I call myself an author, speaker, and advisor. What would you call yourself if you could only use three words, and needed to list them in a specific order?
The order I use is intentional because it’s an aspirational statement about how I want to impact my world. One-half of my income still comes from advising (it’s a term that’s not as loaded as consulting), but it’s not as sustainable as the other two.
What three words would you use for yourself? Some of you would use the same three words that I have. Most of you run sizeable firms, and for you folks I’d like to take a stab at answering that question. Even if I’m not correct, maybe I can get you thinking about this.
Here are the three words you should probably use to describe yourself, and in this order:
There are five early tests that can be applied to your positioning before you make a choice. I’ve covered the first extensively in an earlier post (the number of competitors and prospects), and I’ll cover the other four here. Next month we’ll look at the tests that you can apply after your positioning is up and running.
Second Test: Drop and Give Me 20
This harks back to a Marine sergeant telling a private to give him a quick 20 pushups on the spot, or maybe a high school football coach doling out punishment for a bad 40-yard time. The idea is that at a moment’s notice, without any preparation, you can give me 20.
In this case, what I want you to give me is 20 insights that emerge from your expertise as applied to a particular focus. Here are the two rules that govern the exercise, and they are both assumptions you need to make about me, your audience for these 20.
First, assume that I’m smart. It doesn’t matter if I am—just assume that I am. Second, assume that....
How many competitors should you have? As you answer that question, remember that your prospects get to decide who your competitors are—you can’t decide for them. I want to give you some practical guidelines so that you can test your own positioning.
You’re attempting to craft a positioning where you are less interchangeable so that withholding your expertise has some practical impact. That’s the only power you have in a professional service context: to withhold your expertise. When you do that, they’ll turn to a competitor who, in their view, can replace your expertise. Too few options and your positioning is likely not viable. Too many and you’re easily replaced with no pricing power.
Think of the options as a spectrum, with the right side depicting a completely undifferentiated firm (“I’m a branding firm.”) and the left side depicting the most focused firm you could imagine (We take natural product brands to market, from research through packaging.”). At the beginning of this exercise, you are toward the right, wanting to move toward the left and be more differentiated than you are now. You’re aiming for fewer competitors so that your expertise supports a price premium in your work.
As you march from right to left, you want to make a complete journey and make really smart positioning decisions. As you work out the intricacies of the positioning journey, there are two forces that slow your progress: one good (lack of opportunity) and....
When I first started thinking deeply about positioning, then speaking at conferences about it around the world, I happened on this interesting icebreaker to get the crowds into it. It came about just from panic on my part.
I was sitting in my hotel room, going over my notes for a short 45-minute presentation that afternoon. I had plenty of time and was luxuriating in a relaxed morning. Everything was pretty much set. All the typos had been expunged, the transitions where firmly in mind, and I knew what the last point was on each page of the presentation so that I wouldn’t advance myself to an early death by calling for the next bullet when there was none.
The phone broke the silence, and the phone never rings in my hotel room unless it’s room service wondering if they can replace something I ordered that is no longer available. I answered the phone with a little curiosity in my voice only to find the conference organizer on the other end of the call. The speaker for a four-hour pre-conference workshop had taken ill with stomach flu and they were wondering if I could pinch hit, on my own.
Even though it was scheduled to start in just over an hour, I was generally familiar with the topic and was actually excited by the challenge. I knew, though, that I’d have to find some engaging exercises for the attendees to do. Not only would it keep them busy, but while they worked through them in small groups, I’d have a little extra time between micro-presentations to get my thoughts together.
I decided to start with an exercise that I’d never used before, and it became a fun staple over many years whenever it made sense. After that unexpected day, though, I wasn’t trying....
The entrepreneurs running creative firms are different than their older counterparts. Here's a recent podcast episode where Blair Enns interviews me about that subject. If you enjoy this episode, I hope you'll subscribe. We'd also value your positive rating on iTunes.
The only preparation we do before each recording is a quick email that says: "Hey, Blair, interview me about this tomorrow. Here are three or four talking points." And then we launch into what at times could be considered an awkward transparency about what we are thinking (we take turns interviewing each other, with a different topic each episode). There are no retakes and no editing of the content. It's been new, fresh, and fun for us. You can find out more here. Click below to listen to this episode immediately.
