Don’t Be an Irrelevant Expert: Branding Your Creative Agency

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Jeff Swystun
Jeff Swystun



agency-brandingIn deference to other industries, positioning professional services, especially creative services, is no easy task. Ironically, agencies tasked with doing this very thing for their clients are incredibly hard pressed to make their own businesses stand out. My work with ad agencies, branding firms and design shops has revealed that when they try to do it to themselves, they perform an unsuccessful self-surgery.

This is because most follow a very familiar approach. Agencies go through a linear, pedantic exercise of identifying strengths and weaknesses: they talk about past work, float a tagline (e.g., The Most Creative Creative Agency) and highlight and compare the “brand new” positioning to competitors, more or less after the fact.

Then, they identify a target market they hope will be interested. This leads to tactical communications that cover the website, email newsletter, a breakfast seminar series that ends after two attempts and other generally accepted means of marketing. These agencies then sit back and wait for the phone to ring. But it doesn’t.

Why? Because they made it all about them. They forgot that clients buy for their own reasons, not the agency’s.

Many have taken this approach to illogical extremes. Out of 100 creative agency websites, about 99 will have “About Us” and “Who We Are” as navigation and content. Brochures will be the same. White papers are devoid of real content — half of them talking “about us.” Theses are just thinly veiled sales pitches.

So, creative agencies end up being positioned as the “irrelevant expert.” Instead of “about us,” it should be “about you.” Clients are buying solutions to improve their businesses. Agencies think they are buying “the agency.” It is a subtle, but important point, and that is why positioning creative services is so difficult.

There are three things to remember when branding your agency. First, one unique differentiator is elusive. Everyone struggles to get that beautiful positioning, succinct statement and cocktail-party explanation of what they do, but what makes anything unique is actually a mix of attributes, talents and accomplishments. So, while it’s great to be clear and concise, I never recommend oversimplifying or dumbing down the complexity and value of what you provide.

The second point to note is about drive and direction. Many of my clients start off conversations with tactical queries. Should I be on Facebook? Are print brochures still relevant? Or, they want to pen the most elaborate and expensive marketing program untethered from the business strategy. Those who actually win at marketing demonstrate a constancy of purpose that allows flexibility in strategy and tactics. I borrowed that phrase from Benjamin Disraeli who said, “The secret of success is constancy of purpose.”

I have seen this expressed another way by Andrew Rolfe of the quick-service food shop, Pret A Manger. “We're not concerned about having consistency of brand so much as about a constancy of purpose that flows throughout the whole organization,” Rolfe says. “It doesn't actually matter what we write on the napkins or say through advertising. All that matters is that when you go into a Pret shop you get that set of experiences that describes Pret.”

And lastly, nothing is static. Brands are never fully built. Marketing is an ongoing experiment meant to anticipate and satisfy the goals and objectives of our clients. So, how you position and market your agency is the truest demonstration of your abilities (no pressure!). Your positioning and marketing needs to express relevance, establish credibility and highlight differentiators.

In determining this, remember again that it is not about you — it is about your clients. It is all about the problems you can solve for them. Professional and creative services took a wrong turn in the ’70s when management consultants became rock stars, creative directors became divas, designers became brands and lawyers became celebrities. Focusing on the client became subservient to the idea that they needed us more than we needed them, and that has never been the case.

To stand out, ask yourself these questions:

1. What problem are you trying to solve? (difference and relevance)

2. Who wants or needs our solution? (desired clients)

3. How do they like to be engaged? (communication and engagement planning)

This is simply hard stuff. Each question produces a bunch more, but this is where it starts. Remember, your brand is not static, and it is never fully built. Enjoy the ride, have fun with it and experiment with confidence.

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