Ben Potter argues that although many agencies have become more efficient during the pandemic, there are still those that must sharpen their positioning to prevent common mistakes in pitching.

When it comes to the trials and tribulations of agency positioning, a thought occurred to me recently: Many agency owners do not consider positioning to be a problem because the symptoms of weak positioning are accepted as normal.

Whilst you mull that over, let’s firstly define positioning. I describe it as what you do, for who and why. It brings together your experience, expertise, interests and values to solve a problem (or set of problems) for a specific audience.

Weak positioning is the opposite. It tends to be broad-brush (‘we can work with anyone’), inward facing (‘look at all OUR awards!’), and mistakes hygiene factors for points of difference (‘transparent’, ‘results-focused’ and ‘passionate’, to name just three).

Agencies with weak positioning tend to find business development difficult. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. I know agencies with laughably weak positioning doing very well for themselves. But for every high-flying generalist, there are fifty others where business development is a bit of a slog.

Interestingly, those agencies don’t necessarily see it that way…’the slog…well, that’s just how it is, right?’

Back to ‘normal’…are you sure?

The pandemic has given agency owners a chance to take stock. Some have jumped at the chance, re-evaluating their ‘why’, tightening their focus, transforming operations and challenging convoluted pitch processes (to be fair, many clients have done the same with less bureaucracy and gamesmanship involved in choosing agency partners).

But (and it’s a BIG but), I think the amount of change has been exaggerated in some quarters, especially as you move further down the food chain and talk to smaller agencies. Yes, we’ve all learnt to do things virtually. Aspects of the pitch process are certainly more efficient as a result. But have the fundamentals really changed that much?

There is an understandable clamour to return to normal. But for a long time, the way in which agencies and clients set about working together has not been normal at all (certainly not compared with other professional service sectors). An unwritten rule book engenders behaviours and processes that ultimately benefit neither party, least of all agencies. Hence, the slog.

So, what to do? We can either blame clients (ironic really, as we have conditioned the behaviours in them that we frequently complain about) or we take responsibility and drive change.

But to do the latter, agencies need to address the root cause.

And more often than not, the root cause is weak positioning.

So, circling back to my recent thought, let’s take a look at how weak positioning can show up in the pitch process; symptoms that you might accept as normal…but don’t have to be:

1. You rarely say ‘no’

Without defining a narrow audience you have limited criteria to qualify if a prospect is a good fit for your agency. So, pretty much any prospect is considered a good fit.

This can manifest itself in various ways but perhaps the most telling is your website. The ‘experience’ section has twenty pages, each one dedicated to a different vertical where you claim to be experts (in an agency of fifteen people…are you sure?).

This misguided attempt to make yourself attractive to the widest possible range of companies actually has the opposite effect. Educated clients aren’t looking for generalists. They are looking for agencies with deep expertise. Those twenty sector pages dilute your credibility.

2. You bend the narrative

You find yourself changing your proposition to suit what the prospect wants to hear. Yesterday, you were experts in eCommerce. Today, it’s financial services. You scratch around for relevant case studies. Hidden deep on the shared drive is some work you did in 2007. Run a Google search for the latest Fintech trends, stick them in a creds deck and hey presto, you’re an expert.

As David C Baker says in The Business of Expertise, even if you win the business, the client is effectively paying you to learn on the job. Maybe you’re cool with that. I’m not so sure.

3. You take the brief at face value

What a client thinks they want and what they actually need can be quite different.

So embrace a prospect’s brief but accept it’s bound to have holes in it. A prospect who truly values your expertise will be open to answering your questions and exploring different ideas or approaches.

But with weak positioning, you lack the deep expertise to challenge their brief. Therefore, you’re more likely to accept their version of events and rush headlong into writing a proposal (bypassing critical steps in the qualifying and discovery process, as a result).

4. You don’t push back on the prospect’s process

You don’t want to fill in that 15-page RFI document, but you have no leverage.

You’d like to speak to other stakeholders, but you have no leverage.

You want to say ‘no’ when they ask for a proposal by Friday (it’s Thursday!), but you have no leverage.

The pitch process should be collaborative. But your experience tends to be one where the prospect dictates the terms. When your expertise is truly valued, the opposite can be true. You are more likely to be able to lead (or at least influence) the process.

And that matters. According to Blair Enns, ‘winning firms are almost ten times more likely to have significantly affected the buying process than losing firms.’

5. You offer a solution before the client has paid for it

I’m planning an extension to my house. My wife and I recently spent a couple of hours with an architect exploring our requirements. We were satisfied to move forward, which meant paying her some money. Not in a million years would I have asked her to do the drawings as part of the sales process. But neither did I need to; she had demonstrated through her related experience and expertise how she would fix our problem. She didn’t need to do the actual work to prove it.

With weak positioning the opposite is true. Lacking enough relevant content, case studies and testimonials, your only option is to try and demonstrate your ‘expertise’ by coming up with the solution as part of the pitch. With no guarantee the client will buy the strategy, idea or design you’ve laboured over. And you do all of this for free.

Nuts, right?

6. You share rate cards and granular fee breakdowns

Many years ago, I was asked by a prospect to share a detailed breakdown of a PPC quote. I duly obliged and won the business. I soon wished I hadn’t.

The spreadsheet I shared detailing tasks, hours and fees became the basis of the relationship. Instead of focusing on the great results we were delivering, the weekly call was an interrogation of how every minute had been spent on the account. It was utterly demoralising for the team.

Agencies have inadvertently trained clients to buy services in this way (based on inputs). And because they want to compare apples to apples, you’re asked to share (what should be) commercially sensitive information about your agency.

Your weak positioning makes it more likely the client is buying on price. And therefore, you’ll have no option but to hand over the apples.

7. You regularly discount

I took a look at a proposal for a new client recently. On the page outlining the project fees, a 10% discount had been applied. When I asked why, I was taken aback with the reply:

 “We know clients are going to ask for it so to make things easier we just apply it upfront”. 

Eek.

Weak positioning means it’s more likely you’ll be asked (and to some extent forced) to reduce your fees to the win the business. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about their brand. It doesn’t matter how many awards you’ve won. It doesn’t matter how good you say your people are. A prospect won’t pay a premium for a service they can buy from ten, similar looking agencies just down the road.

And value-based pricing? Good luck with that.

8. Your win rate is around 25%

Agency owners are often surprised when I tell them they should be aiming for a +70% win-rate (from proposal to close) Why so high? Because when an agency has a clear view of what the right client looks like (and therefore a framework to qualify against), they are better placed to separate those who fit from those who don’t. And spot the serious prospects amongst the timewasters.

Furthermore, they establish this early, way before putting pen to paper on a proposal. As such, they pitch less to win more.

With weak positioning you pitch more to win less. A 30%-win rate is considered OK. But just think of all the hours wasted on the 70% you lose.

Making the abnormal, normal

Weak positioning isn’t entirely to blame for all that happens during a typical pitch process. Other factors are at play that I won’t go into now. But, over many years, agencies have inadvertently given clients the upper hand. And it’s going to take time to redress the balance.

To do that, one of the most powerful things you can do is to narrow your focus. Specialise by solving a specific problem for a discrete audience. Have a point of view. And ditch the clichés.

By doing so, business development becomes easier.

You can more regularly avoid the bunfight of competitive pitching.

And justifiably charge more for your specialist expertise.

If that sounds abnormal to you, address the root cause. You might just find that winning more business, on your terms, becomes your new normal.

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