How To Position An Advertising Agency – Part II

Welcome to Part II of How To Position An Advertising Agency. Here is Part I. Its a good place to start.

Positioning An Advertising / Digital / Design Agency Isn’t Easy…

I know, I’ve positioned and re-positioned my own agency and do this for my ad agency clients. Here’s what you are up against.

Most advertising and digital agencies do essentially the same things for a living. Once you’ve decided on advertising or digital or integrated or mobile you are up against many other advertising, digital, integrated and mobile agencies.

Most agencies fear not being able to offer all things to all clients.

Differentiation itself may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. “The general challenge for any brand in any market is that what is differentiating is often not motivating and what is motivating is not necessarily differentiating.” This from Michael Moszynski, CEO of London Advertising (more on London later.)

Clients have a very short attention span. They might not spend the time required to read your carefully crafted copy. In this case, being concise would help.

The Power Of A Powerful Advertising Agency Position

An advertising agency’s brand positioning is just a starting point. It must be mission-driven, must permeate the agency’s messaging and must be internalized.

I had the privilege of working at Saatchi & Saatchi London in the 1990’s. The agency position was expressed in the phrase and call to action…

Nothing is impossible.

There was never an insurmountable client objective; competitive barrier; brand strategy; creative execution that couldn’t rock a category or an agency meeting where we said, “no, we can’t do that.” “Nothing is impossible” was based on attitude. Saatchi’s killer attitude drove the agency and helped us want to be great. I’ll come back to attitude in a minute.

Positioning Options (Well, Some)

Lets face it, for most agencies there are really only a handful of positioning options. I am being direct here. In many cases, how you express your positioning will be as important as what it is. Here are four primary positioning zones and best of examples of the positioning in action.

1. We Are Creative

The idea of creativity is at the core of most agency positions. When I talk to agencies and ask them to describe their agency positioning, most say that they are “creative.” After all, creativity is what most clients expect from their advertising agency and no matter what you eventually call yourself, you must always include being creative. It is the price of admission. It is, however, not very distinctive and hard to own.

It is also, what most clients want. Here is a chart from The 2013 RSW/AgencySearch Agency-Marketer Business Report on what clients say they want from their agencies. Note: The lower the rating the higher the relative level of importance when evaluating Agencies.


There is nothing inherently unappealing about a “Creative” positioning. In fact, (obvious point coming) creativity is one of the key advertising agency products that can quickly deliver fame. However, because thousands of agencies use creativity as their positioning and judging creativity is rather subjective; “we are creative” is a difficult concept to own. To solve this issue, many agencies use creative awards as “proof” and “objective” support for the positioning.

I suggest that if an agency wants to own this positioning that it goes past the subjective beauty contest of what creative means to being more strategic and objective in discussing the benefits of being creative. Frankly, I haven’t seen many agencies head into this thought-leadership territory. I think that it has potential to ignite conversations.

That said, a few agencies actually thrive on being creative and have found ways to “prove” it. In most cases it is because the agencies have the type of clients that 1) want it; 2) have the cash to produce and run with it and 3) are looking for something well out of the box. There aren’t many clients that fit this bill. Nike, Google and Samsung come to mind.

Here are some of my favorite creative agencies.

Mutt Industries – Portland

Slogan: “Beauty. Truth. Simplicity.“

Clients: Coca-Cola, The Gap, Gerber Legendary Blades, LA Dodgers, Mello Yello, Sambazon and The Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

About: “Our name is Mutt and we work under a bridge in Portland, OR. We are a family of passionate problem-solvers who paint and write, debate and incite. Our gift is telling stories: about baseball, gelato, dead guys, whatever. Oh, and we have a motto: Beauty. Truth. Simplicity. Hopefully after looking at our work this will make sense.”

What Works: In your face creative vibes. Like totally. Mutt is cool-Portland-based, run by an ex-Wieden ECD plus it has street-cred ala serious Nike work.

72andSunny – Santa Monica

Slogan:  “72andSunny is about making brands matter in culture.”

Clients: Activision, Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s, ESPN, Google, K-Swiss, Samsung, Sonos and Target

About: “72andSunny is a modern full-service design and advertising company with offices in Los Angeles and Amsterdam. Founded in 2004, the company was born out of a combination of frustration and excitement. Frustration that our industry was slow to adapt to the changing technology landscape, and excitement for all the new ways we can connect with people and a desire to explore that power.”

What works: 72andSunny can use what ever “full-service” copy it wants — and, “72andSunny is about making brands matter in culture.” is a superior slogan. However, if you take a look at their website, they are leading full-bore with their work. They are helped by recognition from press like ADWEEK’s The 5 Best Ads of Super Bowl XLVII – Samsung ‘The Next Big Thing’ and being Ad Age’s Agency of the year. Nothing like third-party endorsement.

The Monkeys – Sydney

Slogan: From Twitter… “The Monkeys create entertaining and innovative ideas.” 

Clients: Boost Mobile, Google, Intel, Lee, Penfolds, Sydney Opera House, U Bank.

