A potential client asks you to describe your agency. How do you communicate your compelling value proposition to the client and differentiate your agency from others? Quick – what makes you stand out in the agency crowd? Do you find yourself using words like full service, strategic, creative? Or maybe you say, “We partner with our clients.” “We’ve been here for X number of years.” “We’re not a traditional agency.” “We don’t do digital, we are digital.” Unfortunately, the truth is, whether you like it or not, you sound just like every other agency out there.

Even if we think we’re standing out in a crowd, we tend to sound very much the same. We all believe that we sound distinct but the truth is our words all blur with the same phrases that every other agency uses.

So how do you truly develop a compelling value proposition and differentiate your shop when the competition is getting tougher and tougher and we sound and look more and more alike? By clearly defining your mission, vision and values.

In this solocast, I help you flesh that out by exploring:

  • How to communicate a compelling value proposition to your clients by telling your own story via content.
  • How to put a stake in the ground and say this is what we do and how and why we do it.
  • How to answer the following big questions: Why do you do this work? What is your why? What would happen to the world if your agency simply faded from existence?
  • How to specifically define your mission, your vision, and your compelling values.

Drew McLellan is the Top Dog at Agency Management Institute. He has also owned and operated his own agency over the last 20-years. And all through the year, he straddles the fence of working in his agency and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies in a variety of ways. He works with agency owners in peer network groups, teaches workshops for owners and their leadership teams, teaches AE bootcamps, and does a lot of consulting. Because he works with a lot of agencies every year — he has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written two books and been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/drew-mclellan-solocast-episode-4/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and an agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey everybody, welcome back to Build a Better Agency podcast, this is one of my solocasts. This is just you and me hanging out, talking about something that I think is important for us to have a conversation about, for you to be thinking about and hopefully for you to be taking some action on. Today, this is one of those topics that some of you may have heard me talk about many times. It’s one of those things where a lot of agency owners nod their head at me and they act like they believe me and they agree, but I don’t see a lot of agencies taking action on this. And I think it’s really a critical point to making your agency as strong and successful as you can. What I wanna talk about today is the idea that the reality is that when we talk about our agency, the truth is, whether we like it or not, we all look very much alike.

Even if we think we’re standing out in a crowd and differentiating from the competition, the truth is that we sound very much the same. So we preach USP or Unique Selling Proposition or differentiation to all of our clients. Every agency I know talks to their clients about this, but the truth is most of us don’t do it for ourselves. It’s tougher to get noticed out there and there are more and more competitors. You’re not just competing against agencies anymore.  Now you’re competing against every media outlet and you’re competing against in-house agencies. So it’s getting tougher and tougher and the truth is we sound and look more and more alike. And in many cases, the push to content has actually made this worse because for most agencies, they take the easy way out with content and they write about generic topics and therefore they even sound more generic than they did before.

According to research that we have done at AMI, 81% of the time clients are considering multiple agencies. So, you really do have to be different than the other guys to be the one that gets the final nod. Agencies believe that they differentiate, but the truth is we really don’t. So think of it as a scale and you tip the scale one way or the other.  You either differentiate or you’re a commodity and the more you are a commodity, the more you have to compete on price, and we all know that that is not a winning game for agencies. So let me describe for you the ways that many of you describe yourselves and see if this sounds familiar. And remember, I’m hanging out with 200, 250 agencies a year, so I’m seeing this across the board. And if you recognize yourself in some of these phrases and you think they’re what makes you different, understand that everybody uses these phrases. See if any of these sound familiar. Full service. Strategic. Creative. We partner with our clients. We’ve been here for X number of years. We have a combined experience of over X years. We are not a traditional agency. We don’t do digital, we are digital. We’re nimble. We do good work for good people. Big market creative, small market price. More and more marketing agnostic. We’ll use any tool that gets you to the results you want to get.

You get the idea. The points of difference that we are listing are the same ones that everybody else lists as their points of difference, which by default means that we all look the same. And it’s not just the small to mid-sized independents.  So I don’t want you to feel like you’re the only ones out there who are doing that, a lot of the big agencies are…sound very much the same. Did a quick scan of agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, and DDB, and Mullen, and every one of them has the word “creativity” in their tagline. So even they struggle with differentiating themselves. And our research shows us that when we profess to be good at everything, clients and prospects simply don’t believe us. They know we can’t possibly be good at everything, especially at our size, you know, 100 people, 150 people, 5 people. Whatever your size is, in today’s complicated marketing world, you cannot be good at everything. And so you really do have to put a stake in the ground and say, “This is what we do and here’s how we do it and here’s how we’re different.” They know that we can’t be good at everything and they are desperate to know what we actually are good at.

They are looking for a best fit and you should be looking for a best fit too. One of the reasons why agencies don’t define their compelling value proposition is because they’re so afraid of discouraging someone from picking up the phone or shooting an email that might have money in their pocket. But you and I both know that every dollar is not a good dollar and we’ve talked about that before. But you’ve got to develop your compelling value proposition and differentiate your agency, you’ve got to tell these people what you’re good at so that you can attract the right fit, or what I call sweet spot clients, to you. When we claim we can do it all, they assume that we’re a generalist that isn’t particularly good at anything. Let me repeat that because I want you to hear it. When we don’t differentiate and we claim that we can do it all, the assumption that the prospects and clients make is that we’re a generalist and that we are not particularly good at anything, that we’re pretty good at everything. You don’t wanna be pretty good at everything, you wanna be awesome at some things.

