If you're getting tired of me and other advocates of specialization telling you to narrow your focus when you’ve demonstrated over many years that you’ve been able to get away (or even thrive) with a broad value proposition, then this article is for you.
Similarly, if your business development efforts have long suffered because you could never bring yourself to make the sacrifice that proper positioning demands, then this is your get-out-of-jail-free card, because there is another way. There’s always another way. I’ll give you ten of them, listed in order of effectiveness.
Before we explore the alternatives, let’s recap why positioning is so often the foundation of successful, systematic new business development.
The goal of positioning is to reduce the number of alternatives the client has to hiring your firm, thus affording you three benefits that you should be able to achieve simultaneously. The first benefit is a sales advantage, meaning you increase your win rate. The second is a price premium, meaning you win while charging more, and not because you charged less. And the third simultaneous advantage is a greater ability to impact the buying cycle, allowing you to reduce your cost of sale and better frame the engagement moving forward. All three highly desirable benefits we might together describe as leverage. Let’s explore how you might achieve such leverage while still remaining a broad generalist.
1. Add a Strong Perspective
Most attempts to position a firm are framed by a combination of what the firm does (its discipline) and whom it serves (its market). There is a fluid relationship between these two variables–when one is narrow the other can be broad.
But there’s a third element to positioning that is just as powerful and when properly developed can make up for breadth in both discipline and market. It is perspective–your overarching viewpoint on how this (discipline for market) should be done. Perspective is what you believe. It is the lens that you look through when you look at the client’s problem or opportunity. It’s the one thing that separates you from others in your space.
Perspective is invaluable because it is the bridge linking your positioning (discipline for market) to your content marketing and then again to your intellectual property such as strategy models and diagnostics. Your perspective needs to come shining through in your thought leadership and speak to and even rattle some in your market. The more competitive your space or the broader your claim, the more provocative and polarizing your perspective needs to be. From your thought leadership it then needs to inform how you do what you do. If you’re not writing from your perspective and building IP from it then it doesn’t translate into something real that the client can hang onto. It doesn’t truly make you different.
Perspective is the only basis on which the world’s largest ad agencies can seek to differentiate themselves, and you see a few of them trying, but they are all feeble attempts. It’s the $100m opportunity that no global firm has ever cracked.
Cult is a decent example of an independent ad agency that differentiates on perspective. They believe the best brands are like cults, so they apply lessons from the occult in marketing. They host a hugely successful cult-like conference called The Gathering and have authored a book called The Fix. Like Win Without Pitching, Cult's perspective is right there in their name.
2. Define and Market Different Practice Areas
If your firm is so big and broad that you cannot possibly see a niche that wouldn’t dramatically shrink your firm then think about defining clear practice areas, effectively housing different specialists under one roof.
Some firms do this well but many attempts at it are half-baked. Your practice areas should be headed up by individuals that have credibility in their space and the strategy and account people shouldn't cross over into different practice areas (creative can remain centralized). Most importantly, practice areas should conduct their own marketing, including content marketing. In this manner you will build what many large generalists claim but few actually have: a firm of different specialties.
You can keep the mother ship as the place where all non-specialty clients are handled. After awhile you’ll see a trend toward higher win rates, margins and employee satisfaction in the speciality areas. Put all your marketing efforts there and let the mothership take what comes to it.
A firm with many practice areas can have one unifying perspective or different perspectives for each practice area.
3. Launch a New Entity
If you don’t have any obvious specializations within the firm that would merit distinct practice areas, consider launching a new specialized entity with a separate name, website and business cards.
Such skunkworks projects are great ways for large firms to test narrow positioning hypotheses without pivoting the entire firm. The highly specialized Currency Marketing and Hoyne Property started this way, as did many other firms. Success will present an enviable problem: do you really want to run two firms or should you sell one? If you sell it will almost certainly be the larger, less profitable one. If you can find a buyer.
4. Cop an Attitude
Similar to a perspective, an attitude is boldness that says we’re different. Ask any client, procurement specialist or search consultant and they’ll all tell you that all large firms sound the same. Sometimes it’s better to be different than it is to be better, and having an attitude that truly actually really stands out is different.
Velocity Partners in London has a combination of perspective (most content in content marketing is crap) and attitude (we like to call crap crap) built on top of a specialization (B2B) that has the world’s largest clients seeking them out. They’re marketing is simple: they simply write from a perspective and with an attitude on their area of focus. It's a positioning trifecta.
