Positioning the firm is the most fundamental act of leadership, and yet in many firms it remains largely undone, even after much effort and investment. I think I finally understand why, and it turns out I may have been no small part of the problem.
Creative firms are businesses, sharing a host of challenges common to all businesses. There are some challenges however that they seem to struggle with more than the average business, and positioning the firm is the prime example. While an increasing number of firms are getting their positioning right, the norm is that most agency principals still see their positioning as something they need to fix, even after working on it for a long time.
David C. Baker and I ran the three-day New Business Summit every year for ten straight years. I was always impressed that people would return, sometimes for consecutive years. I assumed that they laid the positioning foundation in their first year (we spent all of day one on positioning) and then came back again to focus more on the sales-based curriculum that built on a solid positioning. One year however, an agency principal who was attending for the third straight year said to me, “I’m finally getting my head around this positioning thing.”
Three years, nine days out of the office and who knows what else in the way of reading, thinking, working with outside consultants and perhaps attending other conferences and seminars, and the fundamental business strategy of this small business was still undeclared and uncertain. I can’t say this is the norm, but what I’ve seen over the years is the firm’s positioning (the business’ strategy) is usually something the principal thinks is “not there yet.” This is the most fundamental act of leadership and yet in the creative professions it remains chronically undone.
The Million Dollar Question: Why?
I’ve written many times about why positioning is more difficult for the creative mind (short answer: creative people are drawn to variety and therefore resist focus and the repetition it implies) but what I want to explore here is not the people who avoid the challenge of positioning their firms, but those who embrace the challenge, take on the hard work and difficult decisions and still do not get it done. They try, they really do, but they remain broad generalists trying to pull off way too much without much credibility, all while the world around them specializes and their more narrowly-focused competitors hoover up the most lucrative opportunities.
The answer to why, I believe, is two-fold.
Outside Help is Often Required
First, I’ve observed that firms that don’t nail their positioning quickly are not likely to at all without outside help. There are a number of possible reasons for this, including an inability to get team members onside, uncertainty of the most appropriate area of focus or just giving up after the results don’t come as quickly as expected.
Yes, you might be in the business of positioning your clients’ brands but there’s a reason surgeons don’t operate on themselves, lawyers don’t defend themselves and stylists don’t cut their own hair. Some things require an outside perspective.
The Decisions, And Struggle, Cannot Be Delegated
The second part of our answer might seem to contradict the first part: while an outside perspective is invaluable, the work has to be yours or you will not be fully invested in the decision.
We are a sales training company and our training program begins with an exploration of the firm’s positioning. Back when I was a sales consultant I likewise always began with positioning. “Let’s fix what it is you’re selling before we focus on making you a better salesperson,” was, and remains, my philosophy. Back then however I saw positioning as a problem for which I would quickly deliver a solution to my client. “Position the firm like this. Now let’s go.”
We would get it done quickly and move on to how to sell this new value proposition. It’s only clear to me now how rarely that new value proposition stuck. A client from my consulting days explained recently. “When you came in to work with us, we started with positioning, made some quick progress, but then you moved on and we started regressing almost immediately.”
That client is now a Win Without Pitching coach who was marvelling at how well her clients nail and stick to their positioning in our training program, compared to her team’s failure (ultimately my failure) to do so when working with me in a different form. It’s clear that she is a better coach than I am but beyond that it’s the structure that’s different, which leads me to conclude that while positioning is difficult to do on your own without outside assistance, it is also not a problem that can be solved by an outsider.
“While positioning your firm is difficult to do without outside help, it cannot be done for you.”
Required: Struggling Down a Well-Lit Path
My coaches are better at using our curriculum to help their clients’ position their firms because they see the positioning challenge as their clients’ and not theirs. I think my pride in wanting to be the person with the answers has long gotten in the way of my clients’ success. I see now that you, the principal of the firm, need to struggle, and own the struggle. By struggle I don’t mean grope blindly in the dark. It’s our job to show you the path, so you’re never doubting the steps or direction, and to offer the occasional hand as you walk it, but I now know that if you don’t walk it yourself and struggle while doing so there will be no meaning in the destination at the end.
I think this contradiction of the difficulty of doing it alone and the emptiness of having someone else do it for you is at the heart of why so many principals struggle at positioning their firms, even after so much effort and investment. They exhaust themselves on the problem and then bring in someone else, who, with the benefit of an unemotional, outside perspective, says “Here, this is the answer.” Those easily won solutions however are also easy to throw away when they don’t bear fruit immediately. When you’ve followed a process you trust and you’ve laboured over the decisions, when you've laid awake at night weighing the sacrifices, exploring the options and permutations and you finally come to the decision on your own that yes, “we are going to stand for this from now on,” that you are going to put all your chips on one narrow, consolidated strategy, that is when the decision is a meaningful one, more likely to stick – when it’s yours at the end of a long struggle.
Ah, But The Doubt Still Creeps In
But even then you will have doubts, and I think maybe that’s the last piece of the puzzle here. My consulting engagements typically began with a remote audit, in which I ‘solved’ the positioning problem, followed by two intense onsite training days backed up with some remote support. In our program today we spend twelve weeks on positioning (if that seems long, you might not fully appreciate the steps required) and then we’re with you for the rest of the year as you build on this positioning, developing a lead generation plan and intellectual property specific to it. By the end of the year, you’re invested!
From Answers to Questions
There are two types of consultants, according to my Canadian Association of Management Consultants guidebook: subject matter experts and process experts. If I’m fully honest, I’ll admit that when I read those words years ago I saw myself as a subject matter expert and I felt myself to be superior to the process experts. (Far superior – I didn’t even see process knowledge as real expertise at all. Rather, I viewed it like B2C creative firms used to view B2B firms: the domain of those not good enough to do the real work.)
Having the answers, I felt, was the height of expertise. Sixteen years and hundreds of engagements later, I now see that when it comes to positioning your firm and so many other issues, for the answers to stick they have to be yours, and they have to be hard-won. The key to your success is in the struggle that I long thought I could make go away. Of course you have to have complete faith in the path as you struggle, and it’s helpful to have others to lean on as you travel it, but there is no success without the struggle. Our job is to show the way, ask some tough questions, lend some occasional support and guide you further as you translate that decision into the tools for success, building your investment in your decision to the point where you are fully committed, and success becomes inevitable.
Then your positioning work will be done.
To Learn More About The Positioning Path We Have Our Clients Take Click HERE..