Towards the end of last year, I explored how the same tired words and phrases are regurgitated and recycled by agencies, to the point where they have become pretty much meaningless. Yes, I was the one that ripped your agency proposition to shreds. Sorry about that.

In amongst the sarcasm, there was actually a serious message. Agencies have a problem with positioning. Pick a few at random and you’ll struggle to identify much difference between them. Chances are that messaging will be inward looking (‘look, we’re brilliant’), broad-brush (‘we work with anyone’) and cliché-ridden (‘transparent’, ‘results-focused’ and ‘passionate’, to name just three).

Thankfully, my observations seemed to resonate with a lot of people. But, one or two, quite rightly, wanted more: ‘it’s all very well telling us we’re a bit rubbish, but can you also give us a helping hand? What is positioning and what does good look like?

So, having slapped your agency to the ground, it’s only right I now provide some actual advice.

What is positioning?

Positioning answers a number of critical questions in the mind of buyers, for example, who are you? Why should I work with you? What makes you different to the other 30,000 agencies out there? Frankly, why should I give a %&!* about you?

Fundamentally, it’s about talking to the client. In language they can understand. You can’t possibly do this and ‘connect’ with likeminded people when it’s all ‘me, me, me’.

In order to answer such questions and communicate in a relevant and engaging way, there are, in my humble opinion, three main ingredients that go into the positioning pot. Let’s take a look…

1. The agency has a strong sense of purpose. They stand for something.

In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek states that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”. ‘Why’ is defined as a purpose, cause or belief. It’s the reason a company exists.

Sinek argues that when a company doesn’t have a clear sense of ‘why’, they are only able to communicate what they do to the outside world. Agency land is a shining example of this principle at play:

“We’re an award-winning digital marketing agency, specialising in SEO, PPC, affiliate marketing and conversion rate optimisation.”

There are literally thousands of agencies that only communicate their ‘what’ to the outside world. The ‘what’ being their products and services. Now, of course, you need to tell the world what you’re good at. But when you only talk about your products and services, it brings you into direct competition with thousands of agencies all saying pretty much the same thing.

The result? A race to the bottom, my friend. You might win some business, I don’t dispute that. But I bet you get repeatedly beaten down on price. And I bet a lot of your clients don’t stick around too long, jumping ship at the first sign of trouble (attracted, of course, by the promise of bigger, better or cheaper elsewhere). And so, the cycle continues.

The agencies that rise above this stand for something. They have a point of view or a perspective. And in a world of ‘meh’, it might well be a controversial, polarising opinion. And that’s a good thing. After all, the aim is to attract people who think the same. It’s the foundation of any good relationship.

An example. Where business development is concerned, I believe three things are integral to success in an agency setting: 1) business development is a team effort 2) it should be treated and designed as an experience, and 3) there are no silver bullets. If you don’t agree with me, we’re probably not going to be right for one another. And that’s fine. But if you do agree with me, there’s a high chance we’ll see eye to eye on a lot of other things.

If you want to attract the right clients, those that stick with you over the long term, it’s pot luck whether you’ll find them when you only communicate what you do.

So, ask yourself, why does your agency exist? What do you want to be remembered for? What does success look like (beyond making money)? What do you resolutely believe in?

2. The agency speaks to a specific audience

It’s striking how many agencies claim to be ‘specialists’ whilst listing a dozen or so entirely unrelated sectors on their website (come on, can you really be experts in legal services, whilst also understanding the intricacies of ecommerce…in an agency of ten people?).

When you’re trying to talk to everyone in this way, you end up not really speaking to anyone. Not with any conviction anyway. With a well-positioned agency, the opposite is true. They accept that if they want to be good at something (and known for it), they can’t be good at doing everything, for everybody.

The mistake to avoid when it comes to defining an audience, is to go by age-old industry categorisations only (banking, accountancy, construction, retail and so on).

In fact, the audience for agency services can be sliced and diced in a multitude of ways. When you look at your clients, you might well find there are common traits and attributes. For example:

Where are your clients in their business life cycle? Are they typically start-ups, challenger brands or businesses ‘on the wrong side of 40’ in need of a kick-start?

Are your clients all facing a similar problem or looking to achieve a similar objective? And I don’t mean ‘growth’. Everyone is looking for growth. Look for something more specific – do they tend to be small businesses all looking to make their first million, for example?

Are there certain brand attributes common across your clients – are they value brands, premium or luxury?

Do you often work with certain job roles or types of people, entrepreneurs or ecommerce managers for example?

Are your clients looking to target a similar demographic, such as the under-30’s or over 55’s?

When you think about an audience beyond the limitations of sectors or industries, it can open up all kinds of possibilities. And once you hang your hat on serving that audience, it becomes much easier to talk to directly to them, thus avoiding meaningless, catch all statements and clichés.

So, ask yourself, when is your agency at its best? What work do you and your team really enjoy? What do you want to be doing more / less of? What does your ideal client look like? What problems do you solve for them?

3. Good is when an agency uses emotive, down to earth language, devoid of ‘agency-speak’.

One suspects, I’ve probably said quite enough on this.

But as a final point, agencies fall back on ‘passionate’, ‘transparent’, ‘integrated’ and ‘award-winning’ in an effort to be better than the competition. But better doesn’t equal different. It just creates a market occupied with thousands of agencies spouting the same old features and benefits. Not good.

So, when it comes to language, be more human, more normal, more real, more you. All ‘agency-speak’ does is get in the way of telling your story in a way that is authentic.

Short term fixes don’t address the long-term problem

If you’re not getting cut-through with your outbound emails, the root cause will be positioning.

If you’re using a business development agency and they’re not getting you appointments, the root cause will be positioning.

If you bring in a BDM and they’re not working out to be the miracle cure you were expecting, the root cause will be positioning.

If you’re pitching to anyone and everyone (and wondering why your win rate sucks), then yep, you guessed it, positioning will be the root cause.

When it comes to business development, agencies too often look for short-term fixes. They try a bit of this, a bit of that, with nothing quite having the impact hoped or expected.

Whilst agencies face a number of challenges when it comes to business development, the source of the problem is nearly always the same. If you want to fix your business development woes once and for all, start with positioning.

Invest the time to define what your ideal client looks like. Stand for something. Ditch the clichés. You’ll soon find that everything else starts to fall into place.

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