Agency positioning: Is it about fitting in rather than standing out?

By Roland Gurney | Updated on: May 02, 2023

Speak to any agency growth guru selling their online course to 10x your whole business, and they’ll tell you the point of positioning is to stand out. And for the most part, they’re right. It stands to reason that your agency shouldn’t look, sound and feel like all the others out there. But often this gets misinterpreted to mean you should call yourself something daft like Purple Anus and have a website full of swearing and sizzle reels.

But the reality is that positioning agencies is more nuanced.

Clients subconsciously lump your agency into a group based on certain criteria. You might be seen as part of the exciting challenger group, or the professional middle-sized agencies, or as one of the big names. Knowing this means the smarter positioning play might not be to stand out and exist as the wildcard, but rather to fit in with the group you most want to be associated with.

So rather than making strategic choices based on doing the opposite of agencies in the group you want to be in, you make them based on being similar. Now this doesn’t mean being copycat, lookalike or the same-sounding. It means adopting some of the heuristics and shortcuts that influence how prospects perceive you, and which group they put you in.

For example, you want to win huge digital transformation projects for enterprise level clients. The right positioning play might be to mirror some of the other ‘safe pairs of hands’ in this space. They might use certain words and phrases that you can adopt. Their website might have a conservative and corporate feel with muted colours. Their messaging might be all about de-risking, compliance, and stakeholder engagement. 

If you’re agency’s looking to play at the level above, fitting in might be your smartest strategy right now.

Look, the advice to stand out is still valid. The point of positioning is to swing the pendulum in your favour by being the obvious choice. It’s just that it’s not always the best first step as you look to transition upwards into the next level of competitive set. Startup or early-stage agencies often see standing out as their primary goal, but this often translates to wackiness and tackiness that traps them at the bottom end of the market. Once clients put you in the right group, then the aim is then to find that standout edge.

In fact, you could extend this concept to almost all creative disciplines. Design and brand agencies often lead with the message that they make their clients ‘stand out’. But what they often mean is that the work will make them fit in with a specific group of brands. The best way to purely stand out might be to buck all the latest design trends and use Comic Sans. Instead, most defer back to whatever’s cool right now, and in the process fit in more than stand out.

So sure, standing out is ultimately the aim for your agency. But is the smartest first step to fit in with a new crowd?

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