The Perils of Agency Positioning

What Makes an Agency Special and How Do You Talk About It?

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A dirty little secret about advertising agencies is that it's really hard to tell them apart. Of course, those of us in the business see massive differences, but to the casual observer, the similarities outweigh the finer points of distinction. And it's not because agencies don't work hard to define a unique position.

Here are just a few of the ways that we go about differentiating ourselves :

Pedigree: Defined by the famous agency where the partners used to work and the famous campaigns they created.

Market focus: Packaged goods, healthcare, financial services, retail, travel and hospitality, b-to-b, b-to-c, b-to-b-to-c, ad infinitum.

Core expertise: Brand and awareness, product releases, lead generation programs, social media strategy, digital, mobile, and even the mysterious and ever-changing sales funnel.

Size and scale: Number of people, offices, countries, respectively, in the tens of thousands, hundreds and dozens.

Proprietary methodology: [Insert your own inverted pyramid, interconnected circles, and continuum of arrows that explains why you're different than everybody else].

Of course no one sticks with one point of differentiation. The confusion begins when we start weaving these strands together and the distinctions start to blur.

I wish I could claim to have cracked the code. The truth is that as we get bigger, have more diverse clients, and offer more services, it gets harder to tell a simple story. That's why I recently sat down and tried to answer the question: What makes us special?

To put this in real-world perspective, here's what a conversation might look like in a one-to-one conversation at a cocktail party, on the golf course or at a conference.

Someone asks me what I do, and I say that I run an advertising agency. Next come the easy questions. Who are your clients? How big are you? Where are you located? Next up, they often want to know if we specialize. I usually go for the obvious and talk about our focus on technology, healthcare and financial services. To people in the industry, that usually marks us as a b-to-b agency, which is only partially true because we also work for consumer brands.

Those are the range-finding questions that help someone place us on a continuum of agencies, and it's an important part of understanding our DNA. But it begs the question, "What do we offer that's different than the other 15,000-plus agencies in the United States?"

A partial answer may be rooted in the foundation on which we built the agency. In our earliest days, we recognized that the technology revolution had ushered in a wave of businesses that were very complex, hard to explain, and their value was not immediately visible to consumers. We chose to be an agency that helped clients grapple with complexity in all its forms, and that remains an important thread that runs through our identity.

Of course the definition of complexity has changed with the times. Today, we're much more likely to view complexity as the puzzle of how to engage consumers who bypass much of what we think of as traditional marketing. This in turn drives content strategies, relationships with publishers, and the use of marketing technologies to design increasingly sophisticated program models.

I suspect -- rather, I know -- my competitors are working hard to master the same challenges and to develop their own innovative responses.

To quote my friend and colleague Ben Resnikoff (associate creative director at PJA), the real differences between companies may come down to POV, the perspective that gives every agency its unique set of fingerprints.

This may sound counterintuitive, but we aspire to pursue a higher purpose than advertising and marketing. At our core, we believe in the power of communications to shape human relationships, drive societal change, and create business success. Advertising and marketing merely provide the set of tools to connect people and to improve the interactions between consumers and brands.

Like the domino effect, this one single conviction leads to a series of other behaviors and attitudes that shape our POV.

It guides our approach to emerging technologies. Whether they are a new social platform, a device, or marketing automation, we look beyond the trends to how the technology will change human behaviors. Marketing strategy flows from the resulting insights.

I'm all for the elevator pitch and the pithy tag line, but sometimes the real point of distinction lies in levels of knowledge, and that's hard. It's hard to convey to clients. It's hard to share with friends and co-workers. It's really hard to communicate with entire market segments. But as we always tell people, we like the hard stuff. We even put that on the wall.

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