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Agencies need to embrace the positive power of negativity

By Roland Gurney | Founder



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February 9, 2024 | 8 min read

Agencies tend (in public at least) to be pretty nice. But this endless positivity leads to a lack of credibility, says Roland Gurney of Treacle. But is the negative necessary to sell the light at the end of the tunnel?

A row of Lego heads with angry expressions on their faces

Could agencies afford to be a little more negative in their positioning? / Nik via Unsplash

Prospects have problems. Big, fat hairy ones that they need an agency to solve. These problems keep prospects awake at night, whether they’re huge commercial challenges, organizational issues, or even personal frustrations.

But agencies are awful at tapping into these through their overall go-to-market propositions. Instead, they paint an endlessly positive picture of seamless processes, guaranteed results, and flawless case studies.

But this isn’t believable. And more importantly, it doesn’t tap into the way prospects really choose agencies.

The concept of using fear, fights, criticisms, and comparisons isn’t new to marketing. There have been numerous negative campaigns that have been successful over the centuries. But there have also been backfires and backlashes. Maybe that’s why agencies only ever present the positive.

Using the negative to attract and land the right clients takes a deep understanding of a prospect’s specific situation. This is why many agencies simply can’t use it, because they have no specific target client to address. And even when they attempt to use some negativity to drive leads or sales, it ends up so generic it doesn’t resonate.

Promote the problem, sell the solution

Leveraging negativity in an agency’s proposition takes nuance and niceness. The aim is to build empathy by marketing a specific client problem your agency can solve. Both sides are needed for this to work. Because a problem without a potential solution is just fear mongering. And a solution without a problem is just happy-clappy optimism. You need contrast when it comes to using negativity in your proposition.

Done badly, problem-based marketing can come off as accusatory or aggressive, making prospects feel victimized and disempowered. In contrast, a well-marketed problem makes a prospect nod along in agreement, feeling heard and understood. The key is to market a common problem (otherwise it’s not a viable marketing play, anyway) and show the prospect you’re on their side by being empathetic (and vitally, by offering them a solution).

Fight a common enemy, or for a common cause

When an agency has a broad target client, the smarter way to leverage negativity may be to fight against (or for) something. This is the classic rallying cry strategy: calling out a villain, while painting yourself as the knight in shining armor. Here, the negativity is more generalized and not aimed at the prospect themselves.

The thinking is that you’ll attract clients who feel the same way as you, sharing a mutual enemy or fighting for the same common goal. For example, you might be a marketing agency that picks a fight against the agency retainer model, setting yourself up as a roll-on, roll-off provider. Your job is to bad-mouth retainers and highlight all the downsides for a client.

Bring everyone into the industry in-joke

Whatever world your agency works in, there’s undoubtedly some poor practice or shoddy workmanship you could shine a light on. It’s vital you don’t make this too pointed or personal as it could feel like an attack on someone specific, rather than a joke about a general issue. The aim is to showcase a common problem you can all laugh at to subtly introduce your agency as a potential solution. It should be filled with industry cliches, commonalities, and crappiness that anyone in your industry would understand.

For example, we recently created a spoof agency called Beige: The World’s Most Average Agency. This fake website is crammed with empty claims and lazy cliches that agency folk (hopefully) laugh along with. It’s not aimed at anyone in particular, but rather a third-party mirror on the stuff we all get wrong. This use of communal negativity went on to win us some valuable new business and a Drum Award (#humblebrag).

But still agencies would rather create a hundred-slide deck of dull creds than spend an afternoon calling out what’s wrong with their industry. And yes, the latter works better.

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Laugh at yourself, or someone else will

Sure, business is serious. Client work is serious. But agencies often disappear up their own backsides when it comes to talking about themselves. So many agency propositions sound pompous and puffed-up, but sometimes a bit of self-deprecation can make an agency feel approachable and human (rather than saying it’s approachable and human).

So, call out the stuff you can’t do, or don’t do well. Create some case studies with a beginning, a muddle, and an end. Own a few fuck ups and show you’ve learned the lessons. The ‘pratfall effect’ is a subconscious bias in which people warm to those who make mistakes. In contrast, presenting an overly-polished, and hyper-positive facade all the time may well have the opposite effect, putting prospects off.

Using negativity takes nuance and subtlety

Done badly, negativity and problem-led marketing can make you look like a miserable doom monger. People instantly scroll past your endless neigh-saying. You can come off as angry or aggressive, attacking people unnecessarily. It’s about treading a fine line, leaning into the negativity just enough to get a prospect’s attention and agreement – but never making them the perpetrator.

When you market the right problems, those specific issues they resonate with, that’s when you’ll build a following of believers, not just a list of cold leads.

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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 blending in, you're losing out.

That's why we take you through our agency proposition process to define your difference and own your space. Then we craft that cut-through messaging that makes clients weak at the knees.

This isn't sleazy lead-gen or fluffy brand bullshit. We set the foundations for sustained growth, giving you and your team the confidence to attract better clients and close better deals.

Keen to know more? Drop us a message and check out

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