When we’re working with owners of independent creative firms on the positioning of their firms, we separate the exercise of choosing a focus, from the exercise of articulating a claim. The first is an act of sacrifice, which most people in the creative professions struggle with (even more so than the average business owner, I believe), and the second is an act of communication, something creative professionals revel and delight in.
The problem, I think you will agree, is obvious.
As coaches, our job is to politely point out when we see someone trying to gloss over a lack of courage in their positioning with slick language. One way we do this is to have a discussion about standards.
When it comes to positioning a creative firm, the principal might put forward a positioning claim of energizing tired brands, or working with challenger brands, or building cult brands. All these are examples of broad, quasi-nebulous claims that are possible to stake out, in theory anyway, but are almost never lived up to. The proof, and the problem, is in the application of standards, or lack thereof.
The standards I’m talking about when it comes to positioning are the standards of client qualification. For whom does it make sense for you to work and for whom does it not make sense for not to work?
Positioning is a forward-looking exercise about targeting future business in an area where you have, or are building, deep expertise. Proper positioning however, will attract opportunity from outside of your target market. From time to time it may make sense to take those opportunities, provided they meet four criteria:
- You have the capability – you can do the work
- You have the capacity – you wouldn’t be displacing better-fit clients (you would essentially be selling excess capacity)
- You can do it profitably
- You don’t have to compete for it
It’s not necessarily a bad thing to take work outside of your area of focus if it meets these criteria. (I’ve written about this more fully in Expanding Your Expertise and On Project Work.) Most firms are pretty good about adhering to the first three criteria but many fail at the fourth, where the proof of your positioning is really measured: by your enforced standards around the work that you will and will not compete for.
Examples of False Claims Laid Bare
A firm that claims to focus on challenger brands competing for work with Coca Cola. An experiential design firm competing on a branding assignment. An internal comms firm pitching for an ad campaign. These are all examples of a lack of standards which expose the positioning as just an exercise in language, nothing but a spun phrase.
Narrowing your focus is supposed to force you deeper into your chosen area of expertise. The goal of positioning is not to go narrow, it’s to go deep. Narrow is simply the path to depth.
Every competitive opportunity that is brought to the table (or created in the CRM application) should be vetted against the firm’s positioning, with the question posed: “Would winning this business increase our perception as experts in our declared field or decrease it?”
Again, the crime is not in doing this work, it’s in competing for it. By competing for work outside of your focus you tell your people and your market that yours is not really an expert firm at all, it’s one more generalist spinning another story of expertise.
An enforced policy or standard on the clients and engagements for which you will and will not compete is the realest application of your business strategy, which, in the creative professions, we call positioning. A firm that does not enforce this standard has no strategy, is not well positioned, and everybody knows it.