Positioning and the Art of Agency Branding

Positioning has become an industry buzzword. 

But that doesn’t mean it is without merit. 

There are thousands of agencies -- many of which offer the same services, promise similar results, and are generally positioned the same. 

So, why would a brand choose to work with one agency over another? 

Why take a left, rather than the easier right-turn, if both lead you to the same type of business that sells the same thing?

Here’s just one list of an actual agency’s service offerings:

  1. SEO/SEM/affiliate marketing
  2. Digital content strategy
  3. Media planning
  4. Website analytics
  5. Social media planning
  6. Campaign development & executions
  7. Social media management
  8. Search engine optimization
  9. PPC and SEM management
  10. Mobile marketing and development
  11. Web and application development
  12. Email marketing
  13. Ecommerce
  14. Campaign development & execution
  15. Design
  16. Brand identity and development
  17. New product launch
  18. Rebranding
  19. Tours and vehicle creation
  20. Event marketing
  21. Interactive event marketing
  22. In-store marketing
  23. Sampling
  24. Retail marketing
  25. On-premise marketing
  26. Quarterly programs

Another agency capabilities listing I reviewed totaled at 128. It’s employee count clocks in at around 240. 

Focus is the issue, and positioning is often the way to find both focus and success. 

In Tim Williams’ “Positioning for Professionals,” he writes, “Nobody buys a product or service because it can do everything, but rather because it can do something.”

What Is Positioning?

“Positioning is finding a space in the market for a company that is intrinsic to the way it does business,” said Clayton Reid, president and CEO of MMGY Global, a travel, hospitality, and entertainment marketing communications agency.

In Williams’ Propulsion blog, he writes: A positioning strategy is really a business strategy, not just a communications strategy. It is an articulation of what services you offer (the answer can’t be “everything”) and which markets or customer segments you serve (the answer can be “everybody”).

Positioning should not be confused with branding or design. “It is as much an internal rallying cry and mantra as it is an external marketing function,” Reid said.

And it is about more than simply adding a specialty or category page on your agency’s website. With positioning comes a need to live and breathe that expertise, from creating content, conducting research, and yes, branding your agency to appeal to your defined target buyer — brands in that market, with that audience, or with that specific need. 

Look at a few of the recipients of Advertising Age’s 2014 Small Agency Awards.

Tiny Rebellion works with organizations that “ want to put something useful and powerful into the world.”

Odysseus Arms runs a lean model where it outsources production and only works on a project basis.

The Brooklyn Brothers has focused on developing its own intellectual property.

And positioning is as much about what you have laid claim to — what you decide to focus on — as it is on what you decide not to do.

How Positioning Benefits Your Agency

Why do you choose one brand over another? Your agency can’t run a Pepsi Challenge to figure out whether or not people can even tell the difference between your agency and another. You’re in the service industry, which means you can only differentiate your agency by a few different factors:

  • What services or tactics you specialize in.
  • The audience or market you understand.
  • How you approach your work through your methods, business structure, or pricing.
  • Why you do what you do — your purpose.

This doesn’t mean that defining a position limits you. It’s actually the opposite. Positioning provides your agency with:

1) Direction

You and your staff are able to move forward boldly — marketing your agency, deciding who to work with, and how you will execute on strategies and tactics. There is no question about what you do, whom you do it for, and how you do it.

2) Borderless Market

Regional agencies struggle to attract talent and clients outside of their area. By determining a focus and building this up as a core part of your service, clients will want to work with you and people will want to work for you — regardless of your location or size. 

“Agencies think that by niching, you miss out on opportunities,” said Matt Sonnhalter, president of Sonnhalter, an agency founded by his father in 1976. The reality is that “different types of opportunities appear that are more in line with the type of work you want to do.”

Sonnhalter focuses on marketing to professional tradesmen in the construction, industrial, and MRO (maintenance, repair, and operations) markets, aptly named Business-To-Tradesman (B2T) marketing.

Around half of the agency’s revenues come from work with brands located outside of Ohio.

3) Target Audience

Does your agency have buyer personas? Do you currently have a list of prospects that you know would be interested in your services? Strong positioning helps you understand the unique pain points of your target audience, what they need and want, and how they buy. By identifying shared goals, challenges, and identifiers of your target audience, you can create a more efficient and targeted new business and sales process. 

4) Premium Pricing

Deep expertise demands premium pricing. Brands want insights, not more generic information on how to market their products or services. With specialized knowledge of an industry (such as distribution methods or trade channels), an audience (their behaviors, needs, and wants), or a service offering (mobile, social, demand generation), you can promote how your agency isn’t focused on learning an industry, rather it’s consumed with developing creative ideas that work.

5) Differentiation

When entering a competitive pitch or even attempting to woo a client away from its current agency, how you do say you are different? Is it through your full service, integrated, strategic, media-agnostic capabilities? Or can you discuss how you have helped a client reach Millennials and have grown the brand by 120% in the past three years?

6) Influence

How often is your agency quoted in The New York Times, Luxury Daily, Travel Pulse, or Franchise Magazine? Deep expertise draws people — conference organizers, reporters, and even brands.  This isn’t the time where having a company name that starts with the letter A will be to your advantage.People are savvy searchers who believe that those with the most credible and expansive amount of knowledge on a subject are also the most qualified. 

Consider Barkley’s journey to becoming known as the experts on Millennial marketing. Located in Kansas City, Missouri, the agency employs around 300 people. In 2009, Jeff Fromm joined the agency as the head of sales. His point of view was that the future of marketing would be found in content excellence, meaning people would use Google to find expertise and information on a specific subject. Sounds familiar, right?

He asked: What subject would be relevant and valuable for our clients and prospects? 

He used Google in the opposite way. He looked for the “absence” of information, trying to discover subjects where very little expertise existed.

Eventually, he landed on Gen Y (also known as millennial) consumer trends and realized there was very little information for such an important topic. He partnered with The Boston Consulting Group and Service Management Group (SMG) to produce a report — American Millennials: Deciphering the Enigma Generation. He has since written a book on marketing to millennials, is in the final stages of his second book, has produced additional research reports, and has spoken at hundreds of conferences on the topic. Recently, he launched FutureCast, a millennial trends consulting company.

Fromm emphasized that positioning your agency as an expert is one thing — proving that expertise is another.

“You got to have a point of view,” Fromm said. “You can’t walk in and say you are an expert in ‘this’ and have no proof.”

Fromm is frequently called on to comment on Millennial trends for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR

“If you want to win the positioning battle for your agency, be wildly unique and wildly relevant to your intended target,” Fromm said. “It’s what you would do for your client.”

Discover Your Agency’s Positioning

To determine your agency’s unique position in the market or to determine a new direction for your agency, start by asking these questions:

  • What are our strengths?
  • Why do we come to work each day? What drives our passion as an organization? 
  • What tactics or channels do we have the most experience with or understanding of?
  • What types of clients do we like working with? What values do we share with these clients?
  • What audiences, groups, or types of customers do we understand?
  • How do we approach working with each client? What is different about our method?
  • How do we price our services? 
  • What are the biggest problems facing our agency?
  • Why do we lose talent? What problems do we have in attracting talent? What type of people do we want to work for our agency?
  • What is the story of our agency, and how can we frame this in a way that sets us apart?

Positioning your agency is no easy feat. It takes time, dedication, and the courage to say “no” to some things. But it is necessary, especially if you are struggling to create consistent revenue streams, bring in new clients, and retain your current clients. 

It is a way to attract prospects, talent, and influencers to your agency, and that’s something you definitely have time for.  

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