For agency owners, 2020 has been a mixed bag at best. But now that the worst is (hopefully) behind us and agencies are turning their attention to addressing important issues like positioning, Ben Potter takes a hard look at the nebulous concept of agency ‘purpose’ – and whether it’s really needed at all.

Well, it’s been quite the year so far hasn’t it? From the many conversations I’ve had with agency owners in recent months, it’s been a mixed bag at best.

A few have thrived, many have dived. For some, the pandemic has created more of an existential crisis. And what follows an existential crisis? Existential questions. What are we doing? Are we happy doing it? Why do we exist? What is our agency’s purpose? These big and hairy questions are always there, niggling away. But during ‘normal’ times they often get brushed aside because, hey, we’ve got another proposal to get out the door by Friday so it’s all good.

I actually wrote the bulk of this article at the turn of the year. But as things really kicked off it didn’t feel appropriate. Agency owners had more pressing issues than getting the senior team together for a deep and meaningful. But let’s hope (and pray) we are through the worst of it.

If you’ve made it this far, you might just be turning your attention to fixing stuff that has been on the ‘to-do’ list for too long. And they don’t come much bigger than positioning – what you do, how you do it, why and most importantly, for who.

In my experience, the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘who’ are normally pretty straightforward to nail down (as long as the agency is willing to make a few sacrifices along the way). It’s the ‘why’ bit that I know agency owners wrestle with.

Me too. Ever since a guy called Simon Sinek came into my life.

The paradox of ‘why’

If you haven’t read Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ (or watched the TED talk),  Simon makes the very compelling argument that ‘people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. ‘Why’ is defined as a purpose, cause or belief; the reason a company exists.

Sinek goes on to say 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 with the ‘what’ (services) normally put front and centre of the proposition. You know how it goes:

“We’re an award-winning digital marketing agency delivering SEO, PPC, blah, blah…”

Seeing this as a major failing, and with Simon whispering sweet nothings in my ear, I made it my mission to help agencies find their ‘why’. And to shape a more compelling proposition as a result.

However, it didn’t always go quite as Simon had me believe. I often came away disappointed at the end of a positioning workshop, experiencing a mini existential crisis of my own. Where was the profound sense of ‘why’ that I’d expected to uncover? Was it me? Had I asked the right questions? Had I dug deep enough?

Or, was it them? Can it really be that his main motivation for running an agency is to provide for his family? Is a ‘desire to navigate her own path’ her actual ‘why’? Did this guy really start his business just because he despised the agency that sucked the life out of him during a five-year stint doing the ‘London thing’?

More worryingly, how am I going to build a proposition out of this stuff?

Now, before I go on, let me firstly acknowledge that anyone setting up an own agency does so for a damn good reason. It’s certainly not something you do for the hell of it.

But whilst the reasons I uncovered were all very honourable, I couldn’t help but think, ‘is that it?’ Surely Simon was referring to something much deeper and more worthy?

Wasn’t he? Simon…?

Not every agency will be saving the world

And then it started to dawn on me.

Whilst all agency owners have a sense of purpose, a reason why they do what they do, it’s not always that laudable or exciting. Often the ‘why’ is bloody mundane, to be honest.

And, that’s absolutely fine.

The question therefore is not whether purpose exists. It does. Instead, the question is how much it really matters to a client? And therefore, when it comes to shaping an agency’s proposition, how much of a light do you shine on it?

To give an example. An agency only works with businesses who champion ethical and environmental causes. Now, you might see this as a cynical attempt to cash in on the most profound challenge in human history. But I doubt many people set up or reposition an agency to take advantage in that way.

Instead, the people running this agency would quite like to see polar bears survive the end of the century. In fact, when I chat to them about how and why the agency started, their mission was very clear from day one. It’s something they live and breathe, professionally and personally.

This is likely to attract the kind of people and organisations that share the same view. So, when it comes to their proposition, the ‘why’ is dialled up.

However, not all agencies exist for reasons that are quite so worthy (and frankly, most aren’t looking to). It’s admirable to start an agency because you found the dishonest behaviour of your last employer appalling. Approaching business with more sincere intentions is not to be sniffed at.

However, when this ‘why’ leads to a proposition built around ‘more honesty’ and ‘greater transparency’, it puts an agency firmly into hygiene factor territory. Because pretty much every other agency says the same. It’s also the absolute minimum a client expects. No client sets out to work with liars and charlatans, right?

So, in this instance, the ‘why’ might well shape how the agency goes about its business. It might inform values and desired behaviours in staff. But in terms of the proposition, it should be dialled down.

Think of it as a ‘spectrum of why’

At one end, you have agencies where it makes sense to sing it loud and proud. In itself, the why is powerful and relevant enough to act like a filter, attracting like-minded clients and employees. It also detracts from those whose thinking and values don’t align. In this sense, I think Mr Sinek had it right.

At the other end of the scale, purpose still exists. But it isn’t strong enough to be front and centre of your proposition. Claiming to be ‘more honest’, whilst commendable, doesn’t make your agency different.

This is where I’m not so convinced Simon’s right. In my experience, clients will be more attracted by an agency who understands their market and can demonstrate they have the expertise to fix a problem. Their ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ will trump a weaker ‘why’ every time.

An alternative to purpose: don’t be afraid to play it unsafe

So, what do you do if your ‘why’ isn’t all that meaningful or relevant to clients? If it isn’t something that you should shine a light on, how do you find a way to stand out and attract the like-minded?

Firstly, be explicit in defining your audience. By doing so, you can build a proposition around the problems they face and the outcomes they care most about. Seek to avoid the boastful claims and inward-looking language of ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘us’.

From there, establish a point of view, angle or opinion (relevant to that audience). If it’s a touch controversial or even polarising, all the better. There is too big a middle ground to play it safe so don’t be afraid to piss a few people off. After all, if they don’t agree with your thinking, they are probably the clients you want to avoid anyway.

Make your peace with ‘why’

For most agencies, trouble standing out and winning the right clients is not a failure of ‘why’. It is a failure to define what the right client looks. It is a failure to build a relevant, compelling proposition around this audience. And it’s a failure in having an interesting point of view.

I’ve made my peace with Simon, concluding that for some agencies their ‘why’ will form the bedrock of their proposition. For most others, it won’t.

So, if the events of this year mean you’re asking a few existential questions of your own but the ‘why’ bit falls some way short of saving the planet, don’t fret. The vast majority of clients probably don’t care, much preferring to hear how you’re going to make their life easier.

In fact, I don’t remember sitting in a single meeting where a prospect asked me ‘why does your agency exist’ or ‘why do you do what you do’? And quite frankly, I’m glad they didn’t.

I’m not sure my response of “I kind of fell into this and I’ve got a massive student loan to pay back” would have been all that inspiring.