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How to become a niche agency – PART 5

The importance of HOW

In my previous articles on becoming a niche agency, I firstly looked at refining WHO your target audience is. I then urged you to define WHAT value you deliver for them N.B. not what services you perform, the VALUE your audience actually receives from your services. Benefits not features.

In this piece, I’m going to look at the next stage in the agency Value Proposition. How you can differentiate your agency with HOW you work or interact with clients.

HOW you work is a key aspect of the Value Proposition for a niche agency.  That said, it’s slightly lower down the hierarchy of communication for me. In my experience, busy clients who are under pressure, rarely care too much about how you deliver for them as an agency. As long as you deliver for them.

I actually find it strange that many agencies promote HOW they do things as a priority, Talking about this seemingly ahead of lots of other more important aspects of their business. Moreover, they often choose to take this route rather than consider positioning themselves as a niche agency with a specific and definable target audience.

 

We’re different (but the same)

In an industry built to create and differentiate brands, marketing agencies are surprisingly poor at differentiating and marketing themselves. Rather than help us to stand out, the terms we use to describe our agencies are often strikingly similar. Many have become clichés.

Take a look at most independent agency websites and you’ll encounter familiar terms and recurring soundbites. Most of the descriptors are commonly preceded by we and/or we’re. Here’s some familiar examples:

We’re full-service – We do everything for you (even though they usually don’t, or quite possibly can’t). I find it amazing how this term can still be seen by some as a differentiator or motivating to prospective clients. Maybe the one-stop-shop agency was a compelling idea in the 1980’s, but we now have so much better access to information. We also have tools to help us communicate and manage the process better. In the 2020s I don’t believe clients are interested in an agency whose core proposition is everything under one roof.

We’re specialists/experts – This is usually followed by a number of claimed specialisms in usually inter-related but nevertheless independent disciplines. If you want to be a niche agency you must find a niche market and supply it with a specific service.

We’re Award-Winning – I value awards from a team motivation perspective. I also appreciate their ability to substantiate and add a degree of trust in the agency’s capabilities. Award ceremonies are so numerous though. Which agency doesn’t have a shelf full of plastic gongs to show off?

We’re a friendly bunch – I find that every agency claiming this is right. Agencies are filled with great people who by their very nature are friendly and easy to work with. Sadly it’s not a credible differentiating factor. Neither is the near-ubiquitous agency dog designed to convey furry friendliness. Rather than make an agency standout, a picture of the agency dog on the website has become almost “me too” and even has its own social media #agencydogs hashtag to emphasis its mass appeal.  My own dog is welcome in my office any day, just not on my website.

We’re honest/transparent – Trust in advertising and marketing agencies has declined in recent years. Media agencies, in particular, have been dogged (no pun intended) with transparency issues.  Unfortunately, trust has to be earned. Simply claiming honesty just seems to imply you have something to hide.

We’re results-focussed – Now we’re getting a little warmer here. The marketing industry on both client-side and within the agency sector are being held to account like never before. Results and metrics are paramount. Can you deliver the results though? Actions speak louder than words. Clients are far more interested in real case studies that demonstrate an ability to deliver, rather than overtures about what your agency focus is. Indeed, if you’re an agency that isn’t focussed on results you’ve got big problems.

We’re passionate – Telling somebody you’re passionate just doesn’t cut it (for them or you). Like trust, you have to really experience passion. Even if you can get a degree of energy and commitment across in your communications its at best only a hygiene factor for somebody considering working with you.

We’re different – Saying you’re different but then using the same language and images as loads of other agencies really doesn’t work either. If you’re genuinely different, don’t tell me; show me. Tell me HOW!

A Genuine Difference

Please don’t be offended by my cynicism in the list above.  We’ve all used at least some of these terms to describe our agencies (myself included).

I’m being particularly challenging to make a point of course. When describing HOW your niche agency works in your Value Proposition, the objective is to differentiate and stand out (not to fit in and be like those other agencies). Using the above terms is paradoxical.

That said, you don’t have to aim to be completely unique. The quest for uniqueness can be a frustrating process that often ends in a Value Proposition that is too contrived and hard to understand. 

What we’re looking for here is differences in the way you work or how you approach things in a slightly different way. In a sea of sameness, a slightly different take or, indeed, an explanation of HOW you produce your value for your niche audience can make all the difference.

