The one thing that makes a branding agency stand out
Alex Blyth is the managing partner at PR agency Red Setter. He makes the case here that specialisation is the one sure way for brand agencies to make a splash.
It’s hard to find an agency leader who doesn’t think 2023 is going to be challenging. In almost all sectors and all regions, budgets are tightening. In a market that’s more saturated than it’s ever been, it’s vital for an agency to stand out, to give clients a reason to notice and choose it.
I run Red Setter, the PR agency for the world’s design pioneers, so you might expect me to make the case for investment in publicity, saying you should get your name out there and make as much noise as possible.
Visibility matters, certainly, but in my 25 years working with brand agencies, visibility is less about the volume of noise you make, and more about the value of what you say. Taking this a step further, value derives from relevance to a specific audience, and I believe the key factor in agency standout is specialisation.
The case for specialisation
It’s a lesson we’ve learnt ourselves as Red Setter has become ever more niche over the past 12 years. This hasn’t been a carefully planned strategy. We’ve just got ever clearer on where we do our best work, the work we enjoy, and where we offer something no one else can. Today we’re ultra-niche: we help the world’s brand design pioneers achieve coverage in the world’s most high-profile media.
This focus has brought benefits. Firstly, everything we say and do is aimed clearly at that specific market, and as a result it’s highly relevant to that market. It’s taken us to a global audience who value expertise over locality, and helps us attract people who really want to work in this field. They come to us because they’re passionate about design, and they stay because of it.
Specialisation has worked for us, but we’ve also seen it with the agencies we represent. Take drinks branding specialists Denomination. They’ve built a reputation as the go-to agency for drinks brands by delivering consistently brilliant work and being visible as the experts in that space. They’ve doubled their size in five years and added San Francisco and London studios to their Sydney home.
More than sector specialism
Branding agencies are the experts in helping others find their points of difference and relevance, which makes it all the more remarkable that so few of them successfully find and communicate their own distinctive positioning.
There are a few reasons for this paradox. One is client conflict. Yet, the truism that two is a conflict, three is a specialism holds. Ensure you have solid confidentiality clauses in your contracts, help your clients understand the benefits of specialist expertise – who better to help them see how they’re distinctive in the market than an outsider with deep understanding of the whole market – and concerns about conflict quickly evaporate.
Another reason is a genuine desire not to be restricted to a single sector. Yet, specialisation need not be defined solely by sector. Look at Ragged Edge, a long-standing client and an outstanding example of a branding agency successfully applying the branding process to itself, finding and communicating its positioning as the agency for the world’s changemakers.
The fear of saying no
Perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle to specialisation is reluctance to say no, or a fear of deterring potential clients. Turning down work is always hard to do. Yet, it’s only by turning away from the wrong type of work that you can turn fully towards the right type of work, free from distraction and clear in your purpose.
You don’t need to be purist here. We know of many highly specialised agencies that will occasionally take on work that sits outside their positioning. They don’t promote it, and they keep it limited so their teams stay focussed, on and motivated by, the work they enjoy doing.
This doesn’t need to be an overnight transformation where you suddenly fire three-quarters of your clients. Gradually nudge the way you talk about your agency, internally and externally, so that you’re speaking to more of the right type of clients. Make brave decisions to say no to ones that clearly sit outside where you want to be. Keep constantly in mind that the clients you take on today define the agency you’ll become tomorrow.
The right noise
There is no better time to start than now. Identify the type of work you like to do and clients you like working with. Where do you do your best work? What inspires the team? Where do you make money? Get an external perspective on what’s distinctive about your agency.
This clarity on audience will give you greater stand out. You’ll be speaking specifically to a certain audience, making the right kind of noise. That alone will make it more likely the right clients will notice and choose you.