Some topics make me more nervous than others, and this is one of them. I don’t have any doubts about whether I’m onto something, but I’m unsure if it’s really worth the dust and angst it’s going to kick up.
At its heart, this is about our lack of self-awareness around our own abilities in a particular marketplace and how we perceive how those differences should be built into our positioning.
I started thinking about this quite some time ago, but only recently did I try to go back through the 21,000+ surveys I’ve gathered from 900+ firms and pull some representative samples. Of the 25 questions on the survey, there’s a two-part pair that go together.
The first question asks the entrepreneurial creative leader to place their firm within a specific category of firm: digital marketing, public relations, dev shop, advertising, CRO, UX, design, etc.
The second question urges each participant to then look around at the other firms they bump up against in that category and self-assess where they fit within that group: “If a qualified potential client asked you to explain how the firm you work for is different from the other firms in that industry, what would you say?”
That’s the money question, and I’ve seen everything imaginable in the answers. But the most consistent theme is what I call the “more better” idea. “We do all the other things that our competitors do, only we do them better.” Or, “they say they do them, but we really do them.”
Here are some actual examples, sanitized to protect the guilty:
We try to understand the client’s customers on a deeper level, compared to other firms, and provide a more diverse, well-rounded strategy to help fill the gaps of the client’s current digital strategy.
After reading statement like this, I shake my head and smile, picturing all the other firms who surely must be saying: “Yeah, good luck. We attempted that thing where you try to understand the client. It had some promise and got us a little bit of traction, but it turned out to be just too much work in the end. So we dropped it. Now we work hard at not understanding the client. It’s quicker and more efficient anyway.”
Right? Your positioning—at its heart—is something that other firms are not saying!
Here’s another survey response along those same lines:
We are different in that, for the most part, all engagements with clients begin with strategy. We root everything in what we discover in that initial brainstorming session and base our entire engagement off of the findings.
Here’s another fairly typical response:
This firm’s work is less ‘cookie-cutter’ and more ‘discovery-oriented’ for the client. Since the agency is small, they get a very personal approach and have a hands-on role in the process of building their new brand.
And a final one:
Our size is unique. Traditional agencies have layers of employees that a project gets passed through. Things get miscommunicated or lost in translation, strategy gets dropped, and turnaround times are stretched. We cut the fluff which means greater access, faster turnarounds, and a product that’s true to the vision and strategy that’s established. We don’t just make pretty pictures or cool websites. We solve complicated problems.
You probably say the same things—heck, we all say the same things—but reading what other people say makes it easier to see the lack of self-awareness in others. That’s the whole point of self-awareness, right? I see arrogance in others before I see it in myself. I recognize positioning mistakes that others make while trumpeting the party line myself without realizing how silly it sounds. Remember, these are very smart people who do positioning for a living and yet they aren’t coming close to putting their finger on a viable answer.
Folks, more better is not a strategy, and there are two specific reasons why that is true.
“More Better” Isn’t a Strategy Because of Selective Data
Your receiver is on and your antennas are up when your prospects are crossing the boundary to becoming your clients. You seldom work with a client who hasn’t worked with an agency before, so it’s quite likely that they are dumping their current agency for you. They hate the current one—in a quite unbalanced way, really—and they love the new one—but only because they don’t know you that well yet.
They may not think they are getting fresh ideas for the incumbent, and so you suddenly believe that your ideas are fresher. They may not feel like the incumbent is listening very thoroughly, and so you suddenly believe that you listen better than the incumbent. And by extension, all the other agencies in the world! They may not feel like the incumbent is focusing on results, and so you now believe that you focus more on results than the typical agency. Why else would they be hiring you?
Here’s what’s happening. You’re listening to the wrong people at the wrong time. Their views are unbalanced because their relationship with the incumbent is at an all time low, and their relationship with you is at an all-time high. And it is at an all time high, too. (You will never be in a better position to charge enough, control the relationship, or set the tone. That’s for another articlie, but please recognize that advantage.)
How do we know this? Because the current incumbent—the firm that your new client hates—was the firm that they loved in the very recent past. But like all relationships where both sides aren’t working hard at it, this one is showing some irreparable damage.
The incumbent was “more better” back then and now you are “more better” than them now. In a couple of years, you’ll be the enemy and some young upstart will be the “more better” firm and will pull a muscle slapping themselves on the back like you are doing now.
If you’re going to base your positioning on what your clients say, you’ll need to take all their feedback into account. I can’t picture that being much fun at all, so just skip it. I’d be very hesitant to listen too much to clients, anyway. You’re not in the service business—you’re in the expertise business, and your opinion matters more than theirs.
“More Better” Isn’t a Strategy Because of Self-Assessment
Here’s an example of this second category, again from the surveys:
There’s no B team here, and everything we do is tied to an over-arching strategy that is customized to our clients’ needs and business situation. We really get to know our clients, and combine our deep well of experience and ability to generate insights and measure results with creative thinking and design sensibilities to achieve successful outcomes.
And here’s another:
We have exceptional highly talented individuals who are selected based on best fit for your needs and will strive to achieve your goals.
The truth is that half of you reading this produce work that is below average. That’s just the way math works. Not all babies are cute, either.
But it doesn’t matter, because you need to believe your kid is cute, just like 80% of firms have to belief that they are in the 20% percentile of quality. Believing that about your firm’s work is part of encouraging their careers and feeling good about presentations and creating a place where people want to work. But it is not a strategy, okay?
I can usually get through most consulting arrangements without a client asking me what I think of their work. When I don’t…when they ask me, usually toward the end after we’ve gotten along splendidly…I feel duty-bound to tell them. If it’s better than average, I say that. If it’s not, I say that it’s plenty good enough. In about 2% of the cases, I’ve recommended wholesale changes to the quality of their work because it’s been lame.
Plenty good enough is all that matters, though. Clients don’t even recognize great work, so who are we fooling? They recognize bad work, but not good work. Good work is just good enough. If you wrap good enough work in great customer service and project management, you’ll get away with a whole lot.
But doing “more better” work is not a strategy, especially in the implementation phase. Providing deeper insight tied to real data can be powerful indeed, but there’s not enough of that happening in the creative field.
So, be excited about those new client relationships, but don’t listen to their feedback comparing you with the incumbent firm too closely. It’s biased.
And you should strive to do better work than other firms, but don’t count on it as a strategy. The essence of positioning is a lot more concrete than that, and it doesn’t have to bore you or box you in.
As my podcast partner frequently notes, there are differences and there are meaningful differences, and this falls in the former category.
I want to finish by summing this up like this.
Your clients are committed to do their thing in the same way, normally. They flirt with the idea of change from time to time and reach out for a new way or a fresh look. But they’ll pick and choose from your advice. There’s a large dose of being in the right place at the right time, having terrific listening skills, guiding an engagement with smart questions, and then taking your victories in small doses. You are not “more better” than your competitors, and this bullshit that we sprinkle into our positioning is a disservice to them and you. Let’s find something else that turns a difference into a meaningful one.