The key though is to not only identify and communicate HOW you’re different. You must communicate HOW these differences benefit the client. Why does working with you – in your way – enhance the clients’ chances of getting better results? Why is your way better than the other agency the client might be considering working with?

How to find and utilise your HOW

Making HOW you operate an integral part of your Value Proposition is a great way to differentiate your agency. It’s also usually far easier to do if you are a niche agency.

By nature, HOW you operate can be personalised more if you have a defined niche audience. The benefits of your HOW can be more easily communicated and will be instantly more relevant to a niche group.

You may already be working in a way that is different from other agencies. Alternatively, you may have some ideas on how you can evolve how you work and use it to not only deliver your services but also engage clients prospects and help you stand out.

It’s important that you’re able to explain your HOW and the benefit to your clients. Simply saying that you’re great at client service and you really place a lot of emphasis on it, for example, is not enough. It’s not specific enough to how you work, it’s not differentiating, and it’s an easy claim to make but practically impossible to substantiate.

Here are some areas to explore to help you create a story around your HOW:

1. Brand your methodology – Have you got a specific process you go through when working on a project? Do you approach client problems in a particular way or with a unique perspective? Could this be explained in detail and be branded as a bespoke methodology? Remember to include what benefits the client(s) derive from working in your way. Always think you not we.

2. Embrace a methodology – You can work in a different way to other agencies but using methodology created elsewhere. There is a lot of talk within agencies about Agile at the moment. This is an example of how some agencies have adopted the way of working from software development and utilised it in a different environment. Agile and Scrum have become common buzzwords, but the core principles of deploying self-managed teams was something my own agency was doing 15 years ago. Have you seen a way of working elsewhere that could be adapted to suit your agency? Could it become a point of difference for you?

3. Values & Principles – Are your company values a graphic on the office wall or do your values REALLY dictate how you operate as a business?  Can you honestly say to clients that you have a specific value system and there must be a fit with this if you are to work together? People want to work with people whose values align to their own so this can be a powerful message and a key differentiator if there is a natural fit.

4. Try before you buy – Can your agency claim a particular commercial approach to doing business with a client?  For example, could your digital marketing agency conduct a localised trial of your proposed activity first to identify if the results that are required can be achieved?  If not, then maybe you could claim to not take on the work.

5. Expert / Personality – Does your business have a leader or senior figure in the business that is a recognised expert in your client niche?  Can you use this person to create a process around HOW you operate?  Can you elevate their profile to make them a focal point in HOW you work?

6. Onboarding – The start of any client relationship is crucial. How you onboard clients could be a point of differentiation.  How do you engage with them differently in those vital early stages of working together? How does this benefit you and what is the benefit to them?

7. Engagement – Onboarding a client is one thing, but what about your ongoing relationship?  Do you work with clients in a different way than other agencies? Do you have fixed-term contracts or set review periods? Do you embed a member(s) of the team in the client business for the duration of the project/contract?

8. Walled Gardens – Do you have research, knowledge, information or insight that clients would value but don’t have? Can you explain how you can give them access to this information only when they become a client? Can you offer clients training for their teams on specific aspects of your work together? Once again, this type of approach is far easier to establish if you’re a niche agency. You can capture your learnings and expertise from working with other clients and give new clients the benefit of it. This is much harder to achieve if you are trying to appeal to clients across a broad spectrum.

9. Pricing – Do you or can you price differently from other agencies. The industry is desperately trying to lose the shackles of the billable hour. Do you price your work on value delivered not on the time you spend? Do you work on some sort of revenue/profit share basis? Can you claim to have skin in the game and invest some of your own money in the project you are working on with a client?

10. Staffing – Do you staff your agency in a different way to your competitors? There must be a benefit to you of doing this, but is there also a tangible benefit to your clients? Can you express this benefit in a way that is interesting and motivating to prospective clients to want to learn more.

Summary

HOW you do what you do is an important component of the Value Proposition for any niche agency.

The way your agency works can be as distinctive as the work it produces and the results it delivers.

In my next article in this series, I’m going to look at the final building block of any Value Proposition. Some would argue it’s the most important, I certainly think its the one that can connect with your clients in the most emotional way; WHY you do what you do and what you believe in.

How to become a niche agency – PART 5
Gareth Healey

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