Narrative over niche: agency positioning trends

By Roland Gurney | Updated on: May 02, 2023

Your agency's outgrown the ‘just niche’ advice

Despite all the agency growth ‘guru’ advice out there, your agency’s too big to decide one day that you’ll only work with food brands, or only do Google Ads. You’d have a mutiny on your hands unless you had a convincing business case for it. It could mean laying off staff, turning away clients, and shrinking your market potential. Instead, agencies of your size need a more nuanced way to position themselves beyond the usual niching and narrowing strategies. 

Because back in the days when there were fewer agencies out there, niching, narrowing and specialising was the smartest play. An agency could outposition their generalist, 360 and full-service competitors by focusing on serving a specific client type or delivering a specific service. But the days of being the only alcoholic drinks marketing agency or the only Shopify agency are over. Even a combination of the two is rare, and for many agencies just too small a pond to fish in.

After the pandemic, agencies understandably became cautious of the advice to put all their eggs in one basket. Industries like travel and tourism were decimated, and agencies that had niched into this sector struggled too. Since then, agencies have been looking for a way to service multiple sectors and reduce risk, while still having a unified and compelling positioning. Most end up with a catch-all, cliche-ridden external offer about ‘growing brands’ or ‘achieving results’.

Look, that’s not to say niching isn’t a smart strategy. If you have a sweet spot where you do your best work, for clients you like, who pay you well, then niche. It makes a lot of sense and a lot of things easier, from your messaging to your marketing. We’re not anti-niching at all, it just isn’t right for every agency and often it’s too much of a swing for medium to large agencies to make without serious consideration and detailed research.

More services means messier messaging 

You see, as your agency’s grown, your offer has grown with it. Today, you deliver a range of services to a range of clients. And things are going well. But you’re aware that nothing stays the same in the beautifully chaotic world of agencies. Challengers are nipping at your heels with cool websites and relentless self-promotion. And the big stalwarts are still attracting big names with the gravitational pull of their reputations. Even in your immediate competitive set, it feels like others are one step ahead by sharpening their brand and proposition to react to the world around them.

The downside of widening your offer is that your positioning has become a bit messy and mediocre. With so many pitches, meetings and people in the mix, everyone’s developed their own version of who you are and what you do. And while it can make sense to adapt to each prospect, it normally means a muddled message and an unfocused positioning. So when people read your website, there’s very little that would resonate with them beyond some big claims and some pretty case studies.

So what actually is narrative positioning?

So with a wider offer and no desire to niche, how do you define a positioning that’s distinctive, desirable and defensible? A positioning that stands out and attracts the right clients in?

Enter Narrative Positioning.

Yay, another business-buzzword-bullshit term to confuse you and everyone else. Look, let’s keep this as simple as possible; it’s when you position your agency around one core story. At its most basic, it’s about a before and after state, a problem and solution, a change and a consequence. Then it’s about the benefits this creates.

Just like any good narrative, there's a tension and resolution. This is what’s commonly called a story arc or loop. Once some interest or intrigue is opened up, people instinctively need to know how it ends. The more specific and real it feels, the stronger that desire to know what the outcome is. And the stronger this narrative is pushed and promoted, the more chance the reader buys into it.

Why narrative positioning is your smarter play

Sure, this all sounds deceptively simple so far, and sometimes it is. But it takes a level of empathy and intuition beyond just analysing market segments, firmographics and demographics - and this can feel abstract and intangible. But a narrative positioning works for a number of reasons:

Firstly, it’s more ownable than a traditional market positioning (by sector or service). In crowded markets like Digital Marketing for example, it’s increasingly hard to find a unique space by niching or narrowing. Your narrative, when done well, is much harder to replicate without looking like a latecomer or copycat. Nobody wants to be pitching a narrative another agency already uses, it looks lazy at best, disingenuous at worst.

Secondly, your narrative positioning can evolve at the same pace as your agency, market and landscape. It’s easier to test, tweak and optimise while it’s live in play. While you don’t want to be repositioning constantly, it does allow you some fluidity. If you position yourself to only work with sports brands, this can be difficult to undo or change. The narrative you take to the market is much more reactive. Think of narrative positioning as an important brand decision, but not a commercial business decision. 

And lastly, your narrative positioning works on multiple levels. Whereas market positioning or niching relies on the idea that you must understand the prospect because you focus on them as a demographic, narrative positioning works on the prospect’s feeling of being seen and understood. A strategically-sound and intelligently-written narrative hits prospects on an emotional and rational level - which is how people make buying decisions in reality. Not as some obscure segment on a buyer persona, but as a human with a conscious brain and a subconscious bias. Think of narrative positioning as appealing to a prospect’s specific state of thinking or being, rather than as a specific demographic or vertical.