We become a commodity and then unfortunately it’s all about being the cheapest. Every agency struggles with this, we know that we need to say something, but we don’t wanna suggest that we can’t serve anyone or serve everyone. Again, I am calling bull on the every dollar is a good dollar. We know that’s not true, we’ve all had bad clients, clients that were a bad fit, clients that we couldn’t quite do the work that they needed us to do.  Or we had to outsource a bunch of it or it took us forever to do because it wasn’t something we did everyday. We’ve all had those bad clients and they’ve cost us money and time and energy and sometimes it even cost us staff. There is no bad client, but there are definitely bad clients for us. We need to get better at identifying, spotting and attracting those sweet spot clients. You absolutely have to do that. But it starts with understanding who you are as an agency and what you genuinely offer that’s unique.

You have to get there. The stuff we make, other people make, so I don’t care how good your stuff is, it’s not enough. Other agencies make stuff, so how are you really different? What is so true about us that it won’t change and we won’t compromise on it? That’s the question you need to be asking yourself. What is so true about us that it won’t change and we won’t compromise on it? Ideally when you figure that out, it will inspire your team, attract sweet spot clients that you can absolutely delight, day in and day out, and it will allow you to make more money and be more profitable.

A lot of this starts with understanding the values and beliefs that your agency is founded on. Your client has already decided. If you’re talking to the prospect, remember, the prospect is doing a lot…the lion’s share of their shopping before they ever pick up the phone or shoot you an email. So they’re shopping between 65% to 75% of the time. They’re shopping and getting most of that buying decision done before they call you. So, if they actually pick up the phone or shoot you an email, they’ve already determined that you can do the work. That’s not the hard part for them.

They’ve already decided you’re competent. What they wanna know, is how and why you do the work. What makes you different. Everybody wants to do business with a company that stands for something, that has values, that has a philosophy of how they do business, that has a reason for existing. So really to quote Simon Sinek, as many of you love to do, “What is your why?” Why do you do this? Why do you work as hard as you do? How are you changing your little sliver of the world? Why does the agency need to be around? What would happen to the world if your agency all of a sudden wasn’t there? It all starts with where we draw our lines. What are our boundaries? What we value as an agency and how we define our purpose, creates both our opportunities and our boundaries. What we value as an agency and how we define our purpose, creates both our opportunities and our boundaries, and we need both, we deserve both.  

Some agencies have tried this before, but it’s a tome. It’s like this whole book where it’s pages and paragraphs defining who they are, and really it needs to be just a few sentences that can be summed up in a statement of a belief or an attitude. I wanna know who you are and what you’re all about. Ultimately, can I like and trust you? Are we aligned? That’s what clients are wondering as they are walking through the new business process. Can I like and trust you and are we aligned? Will we work well together? You know, when we did the research, one of the things that the prospects talk a lot about is that chemistry piece and you can answer some of those chemistry questions long before you actually sit in a room with them by being very clear about what your agency’s compelling value proposition is and how you conduct yourself in business.

You know, for your prospects, your agency’s positioning on how you communicate your compelling value proposition gives them confidence that you’re gonna be a good fit. Remember, they’re under incredible pressure to make sure that they make a good buying decision. There’s a lot of scrutiny when a CMO or even a business owner hires an agency. The expectation is we’re gonna get something for this expenditure that we’re making on this agency. And so it’s a big risk buying decision and you wanna do everything you can to take the risk out. You wanna show them exactly who you are and how you work and why you work, so they can determine right up front if you are a good fit or not. And honest to God, if you’re not a good fit, you do not want them as a client.  I don’t care how much money they have sticking out of their pocket.  It’s gonna cost you money in the end. This is one of those things where you know that I’m right, you have experienced it.  It’s sorta like Thanksgiving dinner when you know you should not have that second helping of stuffing, but you do anyway because it looks so good in the moment, and then you have to lay down on the floor because you’re so full that you think you’re gonna get sick. That’s what this is.

You have all taken clients that you thought were gonna be awesome because they had money hanging out of their pocket, but there was this nagging thing in the back of your mind and you knew that maybe this was not a good idea and you paid the price for it over and over again. By being really clear about who you are and what you’re all about, you can avoid that painful mistake and you can avoid losing time and money and energy and staff. When you define who you are and you’re really clear about who you are…and by the way, that definition also says who you’re not and that’s equally important. But when you do this well, you attract the right clients.  You attract the right employees. It helps drive you to positioning and niching your agency. It also resolves this strategic versus creative debate. Every agency has it. Do you lean more heavily on the strategy side or the creative side? And when you define who you are and what you believe and how you do the work, that answers that question, which quite honestly many clients need to know.

