Three Key Questions That Define Agency Positioning

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

A relevant, differentiated positioning lies at the crossroads of three questions:

  1. What are the agency’s most outstanding services and capabilities? What do you do better than most other agencies?
  2. Who does the agency know well in terms of categories or audiences? What specialized areas of knowledge do you have in particular businesses or industries?
  3. How can your agency be distinguished by the way it thinks? What are the agency’s unique philosophies, methods or approaches?


One of the most obvious (but also most effective) ways to focus a marketing communications organization is based on “What” – expertise in a particular discipline. Direct marketing has long been a specialty, as has sales promotion, recruitment advertising, public relations and design. Since 1990, interactive agencies have appeared on the scene. And most recently, we have seen the rise of brand consultancies.

“Relationship marketing” (a more comprehensive approach to traditional direct marketing) is an example of a focus based on “What” as is “digital marketing” (a more interesting way to describe interactive). Some more unusual variations are the firms that do creative only, ideas only, or channel planning only.

For the many agencies that have chosen this path of specialization, the success stories are huge.


The agencies that have built a skill set around a particular category of business have also found it easier to compete nationally than the typical agency that tries to be all things to all people. This is a positioning based on “Who” – expertise in a particular market. Agency experts can be found in business-to-business, health care, pharmaceuticals, retail, entertainment, fashion, travel, real estate, financial services, retail advertising, high technology, and even “urban marketing.”

Yet another twist on the ways agencies can focus is to develop core competencies around a particular audience. There are agencies that specialize in marketing to women, seniors, youth, Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, and outdoor enthusiasts. Some agencies have built a reputation by mostly representing brands that appeal to “the affluent.”

Focusing on an audience is a particularly powerful form of positioning, because it allows you to become an expert in understanding the attitudes, values, habits, wants, needs, motivations, and behavior of a particular class of people. This in-depth knowledge is infinitely attractive to companies who market their products to the audience you have chosen.


Sometimes agency brands can be built on “How” – the philosophies or methods your agency follows. A good example is the new breed of agency that is totally media-neutral in their approach to solving marketing problems. They are just as likely to recommend a publicity stunt or online marketing idea as mass media advertising.

Some agencies are distinguished by a very strong (and sometimes controversial) point of view; from the way they service their clients (no account executives) to the way they are paid by their clients (value pricing in place of fees or commissions). In fact, the area of compensation is one of the most visible ways some agencies are breaking from the pack, choosing approaches such as owning their intellectual property, charging for ideas instead of execution, or earning a success fee.


A successful agency positioning answers all three questions: What, Who, and How. The positioning can be stated as “We provide this service or value (What) for this kind of market (Who) using this kind of approach (How).”

One agency examined their core competencies and discovered that their “What” is really retail. But they found a much more interesting way of describing it: “We’re experts at driving traffic to a physical location where consumers can make a purchase.” This kind of positioning doesn’t restrict the agency to any given discipline, category, or audience; but it does differentiate them from the thousands of other agencies who claim to do everything.

Another agency found the essence of their positioning in their “Who.” At first, they couldn’t find any common threads in a list of category experience that included beverages, cosmetics, amusement parks, fashion, and food. Then it dawned on them: these are all “impulse brands.” The agency adopted a positioning based on their years of expertise in marketing brands that people crave.

Is “Creativity” A Positioning?

It seems that since agencies are in the business of creativity that a reputation for creative work should be something most agencies have in common. But they don’t. Just as some architectural firms are excellent in engineering but only average in design, a lot of agencies are terrific at client service but mediocre in creative execution. Which means the agencies that are fully devoted to outstanding creative work really do stand out. In fact, they are most often the agency names that come to mind when you think of “agency brands.”

Despite the fact that only a handful of agencies have earned recognition as creative leaders, virtually every agency claims creative leadership. This is one of the main reasons agencies tend to look and sound alike to prospective clients, and why the promise of “killer creative” has lost its meaning. (To add to the irony, the agencies that really are creative leaders rarely claim to be.) Nordstrom, the department store with far and away the best service, never brags about service.

So is creativity a point of difference? Yes, but a dangerous one. Only a few agencies can rightfully claim it, and most of those who can, don’t.

Finding a brilliant positioning is one of the most important and rewarding experiences an agency executive can have. You’ve spent your entire career working on other people’s brands. Now here’s a chance to work on your one of your very own.