You Can't Be All Things to All Clients

The Key to Differentiation Is Relevance

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Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
Differentiation is something that every agency preaches to its clients. Yet most ad agencies are a commodity. Very few have a distinct personality. I have no greater fear than my agency being without a mantra -- having no reason for being other than a paycheck. I realize it is a business that must make a profit, but if my agency has no personality, it is average. And to me, whether you're flipping hamburgers or making ads, being average is worse than not being at all. Being average in our industry means your agency is a commodity that fights for clients in a price war. Sound familiar?

My partners and I continually discuss what makes us different. This is a good thing. We understand the importance of agreeing on our reason for being. But there is a more critical thing we've learned from these discussions. Before we can answer how our agency is different, we must know what truly constitutes being different.

Differentiation is not found in an agency's process. It is not found in its award-winning work (though it may be evidence that it is different). Differentiation is not found in its personality, i.e. being quirky, methodical or specialized. It is not different just because it has a cool workspace. To clients these differences are subtle shades of gray.

OK, I've done the easy part. I've said what differentiation is not. So what is it?

Relevance. To have relevance, an agency must know what type of companies it desires to be relevant to. Identifying such companies clarifies and makes legitimate an agency's point of differentiation. For example, let's say that you define potential clients that would find you most relevant today and you really don't like the list. Perhaps that means you are not currently being true to whom you want to be. Could it mean you're settling? Maybe you have yet to make the decision to be non-relevant to 90% of the potential clients out there. A common piece of advice that ad agencies give clients is to not try to be all things to all people. It is ironic how we don't practice what we preach.

So relevance is pretty simple: Be true to what is relevant to you and it will attract clients who value that very thing. So, if it is so simple, why do we not have more distinct personalities in this industry? Perhaps it's a lack of faith in one's ideals. Maybe we worry living a brand isn't marketable enough to keep the doors open. That would be ironic.

To be relevant is a full-time job for agency owners. Making sure that the "who we are" is never ambiguous to employees, clients and potential clients requires dedication and nerve. It requires the conviction to chart a course and stay on it. Hats off to those who do so, because in my experience it takes extraordinary courage to risk everything for something as seemingly irrelevant as one's conviction.

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