Agency Positioning and the Adjacent Possible

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

When you think about the concept of positioning your firm, what comes to mind? A tag line you can put on your business card? A headline for you the home page of your website? A theme you can give to a new business presentation?

While all of these things may become eventual manifestations of your positioning, at its core 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”). But in addition to the classic definition of positioning strategy, here are some other interesting ways to think about it:

Positioning = Deciding what not to do

Seth Godin says “What makes a great museum is the stuff that’s not on the walls.” Similarly, one could argue that what makes a great agency are the things they don’t do.

Martin Puris of the famed Ammirati & Puris once said, “You can measure our agency by the clients we don’t have.” Those who knew and worked with Steve Jobs heard him talk a lot about “the things we don’t do” as one of the keys to Apple’s greatness. When Jobs came back to save Apple, his first order of business was to reduce the product line from over 300 to under 20.

Positioning = Letting your customers outgrow you

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier, partners in the development of the remarkably successful Basecamp preach that “Companies need to be true to a type of customer more than a specific individual customer with changing needs.” In other words, Basecamp expects not to be right for everyone, and figures that current customers may eventually outgrow them. They’re OK with that, because they would rather be exactly right for a particular type of customer than try to appeal to every type of customer (which, of course, is quite impossible – but that doesn’t stop the majority of agencies from trying).

Positioning = The adjacent possible

Do you remember the true story of Apollo 13? As the astronauts were wrapping up their mission and headed back to earth, their capsule started filling with carbon dioxide because the unit that scrubbed the CO2 from the air had failed. This was the famous “Houston, we have a problem” call to mission control. Deke Slayton, the head of flight crew operations in Houston, asked the astronauts to make a quick inventory of every spare part they had on board. When they radioed back the list, Slayton gathered his best engineers and in front of them laid out on a table things like suit hoses, canisters, stowage bags, and duct tape. “We’ve got to find a way to solve this problem using nothing but these items” Slayton told his engineers.

The gear on the table defined what author Steven Johnson calls the “adjacent possible.”  From these items, mission control constructed what they called “the mailbox,” which the flight crew was able to replicate and return safely to earth. “Spare parts can be reassembled into useful new configurations, “ says Johnson. “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”

Positioning is not about creating something out of nothing, but rather building on the success your firm has already achieved. You start by imaging a different way to put the parts of your company together in a new configuration that creates new forms of value for your clients.