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How does a marketing agency differentiate themselves?


May 11th, 2016

I am the co-founder of a marketing agency that is doing things quite differently. However we are finding it difficult to get our message across as a "different" marketing agency as most people instantly group our business with other traditional full service agencies.

How can an agency best be different in your eyes? How can an agency get your attention? What is it that you use to determine which agency to work with? Where do you usually go to find an agency when you run into a marketing problem?

Tom Cunniff Founder at Cunniff Consulting, B2B Brand Consultancy

May 11th, 2016

At one point in my career, I was an agency owner. At another, I was a client.

Having seen this question from both perspectives, here are two utterly heretical thoughts.
  1. Agencies waste far too much time and effort trying to be differentiated. If an agency really is differentiated, it's easy to show how. In reality, the "differentiations" agencies typically create are hollow nonsense along the lines of "we have a unique, proprietary process that is actually exactly the same as every process you've ever seen and produces pretty much the same results". Inexperienced clients might be bamboozled by this, but... then you'd be stuck working with clients who are hard to work with because they're naive about pretty much everything. That's no fun.

  2. Clients hardly ever give a damn about differentiation. What they want is expertise in their specific business. It's like hiring a brain surgeon: I don't want somebody who has some wacky new way of doing that and cool PowerPoint that explains how. What I want is an expert who understands my specific issues and has a track record of solving similar challenges in the past. You are far more likely to win as one of the top three agencies who understands a very specific kind of business than being one of 300,000,000 agencies who claim to have a differentiated process.

All of our agency training teaches us that we must differentiate our brand, but we tend to forget that the differentiation has to be real (evidence-based and provable) and meaningful to a potential buyer.

By that definition, IMO your best way to differentiate is by specializing in a few very distinct practice areas.

Hope this is useful.

Edward M. Yang

May 11th, 2016


I'll share a bit of our personal experience.

I launched my PR firm in 2008...right when the recession hit.

But that difficult time actually assisted in us being able to hone our messaging and steal business away from more entrenched (read: expensive) PR agencies.

My decision was to position Firecracker PR as a boutique agency that serviced technology companies, mainly because of my experience working client-side at tech firms.

What I found, interestingly enough, was that even if you position yourself one way, it attracts prospects from different industries.

Although we focused on messaging our PR for tech firms, we still got prospects from diverse industries such as travel and tourism, fashion, consumer goods, etc.

Branding and positioning a service-based business like an agency is extraordinarily hard. 

This is because service is intangible versus a product company.

I highly recommend "Selling the Invisible" by Harry Beckwith. The book directly provides tips on how service based companies can stand out from their competitors. 

Regarding service offerings, much of it will be trial and error. Early on we found that we hated web design and removed that from our list of services. Same with things like collateral design. We decided to focus on PR, content marketing and search engine marketing as the 3 core offerings. That doesn't mean we won't take on other types of marketing projects, but it means we primarily message those three.

As for Rob Gropper's comment, even doctors have doctors. Meaning, being in an industry doesn't remove the need for outside consulting to sometimes help clarify.

Feel free to hit me up if you want to chat more about it.

Rob G

May 11th, 2016

Harrison, sorry, I had to chuckle at this.  I hope you see the irony - a marketing agency having difficulty getting it's message across :-/   

Peter Bray CEO at Bray & Co

May 11th, 2016

People are giving you great advice Harrison. I will add my 2 cents as someone who has started and sold agencies in the past, and have just started doing it again (

Firstly, what not to do is put a question on Founderdating which is really about getting prospects to know you. It is a bit obvious, but I get it, you have to grind!

Every week it seems like a new agency comes along touting itself as different. The reality is most are the same. And it won't get you PR.

My strong suggestion is to focus on producing great work for clients, work that has results, then have your clients tell that story with you. You then have credibility, and prospective clients hearing it from another client in incredibly powerful.

Oh, and I also suggest putting skin in the game. My agency has done it by committing to making zero profit unless our clients achieve there KPIs. If you think you re great at what you do, back yourself to outperform other agencies. If you aren't prepared to back yourself to outperform, well the world doesn't need more mediocrity.

Hope this helps.


May 11th, 2016

Wow didn't expect this much response! I have been reviewing with my partner and I really appreciate every piece of advice and experience each of you have contributed.

I agree with Peter that we really have to find our niche and what we do well and prove to our clients we can do this well. However it seems today that every niche is covered and therefore it is easy for us to slip into attempting to find something completely different.

We will have to reevaluate and take the focus off of being different and more about being the right fit and an agency that creates results!

Thanks everyone again for the comments!

Rob G

May 11th, 2016

you haven't mentioned what makes you different, but to answer your questions: 
"How can an agency best be different in your eyes?" and "How can an agency get your attention?"
In general, service agencies that put skin in the game stand out in my eyes as very few take that approach.  It get that it's risky, but if you want to truly stand out in the crowd I would try to find a way to tie your compensation directly to results. that would get my attention.  I am always hesitant to hire an agency as it always seems so hit or miss - no way to directly correlate the expense  to results.