How To Position Your Agency

It is one of life’s divine little ironies that Ad agencies, for the most part, are not very good at marketing themselves. They talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Clients get preached to that they must have a clear positioning based on real differentiation that is both fresh and relevant. The clients must not try to be all things to all people – they must have a clear creative target in terms of user and/or ‘needstate’ (hate that word).

This is the springboard for a strong, distinctive identity that must permeate every consumer touchpoint (I’m getting all the buzzwords in here) and provides the platform for great – not just good – communications. And of course the client must back this up with a stream of innovations – you can’t be all sizzle and no sausage, you gotta give us some new news to advertise.

The typical Ad agency can’t even make up their minds whether they should be called an Ad agency (should it be Comms, Through-the-line, Born Digital or Brand agency?). They might have a decent identity and the benefits of some cool interior design (especially the all important reception area) but to what brief exactly? They call themselves original names like “Athos, Portos, Aramis and D’Artagnan”. Athos is the suit, Portos is the Creative, Aramis is the Media guy and D’Artagnan is the New Media guy.

Perhaps they do believe there is something different about their agency but as someone once said (I think it was Nigel Bogle of BBH but I might be wrong) “all agencies start out wanting to be different and they all end up looking just the same”. Why is that?  Because as someone else once said (I do know who it was but will spare his blushes) “any question to an agency that starts with ‘Can you’ always gets the answer ‘yes’”.

There are some exceptions – but not many and even fewer once the agency gets any scale and/or the founders move on.

As for innovation, ask any new marketing technology start-up what they think of Ad Agencies and you will find out just how receptive big agencies are to innovation ideas. “New, different, better, first, best, only – great but none of our clients have asked for this so we’ll wait until they do. Or I’ll tell you what, we’ll set up something called Athos, Portos, Aramis & D’Artagnan Labs, a place where we showcase the latest and best in new marketing and positions us at the bleeding edge of technology. Then we’ll wait until a client says they fancy giving it a try, we’ll add our margin and then screw up the implementation because we won’t invest any time to understand how this new stuff actually works.”

OK maybe the comments on the luddite nature of Ad Agencies are a little harsh – they’re true but to be fair clients don’t offer much encouragement. They prefer to be courted directly by the new tech start ups, then they run a charter project which if it works they will palm off the rollout to their Ad Agency, who will of course then f**** it up and blame the technology.

But what excuse is there for having no positioning for your agency? And yes it is possible but it does require principles (driven by the principals), a point of view, dare I say it a consumer/client facing view of the world.

Let me illustrate my point with two examples from little old Cape Town. I was at the birthday party of a really good friend who is CMO of one of the biggest businesses over here. She had invited an old friend and colleague of hers and mine who is a very senior Regional President of a very large global business. We introduced him to some other mates who run a couple of relatively new agencies based in the Mother City. Both have very clear positionings. One is called OFYT which officially stands for “Old Friends, Young Talent” but which is unofficially known as “Old Farts/Young Turks”. The agency is run by 3 very smart and experienced people and they have attracted some other highly experienced mates to work with them. Clients get to work directly with the kind of senior talent that not even the biggest agencies can field. They have made it their business to hire very junior but high potential talent often from under-privileged backgrounds (so there is a strong feel good factor here). Clients get to work with top talent underpinned by young fresh ideas at a better price.

The other agency is called Bletchley Park, it is run by a really smart marketing guy and probably the best creative in the country (any country). Their positioning is very simply “Beautiful Problems”. They want to work on only the most interesting and most challenging marketing problems where strategic thinking, creative ideas and practical thinking are needed to crack them – just like the folk who cracked the Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

Guess what – the Senior Regional President (a very experienced and super bright marketer himself) got the ideas in a nano second and loved them both.

A good positioning will do that for you.

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