Here's another of my favorites. In this one....
The idea of selling your creative firm some day might be far-fetched, but there are some surprising changes in the M/A (merger/acquisition) landscape recently that are upending decades of business as usual:
This process starts by getting an idea of what....
I’ve now surveyed 20,000+ employees in the marketing field, and there are some real gems in the findings about all kinds of things. I was struck recently by how one issue had surfaced repeatedly in many ways over many years, and it’s worth mentioning to you here.
The one thing you might do differently is to pursue a strategy of measured involvement. That means that when and how you’ll insert yourself at work is predictable.
Employees don’t care too much about less than normal involvement or more than normal involvement as much as they don’t like surprises. They like your input, usually, but they absolutely hate it when you swoop in at the last minute and put everything on a different path, whether that’s how a client problem is being solved or an employee situation is being handled or whatever.
This whiplash style is disrespectful because....
Even the most confident agency principals (and consultants) experience self-doubt if the pipeline runs dry. What was previously a genuine confidence now stands behind a quickly erected facade of bravado. While agencies in the US are generally doing well, some of you experience this every few years and others are experiencing it now for the first time since 2008. And outside the US, the agency market is generally flat.
But everything changes when the pipeline goes dry, right? Not only do you lack some of that killer instinct that stems from confidence, it all rolls up to further impact your psyche.
Times like these are when you should be able to reach for the switch to make it rain. Here are the things that you’d ideally be able to do:
There are two big mistakes that creative firms are making when it comes to account management:
Let me explain the mistakes in more detail, the implications that flow from the mistakes, and how to fix them.
At ReCourses, we have studied 21,000 employees in the creative services field. Each of those individuals has completed a lengthy qualitative/quantitative survey, participated in a personality profile exercise, and been interviewed for 20–30 minutes. We’ve compared that data with agency performance to surface these two results when an employee with a project management mentality is put in charge of a client relationship.
Effective client relationship management requires the right people, and that job may be....
Sometimes waiting is fun, like that interval between when you decide to go on vacation and when you actually go. The planning that takes place in that interval can be as great as the trip. Most of the time, though, waiting is just irritating, like waiting in the line to renew your driver’s license or sitting in traffic.
Smart agency owners know how long things take and are always planning ahead. They are usually really good about planning for one of those decisions, anyway, and that’s their facility. It’s a huge commitment, for one thing, plus blowing that decision will be impossible to hide. If they don’t think ahead, the team will work standing up, because there’s no place to sit down, and they’ll do it in the parking lot.
Contrast that with positioning decisions, though, and the consequences are more insidious but less obvious. Everyone will still have a place to do their work, but few of them will notice margins slipping, less effectiveness for clients, and so on. You can put off a decision about your positioning and life will go on.
There are other areas where you do a passable job of making decisions, like hiring the right person. Usually you think carefully about it and plan accordingly. You socialize the decision and spread the word within your networks. You’re patient during the testing and screening phases, and you’ve also gotten better at incorporating new employees well.
Where you really struggle is making big, important decisions about your future where there is no external deadline. Positioning comes to mind, especially, because of these three reasons:
When I commissioned this illustration, I thought the accompanying insight piece would be fairly easy to develop. The idea was to write about your competitive advantage and how to protect your agency from competition.
Not so much! Writing it has taken three times as long as normal, and it’s forced me to reexamine how I think about the topic. I will think out loud about the five things I tossed on this journey and then we’ll settle on the three that make sense.
As the principal of a creative firm, one of your duties is to defend the agency from external threats, similar to how a moat protected a castle. It was the first line of defense against invaders. Back then, though, the enemies were few and easily identified. Now they chip away at the walls from all directions. Some are actual competitors (other agencies), some are sea changes (client-side work replacing the very castles themselves), and some are existential (how we think about marketing). You aren’t repelling a huge mass of marauding cretins every decade; now the competition is a way of life, hitting the castle walls around the clock.
Your moat (competitive advantage) cannot be:
So after eliminating two early options for the sort of protection that a moat can provide, we’re still searching for an answer. Here is where I think we need to add “sustainable” to qualify the search.
Your moat (sustainable competitive advantage) cannot be: