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Why big agencies need a narrative, not a niche

By Roland Gurney, Founder



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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June 7, 2023 | 8 min read

Roland Gurney of positioning-specialist agency Treacle explains why the standard ‘pick-a-niche’ strategies aren’t right for every agency.

Assorted novels

Never mind your niche; what's your story? / Kevin Lehtla

Today, anyone with a laptop, a website and a dream can start an agency. And while this democratization brings lots of positives, it’s also led to an overcrowded market of small and start-up shops. With this comes the inevitable deluge of agency gurus, all banging the drum for the same agency positioning play; niche, niche, niche.

But what’s the smart strategy for big agencies who don’t want to narrow down? Enter: narrative.

Are the riches always in the niches?

Niching is a huge business decision with a huge commercial impact. Let’s say you employ 1000 people and decide to only service the automotive industry, there’s likely to be layoffs, walkouts and client drop-offs. Plus there’s the exclusivity factor that many big brands demand.

For many bigger agencies, this just isn’t the right move. Mikon van Gastel, co-founder and chief exec of Sibling Rivalry, feels niching comes with too much risk.

“I’ve been in business long enough to see entire sectors, business verticals, and creative capabilities go up and down based on economic fluctuations and rapidly evolving client needs, and diversification puts you in a much less vulnerable position allowing you to weather these inevitable storms,” he said.

Different strategies for different stages

Whereas niching can help smaller agencies gain market traction faster, bigger outfits often need breadth and depth to build higher-value relationships with clients. Many see niching as inherently limiting, both creatively and commercially, as van Gastel explains:

“As a business, it’s wise to expand your offerings for a variety of reasons. When you think about the creative industry, it certainly already feels like a niche service to marketing, so it’s important to not further limit what your team can do and what you can do for your partners. By keeping our team diverse, and our capabilities broad, we’re better positioned to serve our partners.”

But with a wider set of services aimed at a broader set of prospects, the challenge is defining a positioning that isn’t just vague claims and agency cliches. A strategic way to unify the agency’s offer and still stand out in the market.

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What is a narrative, and why is it useful?

Your agency’s narrative is a strategic piece of writing that says who you are, what you do, and why you’re the better choice than your competitors.

It sounds deceptively simple, but it’s about making key decisions and keeping one consistent line of thought throughout. Once you have a clear internal version, it can be finessed creatively for external use anywhere from your website to the creds deck to social media.

While there’s no standardized definition of a narrative, it often captures the essentials behind the business. This often includes the business and service category, ideal clients and their key ambition, close competitors and their common weakness, your agency’s strength or superpower, the proof you can deliver on this strength, and the benefits this strength brings to your clients.

Mistakes agencies make with narrative

The stakes are often higher for bigger agencies, so these narrative decisions feel riskier. This fear often leads to a reluctance to commit to one answer for all the narrative blanks that need filling. In turn, this is where these bigger organizations often make missteps.

Managing multiple stakeholders with different opinions can lead to a narrative that’s been designed by a committee, with weak or watered-down choices that don’t move the needle. Similarly, a set of strong voices will often create a narrative that’s just a jumble of disjointed ideas rolled together to keep the peace.

When there’s senior creative talent working on the narrative, there’s the temptation to tinker with the copywriting and communication too early, polishing over the lack of strategic substance with nicely crafted sentences. And lastly, there’s the challenge of creating full team buy-in when the narrative’s been formed in the boardroom.

Martin Shaw, growth director at Mammoth, recently oversaw the agency’s repositioning which has been met with exceptionally positive market feedback.

He offers first-hand advice from the front lines: “Make sure the owners and key staff are on board as early as possible, and the leaders get out there and evangelize. Change doesn’t come easy. We’re mentoring, coaching and involving staff in its evolution. Advocates are now coming on board. This process must come from leaders and experts in brand positioning. Keep your nerve and champion the approach through everything you do.”

Narrative; a more nuanced strategy for the big stage

Niching is a great positioning strategy, but it’s not the only strategy. For bigger agencies who thrive on staying wide, a strong narrative gives them a way to make sense of their proposition and separate themselves from the pack. Once nailed, a good narrative is more than just a few pretty words about the agency; it’s a strategic story about why your agency is the better choice over the others.

Whether it’s told as one line, a paragraph, or a whole website, this seemingly simple piece of writing should live as the beating heart of your agency, from your senior leaders to your sales team.

Because there are already a million soundalike shops out there with big buzzword statements that anyone could use. But a narrative is true to your agency – it can evolve with you, and it gives everyone a hymn sheet to sing from. And that’s a beautiful sound when it all comes together.

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We're Treacle; agency proposition specialists. Because there are tons of soundalike agencies out there. Everyone's saying the same old things. So you see, if you're...

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