For this narrative positioning to work, it has to come from the top down. Of course, middle managers and team members should help shape your narrative. But if the person at the top doesn’t buy into it and treat it like gospel, it’ll die a slow and pointless death in a deck somewhere. This should be the big story they tell people in their network. It’ll be the elevator pitch, sales patter and website copy rolled into one. When prospects ask why they should choose you, this is what you grab before the case studies.

Defining your agency’s narrative positioning

This is the work we do day in, day out, specifically for agencies like you. And although every agency, and their narrative, is different - the process we guide them through is highly structured. It starts with a discovery phase, where we send out stakeholder questionnaires to see where there's alignment or gaps across the team. There might be anonymous team surveys to canvas opinion and to get some fresh perspectives. And sometimes we’ll send previous or current clients a few questions to see what it was that drew them to the agency in the first place. 

Alongside gathering these internal insights, we’ll audit the current positioning and give some brutal truths about what’s working and what’s not. Our 3D Positioning model is a simple framework to benchmark how well positioned we feel the agency is right now, as well as a way to measure improvement. It’s a simple 1-10 scoring system against the three Ds:

  • Distinctive - How unlike your closest competitors this positioning is. 
  • Desirable - How strongly  it appeals to and attracts the right prospects.
  • Defensible - How convincingly you can prove credibility around this positioning.

There’ll also be a fair amount of desk research, looking through industry news and views to see what’s happening. Then we’ll analyse competitors and do a few head to head comparisons to see where there are opportunities or threats. All this combined means everyone goes into the next phase of work with a deeper understanding of internal and external factors.

Armed with all the discovery information, the next phase is a positioning workshop to decide what the narrative should be. At its most basic, this is about mapping out challenges or changes that set the context for your narrative. These might be for your clients, your industry or even for society. Once you’ve created a stack of these, it’s about mapping out specific ways your agency helps solve or overcome these. The devil is in the detail with an exercise like this. Then the task is to pair up challenges/changes with their relevant solutions. These can then be scored against the 3D Positioning model to make a more informed strategic decision about which to lead with. Once defined, you have a basic narrative of tension and resolution, however it’s missing the colour and emotion that makes narrative so powerful. This comes from unpacking the functional and emotional benefits of your narrative, as well as expanding out the details and specifics that make it feel real. 

This is a whistlestop tour through a process that is weeks of strategic thinking and constructive challenge. But the outcome will be a narrative that may not sound beautifully copywritten yet, but is strategically the right play to stand out and win.

Writing your agency’s narrative positioning

Once you have the right narrative, you need the right words to express it. Bring in an external copywriter who will help champion the reader over you. This is vital to avoid the ‘We do this, We believe’ this trap that makes most agencies dull. Try to write a long version of the narrative to start with as this process opens up new possibilities. Then edit down and condense until you can express the narrative in a line or two. Where possible, use the language of your target clients so they feel heard and understood when they read it. Lean into the functional and emotional, so your narrative works on multiple levels. Nobody hires an agency based entirely on a rational transaction. People have subconscious biases and reactions that great copywriters can access and influence.

Testing your agency’s narrative positioning

Look, positioning is a calculated leap of faith. There is no robust way to validate your positioning other than taking it to market. Sure, you can try user-testing, focus groups, SaaS tools like Wynter etc. but these are similar audiences, not real-world prospects. The act of asking someone to critique your narrative is inherently not real. Because of this, they’ll be more critical than if they’d read it out in the wild. Test subjects are not being asked to vote with their wallet, which is the ultimate test for whether a narrative is working or not. By all means spend time trying to validate it all if you want, but the beauty of narrative positioning is that you can launch and optimise much easier than if you’d niched into one sector or service.

Presenting your narrative positioning

So, you’ve done the hard yards and followed the process. And now, eventually, you’ve got a narrative positioning that everyone’s fully behind and you’re ready to take to market. So how do you tell the team internally, and then where does it actually go externally? 

Well, there shouldn’t really be two versions of your narrative. It should be the same story, inside and out. This way you limit the potential for people telling their own interpretation of it. Sure, you might want a few extra notes for the internal version to help sales people or account managers make sense of it in specific situations. But again, keep this sparse if needed at all. The aim here is to create a unified ‘party line’ that everyone knows and uses. As soon as one variation gets out, the whole thing can start to unravel.

With this in mind, you need one single source of truth for your positioning narrative. A nicely-designed PDF deck is normally the easiest way to keep everyone aligned. Make it beautiful and simple so people buy into it. A scrappy Google Slides deck with hasty formatting lacks confidence, and people will push back against it. Think of this as your agency’s magnus opus; it’s what you believe in, and what you’re all about (at least for now).

The more investment there is in it as a process and a document, the more galvanising it’ll be. And that’s the whole point here; one narrative positioning that’s unique to you, that separates you from the rest, that unites your team, and that appeals to the right kind of clients.

Sure, your narrative is just a few words. 

But with a big impact.

Struggling to nail your narrative, once and for all? Then let's talk about what you should talk about.

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