I have one piece of advice for any communication professional that is thinking about repositioning their own brand: Don’t. Have you ever heard the expression, “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client”? After we completed my own brand's repositioning, I can safely say this proverbial wisdom applies equally well to brand consultants.
The Duffy Agency’s reposition was nothing radical. We just wanted to attract more of the work we love (like global brand positioning) and less of the other stuff we’re asked to do. So I was trying to determine a position that would help us achieve both objectives. Compared to the multinational brands my company is hired to position, you would think our own brand would have been a piece of cake. Not the case. And most of the fault lies with the client: Me. I lacked the distance and objectivity to make rational choices about my own brand. It's a symptom I can recognize in three minutes with a client. It took as many months to recognize it in myself. This realization set me on a quest for perspective. Along the way I found some great advice and insight. Since many other marketing communication firms are re-examining their positions these days, I wanted to share a few resources that may help.
Is your agency a practice or a business?
This innocuous question has quite profound repercussions for how you position and run your business. It was posed by Mike Carlton in his post “Is your agency a practice or a business?” He uses the example of two doctors. One doctor sets out to run a practice offering highly personalized medical care to a small group of patients. The other sets out to create a clinic offering medical care to the masses. One doctor’s model is not better than the other’s; they just represent two different visions. He cites the primary difference as one of longevity. A practice depends on its leaders for revenue. If they leave, the money dries up. A business, on the other hand, can continue to thrive even in the absence of its leaders. “It is an unfortunate truth that many agency owners think that their agency is a business, when in fact it is a practice. This can lead to all kinds of problems. Not the least of which is the almost unconscious confusion it causes for agency staffers.” If you are looking to position your marketing communications firm, I’d start by answering Mike’s question.
It’s hard to read the label from inside the jar.
Last week I was in Istanbul with a group of other marketers from our international network. Our keynote speaker was Blair Enns, the author of “The Win Without Pitching Manifesto” and a specialist in brand positioning for communication firms. If we are all in the business of helping clients position their brands, why can’t we do it for ourselves? As Blair put it, “It’s hard to read the label from inside the jar.”
Blair understands how to help agencies position themselves because he understands the people who run agencies. In his post “The Cost of Creativity” he talks about how the things that make people excel at creative communication also make them lousy at focusing their own companies for success. “Creative businesses are riddled with highly autonomous people who eschew routine, preferring to reserve the right to adapt to every situation differently…Unharnessed, this love of the new and different will manifest itself as corporate ADHD with symptoms across all key benchmarks of business success.” He offers some practical advice on how to slip the harness on without getting thrown.
Blair also addressed the me-too nature of most communication firms’ positioning (see also: Schlock & Ho). In his post “The Impact of Creative Quality on Business Development Success” he argues that the reason ad agencies don’t advertise is that they have nothing differentiating to say. And when they are forced to pinpoint what makes them different, they usually claim it’s their creativity. This begs the question: Can anyone own the “More Creative” market position? Blair outlines a number of reasons why the answer to this question is no. While a creative campaign can get your firm noticed, he concludes that “… you cannot maintain a business development advantage if your claim of expertise is not rooted in something more meaningful and sustainable.”
You are already a specialist you just don’t know it.
Tim Williams is the author of “Take a Stand for Your Brand” and “Positioning for Professionals.” I had the pleasure of meeting Tim at a network event in Rome two years ago and have been following his Propulsion Blog ever since. Tim’s consultancy is “devoted to helping marketing firms create and capture more value.” And a lot of that has to do with getting them to stop trying to be everything to everybody. Like Blair, he urges marketing communication firms to drop the “full service” mentality and specialize.
He makes this case quite convincingly in his post “Why most ‘full service’ agencies are actually now specialist agencies”. Although 95% of marketing communication agencies describe themselves as “full service,” that’s not how clients are using them anymore. “According to research from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), Fortune 500 companies have an average of 17 agency relationships. Not a single one of them have an actual ‘Agency of Record.’” The client no longer believes that one shop can be an expert on everything. So they have moved from an agency-of-record mentality to an agency-of-collaboration mindset. “...Even the small or mid-size agencies that still persist in developing and cultivating a “full-service” model actually have very few — if any — full-service relationships.” Tim concludes, “Clients understand that no one agency can be excellent in everything. It’s time for agencies to understand this as well.”
The irony of the situation is not lost on Tim. In several posts about agency new business, he points out how marketing communication agencies are famous for advising clients on the need to move beyond the sales mentality and start positioning their brands, targeting their communication, and implementing “pull” marketing strategies with advertising. Yet when you look at how agencies promote themselves, it’s clear that very few advertise, target, have established a position, or even have a brand strategy in place. In fact, marketing communication agencies do precious little marketing and instead rely almost 100% on sales tactics like cold calling.
If you run or work for a marketing communications firm and are contemplating some work on your own position, you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration by checking out these resources before you start. And after you’ve read their blogs and white papers, do yourself and your brand a big favor: Outsource the project to someone outside the jar.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.
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