About: “The Monkeys create provocative ideas that live within advertising, entertainment and technology.

We’ve been called an ad agency, a collective, a branded content company, the business model of the future and a bunch of bloody dreamers.

Truth is, we’re a bit of each.”

What Works: As is usually the case with “creative” shops that actually live the dream, The Monkeys have… the right clients, the right awards (as proof), a provocative culture, trully “entertaining and innovative ideas” like The Big Drink and a brand name that begs a look.

2. Strategic Chops

As client agency selection research shows, clients seek agencies that can deliver business-building strategic insights in addition to having raw creative talent. Agencies that help clients break through the complexity of today’s consumer, media and ever changing technology space will get the client ear.

You will notice that I have an English bias. As smart as American, Australian, New Zealand and Argentinian agencies can be, England remains the birthplace of Account Planning and a refined strategic approach.

London Advertising – London

Slogan: “One brilliant idea for every client.”

Clients: Boots #7, FOX International, Ketel One, Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, U.S. Tourism and Wedgwood.

About: “LONDON is an international advertising agency built for today.

We create One Brilliant Idea that can work in any media,
anywhere in the world.

This has been proven to deliver the highest possible return
on investment.”

What Works: What large, progressive client wouldn’t want “one brilliant idea that can work in any media, anywhere in the world?” London also does a masterful job of using their case studies to support their strategic positioning. To achieve this, they invented the clarifying idea of “Straight Line Thinking” to frame their strategic approach.

Naked Communications – Global

Slogan: “Radical Objectivity.”

Clients: Absolut, Coca-Cola, Heineken, Kraft, Lego, Mars Pet Care, Nokia and Sony PlayStation.

About: “There are two types of brands in the world. 

Those that define themselves by what they make, and those that define themselves by a set of values, which allow them to stretch, and remain unpredictable as to what they’ll do next. 

We are the latter, and we stand for ‘Radical Objectivity’. 

A promise that can take us anywhere. 

We emphatically reject the conventions of the marketing landscape, in which each agency pushes the merits of the particular discipline they offer. 

We’re in the business of whatever is the right solution for our clients. 

Are we PR? Are we Advertising? 
Are we Media? Are we Digital? 

What Works: Naked introduced the concept of communication planning in 2006 as a separate service that lives between media and creative agencies. Naked is a channel-planning agency that can honestly claim to be media neutral.

BBH London – London & Beyond

BBH is large and is historically positioned as being uber creative. However, I am including them here because they make it very clear that their creativity is based on a focus on strategy via BBH Labs.

Slogan: “Marketing skunkworks | Innovation & new models for marketing & for creative businesses.” 

Clients: Axe, British Airways, Dove, Google, Johnnie Walker, Mentos and Vasline.

About: “BBH Labs is BBH’s global R&D unit. We’re tasked with pioneering new outputs and approaches: exploring emerging platforms and behaviours on behalf of brands, and developing new agency models along the way. Our overall ambition is to save the world, find ways in which marketing innovation can be a powerful force for good (more effective, more engaging, more sustainable, more exciting).”

What Works: BBH has decided to focus on being smart and tuned in. They promise the benefits from a dedication to R&D that delivers powerful work. This is a rare positioning that can and is owned.

3. Got Attitude

Some agencies simply have it. And, some clients want it.

M&C Saatchi – Global

Slogan: Maurice and Charles have not lost their attitude. Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising had “Nothing is impossible” and M&C Saatchi has “Brutal Simplicity.”

Clients: BMW, Honda, Pernod Ricard, PETCO, Qantas, Reebok, Reckitt Benckiser, Sony and Virgin Holidays

About: “It’s easier to complicate than simplify. Simple ideas enter the brain quicker and stay there longer.  Brutal simplicity of thought is therefore a painful necessity.”

What works: Well, first of all you get Saatchi juice. Then you have to ask, what large, progressive client wouldn’t want Brutal Simplicity in today’s complex and over stimulated media environment?

TBWA\London – London & Beyond

Slogan: “The disruption agency”

Top clients: Adidas, Aquafresh, Apple, Four Seasons Hotels, GSK, John Smiths and Nissan.

They say: ” We are a creative company. We use our creativity to disrupt the marketplace so our clients grow. We think that if everyone is doing the same thing, it is a really good idea to do something different.”

What Works: Disruption works as both an emotional and service benefit. Disruption brings in an Internet start-up vibe into the occasionally “me-too” world of advertising.

Wexley School For Girls – Seattle

Slogan: “Wexley is a fan factory.”

Clients: Ford, Microsoft, Oberto, Rainier beer, Seattle Sounders, Taco Del Mar, T-Mobile and Wilson Tennis.

About: “Wexley is a fan factory. We’re an advertising agency that cultivate and ignite consumer’s love for brands. Engaged consumers become fans who deliver value – on line and in the real world. We make consumers’ hearts race. Their hands reach for their wallets. We make it rain dead presidents.“

What Works: First of all, the name. Second, if there is in fact a box, these guys have never been near it. Third, the work. These combine to attract clients that are looking for Wexley’s brand of curated insanity. Oh, and their office.

