Help clients understand what makes you special

The question of whether an agency should position itself as a ‘specialist’ or as a ‘generalist’ remains something of a conundrum.

There is a dilemma for growing agencies – it is a mistake to be too broad/undefined in approach (no USP – just a design firm like others) but it can also be a mistake to be too specialised (cannot afford to rule out potential business).

An agency that specialises can be perceived as having real expertise and knowledge in its field, yet maybe a narrow offering. An agency that offers a broad range of integrated skills and disciplines can appeal as a ‘one-stop-shop’, yet may be perceived as a jack of all trades and master of none.

Defining succinctly who you are and what it is that makes you ‘special’ is a challenge for anyone in this industry, however, a clear positioning can deliver much-needed clarity in a time-starved world  and saturated marketplace.

First and foremost, prospective clients should have a clear understanding of what you offer from your positioning statement, and secondly/ideally, they should have a sense of what makes you stand out when compared with incumbents and other designers. Perhaps you offer prospective clients valuable insights to the market sector/s in which you specialise. Perhaps you have an in-depth understanding of industry issues, customer demographics, the competitor environment, and so on. Perhaps you simply have a wealth of experience and a proven track record.

Perhaps unknowingly, design agencies frequently make similar claims about what they do and how they do it – often claiming that the experience will be better, easier, more enjoyable or rewarding, but invariably failing to say how or why, or explaining the tangible benefits of the services they provide.

Agencies need to ensure they possess a clearly articulated compelling offer, business approach, collaboration model, capability, work-ethos, focus – call it what you will – that answers the question: what is different or special about you?

The ‘behaviours’ of an agency are the foundation when it comes to growth and business development. Having a collaborative attitude towards growth – your culture, your outlook and your actions – will also lead you to bigger and better things.

Successful agencies tend to focus on what they believe in or how they behave as opposed to what services they provide, or which clients they work for. Whether in advertising, media, research or design, those agencies that have enjoyed the most consistent success have powerful intellectual content – they’ve developed models, tools, structures and processes that demonstrate and articulate their beliefs. In making clear statements of these ideas, they not only position and differentiate themselves; they also create a culture that attracts like-minded employees and clients.

A good example of how it has been done well is Anomaly which called itself a ‘new model agency’, and which was set up with a totally different remuneration structure to the normal agency. They worked on the basis of a share in profits in ‘true partnership’ with clients. The agency launched with these principles at its core and I believe has stuck by them.

Setting up an agency with clear, intellectually driven positioning is one thing, but changing an existing positioning or developing a new one is much harder. A good example of this is Coley Porter Bell. CPB had led the way in talking about strategic design‚ but by the mid 90s that was not enough to create clear differentiation any more. They came up with the idea of Visual Planning – a visual interpretation of the client’s brief that would serve as a benchmark throughout the project – and started applying it to work with clients and talking about it in the market. It was immediately extremely successful and the agency went from strength to strength.

Other good examples would be ZenithOptimedia, the agency known for preaching and delivering ROI.

Or BBH, who have always been known for not doing creative pitches – they don’t give their ideas away for free. BBH used to (and may still) have its beliefs clearly on show in reception and use culture as a differentiator.

The climate in which you do the work is how you differentiate and how you convey what makes you special.