Difficulty of Self-Positioning

I have the privilege of working with a new marketing firm or department once per week typically, and doing it since 1994 has yielded some very clear patterns. One of those patterns is this: why are agencies so good at positioning products and services for their clients but so bad at doing it for themselves?

If you were your own client, you’d give yourself a dope slap, yell a little, and tell yourself to get off your ass and make some decisions. The most telling exercise I’ve ever done—and I’ve done it several dozen times now—is to ask everyone in the audience to write down in a sentence or two exactly what makes them unique in the marketplace. Then I make them exchange papers with a peer firm sitting right next to them, who then stands up and reads the positioning statement as if it were their own, and see if they can embrace this “distinctive” statement or if they must disavow it. You get the idea without me noting here that caring about your clients, assembling a strong team, really listening, and being strategic are not all that unique to you, no matter how good each of those sounds after three hours in the conference room!

Why This Happens to You

But the problem obviously is not ability, because I’ve seen the work these firms do, and it’s very good indeed. So let me take a stab at what might be going on.

First, it’s easy to lose objectivity when you’re too close to something. You can’t see the options with a fresh look like someone on the outside can, whether that’s an outsider helping you or you helping your client. As you think about this positioning challenge for yourself, it’s easy to develop certain attachments to early clients or operate from the mindset that you must hang onto clients, even the ones who aren’t ideal, because it took a lot of work to land them.

Second, it’s easy to value variety over competence. As harsh as that sounds, I mean it kindly. The only competence you develop in doing something new each time is learning how to adapt, make things up, and dive into empty pools while you invent water on the way down. The chance to learn from similar client issues gives you an expertise that moves you from being in the “client service” business to the “professional service” business.

Third, it’s easy to think that you’ll suffer irreparable harm when you eliminate large swaths of opportunity when being more deliberate about declaring your expertise. You know what, though? If you look back over your career as you move onto something else and don’t really see the success you envisioned for yourself, it’s likely because you were just incompetent...or you weren’t disciplined enough to say “no” to opportunities that came your way. In other words, competent people do not suffer from lack of opportunity; they suffer from lack of disciplined, tough decisions.

Reversing the Marginalization

In spite of the half-empty comments you’ve just read, the truth is that we are making great progress at positioning ourselves in the marketing industry. I take great pride in this, and just want the momentum to keep carrying us forward so that, hopefully, we can reverse the marginalization that seems to be pressing in from the outside. If you’ll truly differentiate yourself with some tough choices, many things will be easier for you.

First, you can now be a thought leader because you don’t have to be an expert in everything. You can dig in deeper, develop a true competence, and name dozens of things you know because you’ve seen them many times before. And if you handed a list of these things to that same peer firm sitting next to you, they could not stand up and read them and explain them...because their expertise will be different from yours. Once you taste that competence, in fact, you’ll never go back to making stuff up in front of clients and then winging it back at the office just to fulfill those promises.

Second, you’ll know exactly what to do in crafting the marketing support tools to help in your business development efforts. That includes what to say on your website, who to target, what conferences to attend, where to speak, where to get articles published, and so on. You’ll know what to say, and that’s half the battle.

Third, you’ll know what sort of team to assemble. Instead of beating the bushes to find yet one more journeyman utility player who can play all the positions in a pinch, you’ll have a very clear idea of what kind of person you need on the team to fulfill those positioning promises.

Fourth, you’ll enjoy the power and control that comes from not being easily replaceable. The better your positioning, the less you matter you to the mass of prospects out there. But your importance to a smaller selection of prospects is much greater, and that translates into a more two-sided relationship where your soon-to-be client needs you as much as you need them.

Closing Suggestions

I’m going to make some quick suggestions as you think about applying this to your situation.

First, be sure to make your own positioning a collaborative process by keeping everyone in the loop, recognizing that you’ll face unnecessary resistance unless the communication is inclusive. Having said that, do not make it a democratic process. It’s the principal’s job to make those decisions.

Second, the decisions you’ll be making have more to do with the type of work you seek, not the kind of work you accept. That means that you don’t need to dismiss any current clients or turn down work that doesn’t fit (for now). But it does mean that you can’t tell people about that work (even on your website).

Third, be especially careful to resist widening your positioning during more difficult economic times. You’ll see some good things short term, but long term, you’ll be saddling yourself with some baggage that you’ll have to carry around long after the economic environment returns to normal. That’s because you won’t be able to turn those “compromised” clients into good ones. It just doesn’t happen.

Fourth, none of this matters unless you tell people. That means that you can’t have a secret positioning. In fact, until it’s front and center on your website, it’s not really a positioning. Instead, it’s a variable positioning with each PowerPoint presentation as you shape it to what your prospects want to hear instead of who you really are.

Download Full Article (168 KB pdf file)