4. Experts & Specialists

Experts and specialists have decided to own a niche. The advantage of this “expert” positioning is that a smaller agency can really concentrate on one key marketing area to take the limitations of geography out of the equation to attract national clients. The move from a “full-service” positioning can be a tough one for smaller agencies, as they have always felt the call to be everything to everyone.

However, if you want to get known beyond your local borders, specialization is the way to make that happen. Here is some support for this point from Ad Age:

“At Ad Age’s Small Agency Conference in Portland, Ore., Debra Giampoli, the agency scout for Mondelez, shared tips on how to get her attention. Here are some of her dos and don’ts:

Don’t be a general agency with a mediocre offering. Ms. Giampoli said it’s far better to be a shop with a smaller, more specialized offering than a jack-of-all-trades without anything compelling.”

Experts come in all sizes and shapes. There are agencies that focus on a single demographic. Experiential agencies. Retail / shopper specialists. Direct marketers. Strategic branding agencies. Product category specialists. Video experts. Mobile expert. And, so on. Some clients want a one-stop-shop and some want expertise.

Saturday Group – London

Slogan: “Saturday Group is the world’s leading fashion marketing group.”

Clients: Bally, Calvin Klein, H&M, Helmut Lang, Jaeger, John Lobb, SOHO House, Vogue China

About: “Saturday is a creative agency offering advertising, branding, digital and editorial consultancy for the fashion, luxury and media industries. Saturday was founded with a simple belief; that aspirational design brings commercial advantage.”

What Works: Focus works. Saturday’s group of branded marketing services (Saturday, Wednesday, RMO, Tomorrow, Independent Talent Brands and the magazine Industry) deliver the expertise the fashion and luxury industry needs – or, as importantly, thinks it needs.

SOMO – Global

Slogan: “Making sense of mobile.”

Clients: Audi, BP, Conde Naste, Disney, Dominos Pizza, Groupon, News International, and Top Gear

About: “Mobile is the fastest growing medium the world has ever seen.

With this growth comes huge disruption… and massive opportunity. 

Somo exists to make sense of mobile. We solve business problems – increasing sales, developing customer engagement, and enhancing productivity – through brilliant mobile strategy, innovation, and technology.” 

What Works: eMarketer reports that mobile will account for more that $7.7 billion in marketing spend in 2013. Nuf said.


Slogan: “JESS3 is a creative agency that specializes in data visualization.”

Top clients: AT&T, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, National Geographic, NASA, Nike, Samsung and The Washington Post.

About:  “At JESS3 we take complex topics and large data sets and make them accessible through beautiful visuals.

We are a creative interactive agency that specializes in the art of data visualization, adding context and meaning to the exponentially growing world of data around us.”

What works: JESS3 specialized in the growing segment of data visualization (think infographics) and got in very early. Early is good. Given the pace of change in the world of advertising, there are opportunities to own verticals like data visualization popping up every month.

5. People Power

Actually, name power. Advertising agencies are in the people business and have been building agency positions on founder expertise, personality and the security that comes from recognizable names since, well, since forever. Names like…

Wells, Ogilvy, Bernbach, Della Femina, Thompson, Saatchi, Riney, Chiat, Wieden, Burnett, Wunderman, Hegarty, McKinney, Richards, Mullen, Fallon.

The people factor makes for distinctive personal branding where clients buy people and, of course their ideas. People give agencies personality and pitches can be won or lost on personal chemistry alone. We’ve all been there.

The right name tied to big talent and often even bigger personality works to get the clients interested in the first place and positions the agency. We know that Crispin Porter + Bogusky got the call because clients wanted a piece of Alex. Ditto, Droga, Graf, Thaler, Matejczyk or Hofherr, Richards, Bowen, Goodby or Silverstein and Wong.

While cool, modern names like Milk, meat and potatoes, Moosylvania, Moxie, Mother, The Monkeys and, yes, Mutt will continue to be birthed, agencies with founder names – backed by big talent – still provide a defining positioning.


You have a brand positioning whether you like it or not.

Why not manage it and use it to win new accounts?

Unless you just won every creative award in Cannes, Tokyo or Milan, you might want to find something other to say than “We are creative.” Or, integrated, full-service, media agnostic, nimble, effective, agnostic or hybrid for that matter.

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Develop agency expertise that you can own. Or, have it at least be a marketable agency ingredient that you could use to open doors.
  2. Become known as a super-smart, strategic thought-leader. Clients are looking for strategic guidance.
  3. Own a kick-ass attitude.
  4. Hire an award-winning ECD.
  5. Get a famous name on the door.
  6. Hire a catalyst to help get your new positioning and new business quest moving really fast.

Don’t Forget Parts I and III

Here is Part IPart III.

Now that you know how to position an advertising agency…

Let’s talk about growing your business. You are in a hurry, right?

Contact me now and take me up on my impossible to refuse 15-minute Vito Corleone offer. 

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