It also drives all of your client-facing strategies in terms of new business, in terms of how you talk about yourself. It should influence your content strategy. And really you do this with three tools. You do this by defining your mission, your vision and your values. And let me tell you how I define each of those because there’s always a debate about what is mission versus vision. For me mission is what you do best every day on behalf of your clients. What you do best every day on behalf of your clients is the mission. What do you deliver to them every single day? And the vision is what is the future like for the agency because you do what you do best every day? So again, mission is what you do best for clients every day, so this is to their benefit, and the vision is what is the agencies future like because you do what you do best every day? And the values are those guiding principles and beliefs that help you decide how to behave on a daily basis. These are the governing principles, if you will, of your business.

So let me give you an example. So when I step away from my AMI role and I step into my agency owner role at McLellan Marketing Group, McLellan Marketing Group’s mission is that MMG helps clients create a love affair with their customers. So what we’re saying is what we do better than anybody is we help our clients connect with their customers in a way that their clients love them, that they wanna be with them all the time, they wanna spend more money with them, they wanna rave about them with their friends. So just like when you first met Mr. or Ms. Right and you were giddy about them and you couldn’t help talking about them to the point that your friends were, you know, nauseated at hearing about them, that’s what we do for our clients, is we make their customers giddy in love with them and we do that better than anybody else. Our vision, so what the future is like for us as an agency because of what we do best of every day is, that we are the Harley of agencies, that’s how we define our mission. And what that means is that people are very happy to pay a premium price for us, people are very happy to wait for a long time to work with us because there is so much prestige in working with us over anybody else.  It makes them look cool to say that MMG is their agency versus anybody else, that they’re happy to pay more and wait a while to work with us, that we are in demand and that oftentimes, if they can’t have a Harley, they don’t want a motorcycle at all.  And in our world, if they can’t work with MMG, they don’t wanna work with anybody. That’s our vision of the future if we continue to deliver on the mission.  

Our core beliefs are very simple, they are five statements. First one is passion cannot be ignored and for us that’s all about that we wanna work with clients who are really passionate about the work they do and we also wanna work with coworkers and vendors and partners who are excited and proud about the work that they do.  And that you cannot ignore passion, and when a business is really passionate about their customers and what they sell, it’s easy to help them be successful. Our second core belief is breakthrough thinking breeds breakthrough creative. So for us, that very clearly defines the strategy versus creative role, that we believe that great strategy allows us to deliver great creative, but that strategy has to come first. The third belief for us is the guys in the white hats do win. As you know, our industry is often tainted by bad reputations or shady business practices and this is our promise to ourselves and our clients that we will always treat them in an above board, transparent, honest way. Our fourth belief is we take our work seriously, ourselves not so much. We know that we’re not saving lives and we also know that we are privileged to work in an industry where we can have a good time and so we make sure that we do that and we make sure we share that with our clients.  That even when they’re with us and we are very serious about their business and their work, we can do that in a fun way. And the last belief for us is we give back in big ways and that’s about acknowledging our commitment to the community and serving nonprofits and doing those sorts of things.

So those are our core beliefs and those guide every business decision that we make. And I will tell you that what it has allowed us to do…and those by the way have been our core beliefs for 21 years and all of that has been in place since the very beginning. We’ve tweaked the language a little bit, but the messages are exactly the same. But what it’s allowed us to do, it’s allowed us to retain our employees. It has allowed us to retain clients…many of our clients have been with us almost the entire 21 years of our agency and I’ve got employees that have been around 15, 16 years. It allows us to get a higher AGI and a higher profitability out of that AGI. But keep in mind that it is not about having a mission and a vision and values, it is really about sharing them, and most important, it is about living them. That’s what matters. Once you know who you are as an agency and what you believe in and you value, then we can look at the work you do and how it’s uniquely different…uniquely different, that sorta sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Once we know who you are as an agency and what you believe in and what you value and what you will and won’t compromise on, then we can look at the work that you do and how it is equally unique.

And in my next solo cast, we will dig into that. We’ll dig into positioning and niching your agency and more steps in how to develop a compelling value proposition and differentiate your agency, but for now I really want you to spend some time defining what is your mission. What do you do better than everybody else every day on behalf of your clients? What is your vision? How is the world gonna be different for your agency? What’s in it for your agency long-term, if you deliver on that mission every day? And what are the values and principles or beliefs that guide your business decisions and the way you conduct yourself both with your employees and your clients and your community? Do that work, share it with your employees, share it with that world and begin to attract just those clients who deserve to work with that kind of an agency.

I will be back in a few weeks with another solo cast, I will be back next week with another great interview with another great guest who’s gonna help you build a bigger, better, stronger agency. As always, you can reach me at [email protected] if you have any questions about this podcast or what I’ve talked about, and if you’re loving this, I would really appreciate it if you would go to iTunes and Stitcher and leave a review. You have no idea how much that helps the podcast. And make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss an episode. I am here for you if you have any questions and please, please don’t just listen to this and put it aside, go and think about and define your vision and mission and values and see how quickly that begins to shape how you talk about your agency. I’ll talk to you soon.

That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free ebook and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better, agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.