Do media agencies require a brand positioning?

Media agencies are no different to the clients they work for. They need a clear brand positioning that makes them stand out from others, two experts in the sector believe.

Mark Middlemas: managing partner, marketing, UM London
Mark Middlemas: managing partner, marketing, UM London

Mark Middlemas, managing partner, marketing, UM London

Q. Are brand positionings really just an attempt to give your agency some standout in an over-supplied, commoditised market?

No. All agencies should have a clear brand positioning that's embedded in everything they do, just like Nike, Xbox or Apple.

If you don't have a clear position, personality and culture, you will struggle to run your business successfully and, more importantly, will not deliver an optimal service to your clients.

Clients already find it hard to differentiate between media agencies, so a unique position that you all live and breathe is much more likely to "get noticed" and enable the agency to produce best-in-class work.

Our "curiosity works" position aligns the power of curiosity to successful business outcomes, and the positive feedback we receive tells us it's working very well.

Q. Aren't all agencies pretty much the same – they just use fancy terms to dress up their approach?

Worryingly for the industry, that is a common perception. The media agency market is crowded, but this makes it even more critical to have a unique brand position that people can easily understand and believe in.

Too many agency positionings are generic and lack real standout, which causes this perception. You have to work bloody hard to establish any sort of position – it won't do it itself – but get it right and you and your clients will prosper.

Q. How do you make sure your positioning is really embedded in your culture and isn't just a stream of platitudes that have little effect on the work you do?

Our positioning, "curiosity works", critically affects everything and everyone at the agency on a daily basis. It is central to the talent we hire and the training we deliver. It fires our planning process and fuels our search for big ideas.

It feeds our measurement tools and drives our pay-for-performance approach to remuneration. It is integral to all of our work and the way we market ourselves.

Q. Are there any pitfalls to having a specific agency positioning?

Yes. Our particular position may not suit a client's business. However, the main issue is how hard you are willing to work to establish your positioning and how genuine the positioning is. If you're half-hearted about it, you won't succeed – and that's what has happened with media agencies historically. It has to run far more deeply than simply being a "badging" exercise.

Q. Can a media agency ever be successful without having a strapline to sell to clients?

No. In my opinion, any successful business has a unique proposition that differentiates it from the competition, and media agencies should be no different. As media and advertising agencies, we do a fantastic job of building our clients' brands while too often neglecting our own. The most successful agencies in the future will be those with a clear and established positioning that clients can trust.

Kate Cox, head of strategy, MPG Media Contacts

Q. Are brand positionings really just an attempt to give your agency some standout in an over-supplied, commoditised market?

Absolutely. We work with our clients every day on finding new and exciting ways to help them stand out in their over-supplied, commoditised markets – agency land is no different.

MPG Media Contacts is a full-service media business offering a full array of specialists under one roof, beyond our core competency in each of our services and ways of connecting these services together – our differentiation has to come from our people and our culture.

Our brand positioning, "meaningful brands", is just one way of reinforcing our culture through the business.

Q. Aren't all agencies pretty much the same – they just use fancy terms to dress up their approach?

Agencies are a collection of people who come together to do great work for their clients. Great agencies are ones that are able to do great work consistently, and that has to come from the culture of the agency.

For us, "meaningful brands" is a journey that we are on with all our clients and media owner partners that will help us become more than just a media agency and enable us to generate ideas that truly make a positive difference in people's lives.

It is our response to the shift of power caused by digital media that is creating huge opportunities for brands to communicate with their customers in more engaging, meaningful ways but also opening up brands to greater exposure.

The brands that win in this environment are ones that can build long-term meaningful connections with their customers.

Q. How do you make sure your positioning is really embedded in your culture and isn't just a stream of platitudes that have little effect on the work you do?

Our "meaningful brands" approach is built on solid foundations, including a substantial global research programme measuring the relationship between businesses' positive contributions to individuals and society and greater brand attachment and trust.

We are using "meaningful brands" as a tool to drive change through our business: in terms of our output for clients but also in how we become a more "meaningful" business ourselves.

To that end, it encompasses all our agency output from our work for clients, our external marketing and how we recruit people to the decisions we make around office management and choice of suppliers.

Q. Are there any pitfalls to having a specific agency positioning?

For an agency's culture, and its positioning as a short hand to this, to be valuable it has to fulfill three key things:

  1. It needs to enable the agency to drive higher sales, lower costs or higher margins
  2. It must be sufficiently rare as to be differentiating
  3. It must be difficult to imitate. Not hitting these three points can cause potential pitfalls.

Q. Can a media agency ever be successful without having a strapline to sell to clients?

Specialist media agencies that focus on one core discipline only and small agencies that are built around key leaders can operate perfectly well without the need for an agency strapline.

It is agencies of a certain size, with a global footprint, which offer a range of services with large staff, that need to use this key tool to embed the same culture everywhere.

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