by Tim Williams
It’s a curious fact that advertising agencies don’t know much about selling — at least when it comes to selling their own brand. Even though agency professionals show good sense (and sometimes sheer brilliance) when crafting messaging strategies for their clients, this is rarely applied to how they market themselves.
Every agency executive has had the experience of dealing with the unsophisticated hard-charging client who hands over a bullet-point list of product features with the request, “Here, let’s just use this list in the ad.” Trained agency professionals would diplomatically help their client understand the necessity of turning that sterile list of features into a rich set of consumer-centric benefits. Yet what do we see on most agency websites and in “capabilities” presentations? Bullet-point lists of agency services, with not a client-centric benefit in sight.
The backwards value proposition
Your clients don’t buy services; they buy solutions to their business problems.
They don’t buy the tactics; they buy the program. They aren’t shopping for drills; they want a hole. Agencies must reimagine and redraft their offerings as solution sets; constellations of benefits designed to solve real-world business and marketing problems for their clients.
Business strategist Alan Weiss points out that most firms place their value proposition at the wrong end of the equation: they focus on their ability to do rather than on the client’s ability to improve. Says Weiss, “Anything that is not a desirable result for the client — problem solved, new level achieved, plan implemented — is an input that can be judged as a commodity against someone else’s similar input.” Once you change the focus to the client’s outcome instead of the agency’s input, you move significantly up the value chain.
Think of this as “value engineering.” Given your firm’s core competencies, how can they be segmented and described as programs that solve client problems?
Gain and pain
In the process of reimagining your offerings, remember that value can be both direct and indirect.
The two main forms of direct value are “gain and pain.”
You help you clients gain in some way, or you save them from negative effects they’re suffering in the marketplace. Indirect value, which can be just as meaningful, includes such things as ease, convenience, and reliability.
An informative piece in the Harvard Business Review, “The B2B Elements of Value,” presents a value pyramid in the context of business-related buying decisions. At the apex of the pyramid are high-value motivators having to do with purpose, career, and personal advancement. Even B2B purchases — like hiring an agency — are ultimately emotional decisions. The rational factors highlighted in this model are:
Productivity, including time savings, reduced effort, decreased hassles, etc.
Access, including availability and configurability.
Relationship, including responsiveness, expertise, commitment, stability and cultural fit.
Operational, including organization, simplification, and integration.
Strategic, including risk reduction.
These are the basic building blocks of your value story. And it’s your value story that you should be telling in place of the dreaded “capabilities” presentation. When you fall into the trap of presenting typical agency credentials — founding date, number of employees, revenue history, etc. — you’re wasting a chance to highlight and demonstrate the value you create for your clients, which is the real reason they're interested in you in the first place.
It’s not enough to create value; you must communicate it
Your value story can be reflected in literally every point of contact you have with a client or prospect. Given that the “people” section of agency websites is the most visited by prospective clients, biographies of your key people should reflect their expertise and problem-solving abilities. In attempting to present agency team members as fun people with fun interests, most agencies forfeit the opportunity to reinforce the prospect's buying decision. A light-hearted tone is fine, but don't let the style overwhelm the substance.
Another immensely useful practice in crafting a value story is to create a buyer persona. Especially for agencies in the digital space, this will be a familiar exercise, given that most website development is guided by well-researched user personas. Don’t make the mistake of thinking procurement is the actual economic buyer. Procurement professionals are technical buyers only; the person with the power to write the check is most often the chief marketing officer. Think of the audience persona as a three-dimensional representation of your prospect’s goals, objectives, attitudes, predispositions, personality, motivations, and challenges.
As pricing expert Hermann Simon reminds us, “Value alone does little good unless you can communicate it successfully.” That means customers must understand and appreciate what they’re buying. The only fundamental driver of willingness to pay is the perceived value in the eyes of the customer.