I've been talking to a number of agencies recently about their 'positioning'. It seems to be the topic of the moment, as agency folk begin to wrestle with another year of trying to hit their new business targets.
The common theme, I notice, is that they are all very keen to be something else.
Production companies don't want to be production companies any more; they want to be specialists in 'branded content'.
PR agencies want to be social media experts (as they think 'word of mouse' is the new 'word of mouth'.) Social Media agencies likewise are pitching their work as PR.
Digital agencies are, meanwhile, busy trying to eat the lunch of the advertising industry - "We've just hired a brilliant ex-advertising Planner" is typically the first signal of an assault on the advertising budget.
Direct Marketing agencies (and for that matter Sales Promotion agencies) have taken to talking about their 'integrated' capabilities. Which often means they've rounded up all the other odds and sods from their portfolio (a bit of experiential work, perhaps an app or a promotional microsite) and repackaged this as a more modern iteration of what used to be called Below the Line. Oh, and experiential agencies now do 'brand activation'. Confused?
Then you have the advertising agencies... if you can find one, any more. Have you noticed that the word 'advertising' is hardly ever heard nowadays in the halls of our former advertising agency greats? Not heard, and indeed rarely read in the pages of their websites. Advertising has been redacted. Instead we learn that these agencies are, in fact, 'multi-disciplinary ideas companies'; or 'media-agnostic, brand building business partners'. I kid you not.
In Al Ries and Jack Trout's classic book "Positioning", they say that an exercise in positioning is a search for the obvious. I agree. The thing about positioning is that far too much agency management time is expended in agonising about it. And I use the word 'agonising' advisedly. It's stressful, with lots of people having an input into attempts to rationalise, or post-rationalise, why what they do is different and better versus their competitors.
The truth is, different and better are the hardest things in the world for any agency to articulate convincingly. In my experience, different and better are simply judgements that an individual new business prospect might make, in relation to their own particular requirements. So positioning needs to be framed in the context of the target audience; it's about them, it's not about you.
Another thing I've noticed is that in all of Ingenuity's last nine years, I don't think anyone here has ever had to field a question from a Marketing Director about an agency's positioning. Why? Because they don't really care. They only want to know how you can solve their problem, now. It's about them, not about you.
My advice to Marketers is to look beyond the agency, through the positioning, and focus on the people. This is what an agency really is - a collection of talented people. No more, and no less.
If the people have the skills and experience to deliver, and the chemistry is there between your team and theirs, then bite their hands off. Despite the new labels, you may find that the skills of value to you have been acquired in advertising, direct marketing and PR agencies. Whatever an agency may say about itself, it's what their people have to say for themselves that will make the difference.