The other day I got a phone call that made my week. 

One of my clients, the CEO of a small ad agency I’ve worked with for just over four years, called to tell me that the agency’s positioning strategy, a strategy that I first suggested more than three years ago and have encouraged (and sometimes cajoled) him to embrace ever since, just won him a major piece of business.

It was gratifying to me, of course, because it validated my business! But I was happier for him.

Committing to that positioning strategy had been a psychological hurdle. It fit like a Savile Row suit, but it required him to put a stake in the ground, and that meant potentially saying “no” to revenue if it meant working with the wrong kinds of clients.

(And what are the wrong kinds of clients? Clients you work with only for the money, that don’t respect your expertise, and do nothing towards furthering the vision you have for your agency.)

It’s a very emotional decision for some agency owners, and emotion tends to cloud our judgment and compromise our objectivity.

But what if you had a way to test your positioning that puts emotion to the side? 

When I work with an agency on its positioning, we test our hypotheses against this checklist. We ask, is the positioning:

  • Succinct?
  • Targeted?
  • Repeatable?
  • Accurate?
  • Flexible?
  • Differentiated?

Is it succinct?

Can you easily communicate it to anyone in one sentence?

When agencies fail to check this box it’s generally due to a lack of specificity. “We’re a full-service advertising agency serving a range of consumer marketers” is certainly succinct, but it tells your prospective clients little.

It’s symptomatic of trying to be all things to all people. Luckily the rest of the checklist offsets that.

Is it targeted?

One measure of a strong positioning statement is when the target audience can see itself in it.

Here’s an example: “Industrial Strength Marketing: We are a full-service agency that solves marketing challenges for manufacturers, distributors and logistics.” And the agency’s website pays it off. If you’re not a manufacturer, you’re the wrong kind of client.

Is it repeatable?

A lot of positioning strategies are way too complicated. It’s another sign that an agency is trying to be all things to all things to all people.

A good positioning should be easy for anyone at your agency to understand and repeat. When you saddle your employees with a complicated, fussy one that’s hard to remember and awkward to say, it loses its utility and it rarely gets used.  

Is it accurate?

Why would an agency want an inaccurate positioning strategy?

And yet I see it all the time, often in the form of aspirational statements like “We’re the agency positioned for the digital future.”

OK, that one I just made up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s an agency out there that’s staked that claim. To be fair, it might even be true, but usually, it describes what an agency wants to be and not what it is.

And if it’s not accurate, then how do you prove it? Either you don’t, and your argument falls apart once you start taking your prospective client through your case studies, or you obfuscate (maybe not intentionally) with overblown adjectives like “passionate” and “relentless” or phrases like how you “live and breath” branding or social media or whatever it is you want to prove that you do.

Aspiring is a good thing, but make it a part of your internal communications or the annual management offsite instead.

Is it flexible?

This might seem like I’m reversing myself a bit, but having an element of flexibility in your positioning strategy can be a good thing.

It’s like a foundation for the structure you want to build. It grows with you, but it becomes shaky if it’s asked to support something that it wasn’t designed to support.

Is it differentiating?

I hate to break it to you, but an “obsession with getting business results” does not make you unique.

With more than 20,000 agencies in North America, differentiating your agency from competitors is hard. But I think uniqueness has less to do with a singular, own-able quality and more to do with how those qualities are arranged.

It’s like DNA – we’re all made up of the same stuff, and yet none of us are the same.

And you have a choice. You can choose the path of least differentiation, but it’ll probably increase your costs of business development and decrease your level of competitiveness

Before I wrap this up, I’m going to add one more bonus checkbox, liberally borrowed from another business development expert whom I respect a lot, Blair Enns:

Is it polarizing?

Does your positioning offer a polarizing point of view? This is scary territory for a lot of ad agencies because it forces them to question a long-held belief that "the client is always right."

Having a polarizing point of view means people won’t always agree with you. Some of those people might be prospective clients, but they also probably fall into the “wrong client” category.

Of course, your polarizing point of view, if you have one, must be authentic and shouldn’t be designed to offend. What it will do is attract the believers. It will prequalify your leads, weeding out those that want to base their decision on price rather than expertise.

Finding the right positioning for your agency can be emotional, soul-searching work. Try using this checklist and see if it helps you get out of your own way. Be honest about your answers and be willing to make hard choices to get to a better outcome.

That’s what my client did and he’s starting to reap the results.