Agencies: It's Time to Make Positioning a Priority

Dear Marketing Agencies: “The cobbler’s kids have no shoes” is no longer a valid excuse for a poor agency positioning strategy. How can potential clients to have faith in an agency’s ability to market their brand if that agency cannot even market itself?

Marketing agencies face countless barriers to growth… and positioning is one of the most important and often most overlooked of these barriers. According to Forrester, 62% of B2B buyers say they can finalize a vendor list based solely on digital content. An agency that does not prioritize positioning risks not even making it to the decision process.

When it comes to positioning, marketing agencies face two main challenges:

  • The way agencies message themselves does not speak to the needs of client-side marketers

  • Agencies fail to differentiate themselves

problem #1

Agency messaging doesn’t speak to the needs of client-side marketers.

Brands choose their agency partners for a number of reasons...relevant experience, core capabilities, client roster, etc. However, with over 120,000 marketing agencies in the U.S. alone, the competition is fierce. When potential clients land on an agency website, they’re looking for answers:

  • What does this agency do?

  • Why should I work with this agency? Will this agency be a fit for my brand? Do I like this agency?

  • What makes this agency different or better than other agencies?

  • How do I know this agency is as good as it claims to be?

Seems straightforward, right?

Wrong. In pursuit of finding answers to these questions, client-side marketers are often met with generic, ambiguous messaging that, frankly, all sounds the same. Here are real examples of agency messaging that we dug up:

  • “With full-service capabilities and a creative focus, ______ sets itself apart from all the other [insert city] advertising agencies.”

  • “Clients come to ____ for results, creativity, and a full complement of integrated marketing services for better performing work.”

  • “______ helps businesses and brands connect with consumers and fans through multi-dimensional strategy building and execution across a wide range of diversified areas.”

  • “No other ad agency thinks quite the way _____ does.”

Agencies fail to make the case for themselves because, time and time again, they do not map their website, social media, and other marketing channels to the needs and operating reality of the audience whom they aim to serve.

At a minimum, agency websites should have 2-3 core capabilities highlighted, a clear target client, case studies with real results, and differentiated messaging.

Agencies think that by niching, you miss out on opportunities. The reality is that different types of opportunities appear that are more in line with the type of work you want to do.
— Matt sonnhalter
Through the showcasing of work done for luxury brands in a fun, creative way, this creative agency communicates what they do, how they approach work, as well as who they serve (high end, lifestyle brands).

Through the showcasing of work done for luxury brands in a fun, creative way, this creative agency communicates what they do, how they approach work, as well as who they serve (high end, lifestyle brands).

Shameless plug here: For years, agencies have come to Setup, asking for feedback. The requests became so frequent that we began offering a Marketing Diagnostic service where we evaluate a marketing agency’s website, social media presence, capabilities decks, pitch decks, outbound emails, and overall messaging.

problem #2

Agencies fail to differentiate themselves.

Most marketing agencies do a poor job of differentiating themselves. Maybe it’s because not enough words exist in the English language to uniquely describe all of the marketing activities that agencies perform. Maybe it’s because many agencies don’t have the time or resources to treat themselves as a client. Maybe most agencies don’t know what makes makes them truly unique.

The thing is, all client-side marketers expect certain things from marketing agencies: creativity, innovation, problem solving skills, results, customer-focused, integrated, data-driven approach, etc. Sure, some of these traits can help differentiate an agency…But when competing against other agencies that do similar work for similar clients, these traits will not cut it.

Before it can hope to differentiate itself, an agency should have clear answers to the following questions:

  • Who are we? What is our purpose? Our philosophy?

  • What do we do? How does our identity and approach to work translate into value? What are our core capabilities?

  • Who do we serve?

  • Who do we compete against?

Here is an example of an agency that does an excellent job of making it clear who they are and what they do while showing a little of their personality.

Here is an example of an agency that does an excellent job of making it clear who they are and what they do while showing a little of their personality.

If an agency spends time thinking through its business philosophy, that its clients are, what services the agency provides, and the overall approach to its work and client relationships, clarity around what truly makes it unique will inevitably emerge. This clarity lays the foundation for a differentiated message.

That said, sometimes it’s difficult to see the forest through the trees. If agency leadership is the only stakeholder group thinking through the answers to these questions, this process may not yield the desired results. In other words, gathering perspectives from both internal and external sources is absolutely essential to uncovering an agency’s true differentiators.

By asking current and past clients, in addition to employees at various levels/tenures within the organization a targeted group of questions, an agency can identify synergies and/or disconnects across the different stakeholder perspectives.

It should be noted that when collecting this kind of feedback, clients rarely want to burn bridges, so they are not always candid. Hence, getting honest answers often requires a third party. Setup does this for agencies through our proprietary Agency Assessment process.


A 2018 Forrester study found that B2B buyers complete 57% of the decision-making process before even contacting a vendor. And, in a recent CMO study, 80% of CMOs found their agency partners - not the other way around. In other words, poor positioning is not just a barrier anymore - it’s a risk.

Sure, all of this sounds like a lot of work…and it is! Developing a cohesive, effective positioning strategy requires time, effort, introspection, as well as honest input from outside sources. However, when done right, an agency will find itself uncovering more of the right kinds of opportunities, all while giving itself an edge on the competition.

If you’re a leader looking to get your agency’s positioning to the next level, Setup can help you get there.

To learn how, check out our solutions for marketing agencies.