How to Differentiate Your Agency's Brand: 9 Ways to Stand Out

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



When’s the last time you heard someone ask, “Do you know of any great massage therapists who can also cut my hair?”

differentiate your agency's brand

Or “I just wish my physician could fill this cavity after we’re done with my yearly physical?”

Most people don’t trust people who claim to be experts in multiple services or skills. We want to choose a provider of services based on her qualifications and expertise to solve our specific problem. We want to have a strong reason for going with this provider over that. (Interested in learning more about differentiating your service offerings? Check out HubSpot's Apps for Agency Services).

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So the question is: What compels a client to choose your agency over another? What differentiates your agency from others in your market?

Or are you positioning your firm and its services like a commodity -- something that has little value and whose price is the only differentiator?

Identifying your unique factors -- that you currently own/have or that you want to build up -- allows you to build a distinct brand: The positioning, image, and personality of your brand can’t be confused with another market competitor. Therefore, the brand can become recognizable.

Defining Your Differentiating Factors

Tim Williams, founder of Ignition Consulting Group, suggests asking four questions to help you determine your positioning strategy:

  1. What do we do? What services or channels do we know best?
  2. Who do we do it for? What consumer groups do we understand?
  3. How do we do it? How do our values and beliefs change the way we work?
  4. Why do we do it? What is our shared purpose?

Defining your differentiating factors and using this to build a public-facing positioning statement for your agency helps clients immediately understand if your agency is the right fit. You limit your pool of competition in the new business process, and you have more negotiating power because the client perceives that you have a higher value.

In addition, defining your positioning provides you with a starting point for creating a list of prospect qualifying questions and defining your ideal client profile so you can attract and go after only the most profitable and satisfying client relationships. And you can use this to create a more cohesive brand story for marketing your agency's brand and generating new business leads.

What Clients Look for in an Agency

Clients switch or look for new agencies because they want specialists. According to the Society of Digital Agencies 2015 Report, 27.8% of marketers maintain a roster of highly specialized digital agencies, and 26.2% maintain a mix of highly specialized and full-service agencies.

what clients look for in an agency

This paired with the growing trend of marketers assigning out more project-based work signals an opportunity for agencies to gain more interesting work with more high-level brands if they can determine a focus and make an ongoing effort to market this expertise.

Agencies must identify their strength(s) and focus on what they do best to stand out.

Here are a few different ways your firm can differentiate itself in the market:

9 Ways to Differentiate Your Agency

1) Focus on an industry.

For many agencies, marketing their expertise to a specific industry is the most logical step. Clients want to work with agencies that understand the unique challenges in their industry -- and with category expertise, agencies can get to work faster as they don’t have to start from scratch with each new account.

For example: Slack and Company has been specializing in B2B marketing and advertising work for 25 years and is regularly recognized for its work in the category. ThomasNet RPM focuses on the industrial marketing industry, which has led the agency to grow from one account in 2013 to more than 60 clients in 2015. Many of its employees, including its vice president of digital media, come from engineering backgrounds, ensuring that the agency and its clients speak the same language and understand the unique challenges of the industry. Another example is 10Up, which designs and develops Wordpress sites specifically for publishers.

2) Be the best at a service or capability.

Honing your skills in a specific service or capability is another way to become a best-in-class agency. Typically, agencies start by specializing in one or a few core services and become bloated in their offerings after years of clients asking the agency to provide a specific capability and the agency’s fear of denying that they "don't offer that."

You need to consider what your team can execute on fairly flawlessly and what services you are just OK at. You won’t get referrals and repeat business with somewhat subpar work.

Consider the growth of a firm such as VaynerMedia, which specializes in social media and has a following due to the expertise and following of its founder, Gary Vaynerchuk. The agency saw a 57% growth to $22.5 million in net revenue in 2014, and the firm has recently launched a sister agency that focuses on micro-content creation for Vine, Instagram, and SnapChat. There’s also A2G, which has seen success with this approach. It focuses on influencer-produced, user-generated content campaigns from brands, leading the small shop (less than 20 FTEs) to work with brands such as Gap, Samsung, and Vera Bradley.

3) Staff your agency in a different way. 

Your agency’s processes and approaches to creating work can be just as distinct as the work you create.

This could be how you staff your agency or provide access to talent: Laundry Service, a social media agency, developed a platform and recruited more than 1,000 social influencers who are ready to partner with brands on campaigns. And O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul has adopted a “Hollywood” model, building relationships with more than 100 highly skilled creatives from all different backgrounds while employing no more than 30 people to manage relationships with clients such as Taco Bell and Big Lots.

4) Approach client problems with a unique point of view. 

Your agency’s view on how marketing is changing and how agencies can solve problems can be distinctive when every other firm is relying on the same solutions to the same problems.

Case in point: Sylvain Labs focuses on innovation and brand opportunities and believes that “timing is more important than ingenuity.” Its approach attracts brands that are concerned with being first to market.

5) Make a statement with pricing.

Pricing can be a differentiating factor for some clients who want more transparency in the pricing process or who only want to pay for results, AKA performance-based pricing. How you tie your work to monetary incentives is just another way to make a statement about what your agency values. 

PR 20/20 published its point-pricing model online and has spoken about removing the mystery from agency pricing and focusing on valuing outcomes, not outputs. Point pricing relies on the idea that clients should get the full value of every dollar spent, regardless of how much time it takes to deliver a project or deliverable.

6) Have an attitude.

People want to work with people they like whose values align with their own. Creating a personality for your agency and embodying that attitude can help you to connect with a potential client partner.

Noble People, a media agency based in New York, prides itself on no-nonsense and transparency or “cutting the crap.” This is unique in an industry plagued by fraud and a lack of transparency.

Minnesota-based Little takes another approach, highlighting its Midwestern values and philanthropic values.

7) Access to information.

Creating something that marketers want access to is one way to stand out in a crowded market, and there’s nothing marketers love more than data. Commissioning a research study that provides valuable insights into the mindset of a specific demographic is one way to position your firm to be the go-to educational research.

For example: Boston-based Almighty recently published its findings and recommendations for building customer-centric brand experiences. Saatchi & Saatchi conducted a global study on moms, their roles, and attitudes toward brands. For brands looking to excel at overhauling the customer experience or reaching modern moms, this is a smart place to start looking for a new partner.

8) Organize an industry conference.

Barkley, a Kansas City-based agency, commissioned a research project on millennial attributes and attitudes in 2011, before millennial obsession took over the headlines and when there wasn’t much -- if any -- in-depth content on this generation of consumers. The agency then launched Share.Like.Buy, an annual conference about marketing to millennials, where brand executives from Spirit Airlines, Dunkin’ Donuts, Top Golf, and others have spoken.

9) Write a book.

If you have a unique process or approach that defines how your agency views marketing or in-depth knowledge of a specific subject or skills, publishing a book can help you position your agency as an industry leader on a specific subject. This is similar to publishing research reports, and you could even use the findings of your research as the basis for more in-depth published title.

Some examples of this include TBWA’s Disruption, which details the agency’s philosophy, and Connected by Design, a book from R/GA about the business model adopted by Apple, Google, and other leaders, and how this has helped to transform their brands.

How has your differentiate your agency? What results have you seen from the transition? Let us know in the comments below!

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