Different is a better bet than better
by Mark Schnurman
President - Filament Inc.
If the goal is to differentiate ourselves from our agency competition, then why do agencies spend so much time just telling their clients and prospects how much better they are than the competition? Better is not the same as different. The difficulty with focusing on what you do better than the competition is that the agency can rarely back up its claims. As a result, it just sounds like sales puffery that clients politely listen to and completely ignore.
Many agencies sell themselves as “full-service” and/or “integrated.” However, what they are basically saying is that we all do the same thing. The result of all of our effort is that we have created non-differentiated agencies and commoditized our product offering. When clients have a difficult time distinguishing one agency from another, there’s just one thing they use as a differentiator: price. This is not the situation any agency wants to be in, but it is where many agencies find themselves right now.
The key to a point of differentiation is that it is provable. Saying you’re better is mostly just stating an opinion. Differentiation always has a point of proof.
“Our creative is better” is an opinion. Your agency’s creative may in fact be better, but unless you have a shelf full of awards, you have no proof. And recognize that every agency has won a creative award or two, so unless you have a shelf full of awards, your claim is just your opinion and will not resonate with your prospects.
“Our agency has better experience than any agency in the business when it comes to financial service” is an opinion. Nearly every agency has financial service experience. “Our agency won Financial Services Agency of the Year three years in a row from Financial Service Monthly Magazine” is a fact (albeit a made up fact).
The reason that agencies say “we are better…” is that simply claiming to be better is easier, and as a result more agencies go down that path. It is easier to simply claim to be better than to go through the difficult work of actually making the agency different in some way. The question for agencies is, what is it that you can own in the marketplace? Odds are it is not about what you do better. These types of claims have difficulty gaining traction. It is more likely a controversial point of view or a method for executing some part of the advertising process that will help to put some distance between you and the competition.
One most popular differentiating claim is that an agency’s people make them different. While it is wonderful for morale, it probably is not true. If you are based in the New York area, those people that you claim make you so different probably worked for your competitor just one or two years ago. You could claim that your culture makes you different, but you would need to point out the specifics of the culture before the claim had much of a chance of sticking.
As if this were not difficult enough, the next danger is giving something a name and claiming it is different only to have the client say, “I have seen that before.” An agency’s branding process typically falls into this category. Having seen hundreds of agency new business pitches, from consumer, digital, media and pharma agencies, I know that if your agency has a process that includes concentric circles, a pyramid, or some kind of structure with columns supporting a roof … it is not unique or differentiating. Just because you have a pithy name for the process does not mean that the underlying process is different. It just means that the name is different.
So where does that leave an agency? There are still plenty of ways to carve out your own niche in the marketplace. One way is do primary research and uncover a hidden insight about the market. This is probably the oldest PR trick in the book. In the absence of news, make your own news. You can than build upon this research to become the expert on the topic.
Another strategy would be to develop a unique point of view about the role of the agency, the role of promotion, or the direction of the industry. Anything that gives you a platform to discuss your topic as an industry leader and not just another agency in a sea of similar agencies could work.
A sure fire way to differentiate your agency in a pitch is to not focus on the agency’s brand at all. Focus on the work that your agency will do for the prospect’s brand. Your approach to their marketing challenges will almost certainly be different from your competitor’s approach.
While none of the solutions to the conundrum are quick or easy, the value of being different is immeasurable. It may seem silly to preach the value of differentiation to an agency, but sometimes we all need to listen to our own advice.