Despite their best efforts to stand out, nearly every agency looks, sounds, and acts just like every other one. We all think we have figured out how to differentiate ourselves using catchy taglines and clever techniques, but from the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell the difference from one to the next.
Don’t believe me? See whether any of these phrases ring a bell:
“We are a full-service integrated marketing agency.”
“We partner with our clients.”
“We’ve been in business for X years and have more than X years of experience.”
Sound familiar? These phrases might sound like good differentiators, but in reality, they just muddy the waters and make it more difficult to discern what makes one agency better than another.
Don’t Please Everyone All the Time
Looking across the landscape of agencies we work with, the ones that struggle to stay afloat are the generalists. I know how scary it can be to neglect part of what looks like an appealing market, but agencies today must find and attack specific niches to survive.
New avenues of competition are part of the reason for this. Agencies are now commodities competing with freelancers and others who take advantage of low barriers to entry. Differentiating your agency from the masses requires clearly defined areas of expertise. Clients want specialists, not indistinguishable, cookie-cutter generalists. According to our research, one of the biggest factors for clients choosing an agency is industry-specific expertise, which they define as having 25-50% of the agency’s business in one industry.
Differentiate Your Agency (For Real)
Although most agencies struggle to stand out, differentiating isn’t as hard as it seems. These four strategies help the most successful agencies split from the pack and say something interesting, while other companies waste their breath trying to shout louder than everyone else.
1) Create a Four-Legged Stool
Ideally, you need four areas of expertise or industry specialization. We all watched entire markets evaporate in the recession of the late 2000s, and agencies that served only single markets dried up with them. Standing on a four-legged stool lets you invest 25% of your business in different markets, meeting the 25-50% specialization criteria of your clients while insulating you from disaster should one niche dry up.
2) Believe in Something
Create a philosophy around how and why you do what you do. Take a specific position or point of view that puts you squarely on one side of an argument, then merchandise that position heavily to the client base to which you want to appeal.
3) Specialize Further
Specialization works even better when it extends beyond client selection and into services provided. Choose a specialization like SEO, public relations, branding, or digital media. Don’t do generalist work -- do one thing better than everyone else.
4) Build a Unique Structure
Are you fully virtual and therefore less expensive than others? Do you have only senior-level executives on your team, ensuring that no client works with a rookie? Does everyone on the team have client-side experience? Make your structure stand out by building a company that doesn’t look like any other.
A Different Avenue of Success
One Agency Management Institute-certified agency I’ve worked with has successfully differentiated itself from its peers. It can command a premium price because it found a specific niche in the textile and knitting industries and hit that niche hard. Each industry has a multitude of products but had little in the way of industry-specific agency competition. By hiring employees who love to knit and sew, this agency acquired an incredible depth of knowledge in a short span and is now constantly in demand by industry leaders.
You can’t serve everyone and expect to stand out from the other agencies trying to do the same. Differentiate your business at every opportunity, and clients will flock to you for the specialized services you provide.
Originally published Apr 15, 2016 9:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017