How To Position An Advertising Agency – Part I

ferrariPart I: The Advertising Agency Position – What’s In It For Me?

You’ve arrived at Part I of my three-part review of the art of advertising agency positioning. My position on this series is that you have to read all three parts to get the maximum benefit for your agency


I think that Ferrari is a well-positioned brand (LOL, how’s that for an understatement!) Ferrari is known for its racing heritage, engineering, design and luxury. Everything they do supports their positioning and, importantly, sales.

At this point, you might be asking two questions.

  1. “What does Ferrari have to do with my advertising, digital or design agency?”

Well, your agency’s brand positioning needs to be as well designed and supported as Ferrari’s.

2. “Do I really need to hear yet another advertising agency business development consultant tell me that advertising agencies need to do a better job of positioning their agencies?”

Yes. Why? Because the great majority of marketing communications agencies look and sound too alike. Not sounding like the guy down the street will result in your driving a much more powerful agency

Before I get into the meat of the positioning issue, I’d like to help answer one of the most perplexing questions of our time:

 Is the term “Advertising Agency” still relevant?

Does the word “advertising” still mean anything? Is this what you should call your agency? Or, should you switch to integrated agency, full-service agency, marketing agency, brand design agency, interactive, digital, experiential, relationship, social…? Yikes.

For an answer, lets turn to big data since Google just might have the answer. According to search traffic, the answer is that “Advertising Agency” still works. Here are two charts that help us to understand the relative value of the term “Advertising.”

Untitled1As you can see, over the past ten years, the term “advertising agency” is searched on much more than digital or interactive agency. In fact, advertising agency has approximately three-times the search activity than digital agency. We can ague the point about advertising vs. digital as being the future of brand marketing, but we can’t ague with the fact that people search on the word advertising more. If you are an “advertising agency” this is a good thing. By the way, the shortened “ad agency’ beats digital as well.

Untitled2That’s the good news for advertising agencies. The bad news is that since 2004, the use of this term is decreasing at an alarming rate. For more on this trend, read Randall Rothenberg’s insightful article “The Definition of Advertising Has Never Been More Unclear” in AdWeek.

The Positioning Issue Opportunity

Now that we know what you should call yourself, how are you going to differentiate your advertising agency from the thousands of other agencies that are competing for client attention? The competition for creating differentiation is happening on a daily basis whether you are a global, regional or local agency. The competition is fierce. Brand confusion is fiercer. To imagine how a client type navigates (or doesn’t) your descriptive copy, take a look at the Schlock & Ho video comprised from “what we do” quotes from ad agency websites.

For more fuel, here’s a look at a handful of Twitter profiles for some San Francisco ad agencies. I find the character limitations of the Twitter profile enlightening.

@venablesbell Venable Bell & Partners is an independent San Francisco ad agency whose Intentions Are Good.

@DuncanChannon Brand strategy, advertising, design and interactive. Not to mention the Tip. All in one action-packed agency in downtown San Francisco.

@bssp A full-service marketing communications agency based in Sausalito, CA.

@WeAreArgonaut We’re an advertising agency. We surprise and delight the world with work that drives business results and leaves a dent in culture.

@pereiraodell “What if advertising was invented today?”

@GSP We make stuff people care about. Goodby Silverstein & partners is an award-winning advertising agency based in San Francisco with an office in New York.

@mekanism An award-winning full service creative agency, we sprinkle our love of storytelling across integrated advertising to inspire measurable brand loyalty.

@SchoolOThought The last thing the world needs is another ad agency.

And for even more fuel, take a look at 243 Ad Agencies Share How They are Different from the Rest for New Business, a post on how agencies describe themselves from the Michael Gass’s blog Fuel Line.

Just for instructive fun, I’ve pruned a few favorites from how agencies describe how they are different.

  1. We’re all about being good. We do good work. We’re good to work with. We have a bunch of good people and we bring good ideas to our good clients.
  2. Nimble.
  3. Nimble and consultative.
  4. We sell ourselves as more nimble than the rest.
  5. While it sounds simple, what sets us apart is our commitment to client service – no matter who the client or whatever the task.
  6. We approach integration differently than others.
  7. More strategic than other agencies in our niche.
  8. Big city creative, small town prices.
  9. We’ve become more marketing agnostic. We move fast. We take risks. We focus on getting it right, not being right.
  10. Our experience and skill set is unique.
  11. Smarter. Nicer. Cheaper.
  12. Our agency has been around over 60 years…experience is our main selling point.
  13. Superior service, resulting from senior-staff involvement, face time with clients and status reporting.
  14. Our thinking and work are more effective.
  15. Our culture is not the traditional silo approach to the way our company operates. We are not that traditional old school agency.
  16. We are not a traditional agency–we are a hybrid.
  17. Different infrastructure.
  18. Smart strategy, distinctive design.
  19. Strategy focus.
  20. Smart people.

And…. my actual favorite: We make sure our clients know we’re not just Wii playing d-bags.

Why Is Ad Agency Brand Differentiation Important?

This is where things get a bit pedantic and, yes, I will admit, even obvious. Here are 7 reasons that having an agency positioning that’s different from the other 10 – 100 – 1,000 – 10,000 agencies in your category or vicinity is a good thing.

  1. What is your agency’s first impression? Chances are good that you may only have thirty to sixty seconds to deliver it… if you are lucky.
  2. How can you plan and manage your business without a clear brand position? What skills do you concentrate on, who do you recruit, what employees do you keep, what does your website look like and what’s the color of your waiting room couch?
  3. How do you run business development? Who should you pitch, what should you say, how do you sound different, how do you get the word out, what does your About page say, your blog, Twitter feed, LinkedIn profile, etc.
  4. If you are small and local, how do you position the agency to get large and national?
  5. If you are large and international how do you compete with Publicis-Omnicom?
  6. What award shows should you enter – and why? Cannes Lions, Arrows, D&AD, CLIO’s, CAANZ Axis, Webby’s, OMMA’s, WOMMY’s, EFFIE’s, Rosies, the Sheboygan ADDY’s?
  7. How do you position your agency for growth and inevitable change if you don’t have a starting point?

Final pedantic point. I think that this might be a good time to revisit Trout & Reis’s position on positioning.

“Positioning” is a game people play in today’s me-too market place.” Jack Trout in Industrial Marketing.

Positioning is “an organized system for finding a window in the mind.” Jack Trout and Al Reis “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind.”

Keep Going: Parts II and III Are The Best Parts

On to Part II and Part 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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