5. Sell on How You Do What You Do
Your methodology is not a primary differentiator but it can give you some leverage in the buying cycle. The truth is that if you really truly have a methodology that is meaningfully different then you probably also have a perspective. They’re usually connected. If that’s the case you write from your perspective and use the how that falls out of it to close, revealing it only in meetings with late stage prospects at a time when it makes sense to finally open the kimono and show how your bullet-proof process will guarantee results. Attitude also helps. A methodology on it’s own isn’t very good bait but it can be a powerful closer.
6. Build Mystique
Alt Design in Aukland is built on the idea that the most powerful concept in marketing is a rumour. Sometimes I visit their website in the middle of the night, pour a glass of wine and just stare at it, thinking “I wish I had the guts to do that.”
Ad legends like Stan Freberg and others have also cultivated such mystery over the years. The stories of how companies sought them out, begged to be clients and paid them exorbitant amounts of money became the legends (possibly even myths) that served as the only marketing these people ever did. It’s brilliant and oh-so-bold. Attitude required.
7. Sell (Real) Integration
I once worked for a publicly traded ad agency that had cobbled together a bunch of firms of different disciplines and branded the method by which they were integrated. In competing for a large retail account I found myself giving the integration pitch to the consultant leading the search. He listened politely to my packaged language and then very casually asked, “So, does this actually work?” I answered honestly: “No, but it sounds great.” We had a good laugh.
He knew it, I knew it, everyone knows it: Integrated Marketing Communications or IMC as it was known for a brief period near the beginning of the century was just the new language for undifferentiated generalist. But it doesn’t have to be. It is possible, in theory, to take different specialist disciplines and through the magic of perspective and IP weave them together into something greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve just never seen an ad agency or design firm do it in any meaningful way.
The best example I can offer is Jared Diamond, the science writer, author of Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse. He draws on three or four deep wells of highly specialized knowledge in areas such as physiology, ornithology and linguistics to come up with some impressive answers to some of earth’s biggest questions. By comparison, others attempting the same thing come off as high school science teachers who know a little about a lot.
8. Sell Deeper into Existing Clients
Let’s face it, some firms succeed because they get so integrated with their clients that much of the institutionalized memory of the client company actually resides in the agency, making it almost impossible to fire them. This happens on complex advertising AOR accounts that require knowledge of how the company operates. There also has to be higher turnover on the client side than the agency.
I once worked for a specialist division of a global ad agency and one day when a senior member of the client team was cursing me about how much he hated us and would love to fire us and hire another firm (we were never his choice when we won the account and he always resented us) I told him there was no point. “That other firm would just hire most of us anyway.” He thought about it and in a moment, years of fighting us ended. Weeks later I even heard him repeat my words to another member of his team. “There’s no point in getting rid of [the firm]. Any new firm would just hire the same people.” He still challenged us but he gave up trying to get us fired.
We were deeply integrated into the client. My office was in the client’s office. I would get 10-day sales reports and other valuable client information from my agency head office before my regional clients (in the same building!) would get it. That firm still has that same client, almost 20 years later.
9. Mine for Referrals
Poor positioning means poor lead generation because there’s really no body of meaningful content you can create and you don’t really know who to call and what to say. But you can get around that by doing good work and formalizing a method for asking for referrals. The trick, as my friend Cal Harrison at Beyond Referrals likes to say, is to do it without sounding like a sales predator. Most people are poor at this, but the people who are good at it are really good at it.
10. Be Awesome
Some firms continue to thrive with a broad positioning in spite of the trend to the contrary simply because they do amazing work and their clients feel lucky to have them. The trouble with this alternative to positioning is we all strive to do this already. It’s table stakes really, but a very small number of firms do it so well that they thrive with a broad positioning against all expectation. It's not so much a strategy that you should pursue in place of positioning as something you might be able to get away with, but probably won't.
Use With Care
Some of these cheats are different ways to gain leverage in the buying cycle and some are simply ways to take pressure off the need to sell. You might find that many of these approaches are stronger when bundled together.
The ultimate measure of success is your ability to gain leverage in the sales cycle as described at the top of the article. If you’re able to do that without narrowing your focus then maybe your firm is one of the exceptions to the positioning rule. If none of these work for you then it might be time to start thinking about this positioning thing one more time.