By Tim Williams, Ignition Consulting Group


Years ago when a Federal court in the U.S. was hearing a case about what qualifies as pornography, the judge famously remarked, “I can’t really define it, but I know it when I see it.”

In my experience, a lot of advertising industry pundits preach the value of agency positioning and differentiation, but not many of them can really define it.  Positioning isn’t just about being different.  Featuring a laughing hyena on your home page is different, but it hardly qualifies as a positioning.

Readers of Propulsion have seen many prior posts on what agency positioning is; I thought it might be interesting (if not entertaining) to look at what agency positioning is not.  In broad terms, an agency positioning is not:

1.  A tag line
(Although an effective agency positioning can often be expressed in a tag line.)
2.  A unique name or logo
(Although a new agency positioning can sometimes inspire a new name or logo.)
3.  A proprietary process
(Although an agency positioning strategy can often benefit from a unique internal process.)
4.  A fascinating history
(Although defining and understanding your agency’s backstory is an essential step in developing an effective positioning strategy.)
5.  A deep understanding of consumer behavior
(Although if your expertise is in a particular kind of consumer, this can be the basis of an agency positioning strategy.)
6.  A track record of award-winning work
(Although a positioning strategy can always benefit from the positive publicity that comes from awards.)
7.  A reputation as a great place to work
(Although well-positioned agencies usually are great places to work.)
8.  An unconventional website
(Although a strong positioning will give you much more interesting things to say on your website.)
9.  An active social media presence
(Although well-positioned firms have a very focused, effective social media strategy.)
10.  An aggressive outbound marketing program
(Actually, this is often a sign that the agency lacks a clear positioning; otherwise it would be pursuing much more of an inbound approach.  A strong positioning allows you to move away from the outdated, ineffective “push” techniques of the past to a much more effective “pull” approach.)

In addition, your firm is not differentiated by:

  • Your media-agnostic, channel-neutral approach
  • Your devotion to big ideas
  • Your ability to tell compelling brand stories
  • Your integrated approach
  • Your ability to engage consumers
  • Your ability to help brands stand out
  • Your superior service and commitment to clients
  • Your nimbleness and flexibility
  • Your promise to assign the best, most senior people
  • Your fresh thinking and unconventional approach to problem solving
  • Your ability to make the complex simple
  • Your reputation and years in business
  • Your ability to deliver all major services under one roof
  • Your diversity of clients
  • Your commitment to deliver not just advertising ideas, but business-building ideas
  • Your ability to produce results

While you may argue these claims are important to many clients, they are not unique.  To be effective, the elements of your positioning strategy must rate high in both relevance and uniqueness.

And of course there are the ever-recurring standards in the agency claims hall of fame:

  • We’re full-service!
  • We’re integrated!
  • We’re strategic!
  • We’re creative!
  • We’re team oriented!
  • We have a wide range of experience!

And my all-time favorite:

  • We’re fun! (As though other agencies aren’t.)

Interestingly, a majority of agencies I’ve met over the years also believe:

  • That they were the first agency in their market to have a website.
  • That they are one of very few agencies to be named as a “best place to work.”
  • That their focus on “challenger brands” makes them unique.
  • That while other agencies claim to be integrated, “We truly are integrated.”
  • That while other agencies talk about client service, “We really do have deeper relationships with our clients than our competitors.”
  • That while other agencies think they are responsive, “We are one of the few agencies that will do whatever it takes to get the work done.”

As you can probably detect, I could add quite a bit more to this list.  The theme here is that most agencies are often as guilty of inside-out thinking as their clients.  They overrate their own uniqueness and fail to apply enough critical thinking to their own business strategy.  Ironically, of course, this is one of the main criticisms agencies have of their clients.

All of which reminds me of a Biblical quote that’s particularly appropriate for leaders and managers of advertising agencies: “Physician, heal thyself.”