fail to find the ‘right’ agency.
It’s rather like David, 36, from London, playing it safe with the age-old ‘tall, dark and handsome’ line in his dating ad (which is a lie of course). If only he opened up and talked more about his passion for cross stitch, he might find his soulmate.
Rather like David, the unsubstantiated claims and inward facing statements made by agencies get in the way of what really matters. If you can read past my (probably failed) attempts at sarcasm, I’ll get to that.
But first, a few examples of the overused, misunderstood or just bleeding obvious stuff that seems to dominate agency ‘positioning’:
OK, I admit it, I’m a cynical old sod when it comes to awards. Who hasn’t got one? Or two. Or a whole Ikea shelving unit full of them in reception?
We’ve reached the stage where agencies actually stand out when they don’t include ‘award-winning’ in their one liner.
‘Bespoke’ (also ‘tailored’, ‘customised’, ‘personalised’)
No two businesses are the same. Nor people. Even twins. That’s an actual fact.
This means everything you do is customised to some extent or another. This is also a fact.
‘Best’ (or ‘better’, ‘superior’, ‘advanced’)
Who said? ‘Best’ is completely subjective dependent on the experience of the client. One person’s ‘best’ can be another’s ‘worst’.
There was a brief (and dark) period in my life when I thought Coldplay were the best band in the world. See what I mean.
Best-practice (also ‘ethical’)
When top secret, somewhat mythical algorithms dictate much of what we do as digital marketers, it’s rather akin to a witch doctor claiming to be a ‘best practice physician’.
‘Big enough to cope, small enough to care’
Every time I read this, a small part of me dies.
What is this mystical data you speak of? And you’re the only agency with access to it? Wow. Sign me up.
Data is plentiful and often free. Important, yes. In any way unique to how you approach digital marketing, doubtful.
Are you sure you haven’t got some people back there who are rude and hostile? I much prefer them.
Full-service (or ‘one-stop-shop’)
“Hi, do you do affiliate marketing?”
“No, but we do everything else”.
“Ah, OK, what about programmatic”?
“No, we don’t do that either. But we know someone who does”
“So, you’re not full service then?” “Er, I guess not”.
‘Global’ (also ‘world-wide’, ‘international footprint’)
There are 195 countries in the world and a whole load more that aren’t even internationally recognised.
I’m going to assume you can’t name most of them, let alone show me how you’ve run digital campaigns ‘globally’.
‘Guarantees’ (also ‘promises’)
The Trump-loving Kanye West once said ‘nothing in life is promised. Except death’. What a cheery fellow.
He is right though, guarantees and promises don’t exist. If you promise anything, promise that there’s a good chance you’ll break your promises.
At least that’s honest. Ah, speaking of such…
‘Honest’ (also ‘transparent’, ‘truthful’)
Because I love doing business with cheats, liars and charlatans.
If you feel inclined to tell the world you’re honest, it suggests you’ve got something to hide.
Are you changing the face of the industry? Is your thinking truly unique and original? Have you invented something?
Unless you said ‘yes’ to any of the above, you are probably mistaking evolution or proactivity for innovation.
Literally means ‘various parts that are linked or coordinated’.
In agency terms, this translates to people organised enough to run a campaign incorporating more than one channel or service.
Rocket science, this isn’t.
‘Leading’ (also ‘number one’)
“We are the leading agency in Timbuktu offering PPC to Sri Lankan pig farmers”.
Anyone can be ‘leading’ when you choose your own criteria.
Unless your agency has been acknowledged by a recognised body, against a specific set of measures (e.g. revenue, rate of growth, client satisfaction), your claims of ‘leading’ are, well, misleading.
‘Results-focused’ (also ‘ROI obsessed’, ‘measurable’)
My personal favourite. If you’re not focused on getting results for your clients, why are you in business, quite frankly?
If you deliver a wide range of digital services to clients across a broad range of industries, you are not a specialist. You’re a generalist.
Sticking the word ‘specialist’ in front of a long stream of services doesn’t change that.
‘438 combined years of experience’
Would you ever say something similar in the real world…
“Did you know my wife and I have 24 years of combined parenting experience?”
OK, so what should we be saying smart ass?
You might be thinking, ‘whatever Ben, our passion and focus on results has served us very nicely thanks’. Maybe it has. But this misses the point.
When it comes down to it, no one buys from an agency because they are passionate.
No amount of ‘whooping’ supersedes the thing that prospective clients’ value more than anything else – your knowledge. And more specifically, how this knowledge can help a client solve a problem or exploit an opportunity.
Everything else is secondary.
When the same old words and phrases dictate agency positioning, it just adds to the noise. It brings thousands of agencies into direct competition. It makes business development a slog. It drives down rates. It impacts margin.
But when an agency speaks to a specific audience, articulating their problems and how they help solve them, along with the outcomes their prospects care most about, the opposite can be true.
When this is expressed through storytelling and with a strong sense of purpose, the magic really happens.
This is the crux of positioning. It literally sets the agenda for winning the ‘right’ business and all the good stuff that comes as a result.
P.S. I know there’s a good chance you hate me right now. I’ve just torn your agency apart for being ‘friendly’ and ‘innovative’ and we’ve never even met. I apologise.
I am however being purposely provocative because I care about this industry of ours (and its future). I also see positioning as a major failing on the part of agencies. If I’ve ruffled your feathers, it is with the best of intentions.