Positioning Cheats

David is bothered by the notion of helping people cheat, especially at positioning. So Blair discusses 10 ways firms could succeed even if they either aren't ready or don't believe in the idea of tight positioning. You’ll feel dirty.



DAVID C. BAKER: Blair, today we are going to talk about the ten legit ... Maybe we're too old to say legit. The ten legitimate ways to cheat ...

BLAIR ENNS: Too legit to quit. Is that still a thing?

DAVID: I am interviewing you. You will remain silent until I tell you to speak, okay?

Blair Enns: Yes, sir.

DAVID: Ten legitimate ways to cheat at your positioning. But, I have to say this one bothers me. I'm such a believer in positioning. The notion of helping people to cheat bugs me. I meant to buy a buzzer, like a really obnoxious basketball game buzzer, so that if I hear any crap from you, it was going to go off. I'm going to have to simulate it.

BLAIR: Yeah. 

DAVID: But, the other thing I want you to know is that if you don't acquit yourself during this podcast, it's going to be known as the 1Bobs moving forward.

BLAIR: Okay. 

DAVID: Do you accept?

BLAIR: Alright, I'm on trial. Let's do this. 

DAVID: Okay.

BLAIR: And if the gloves don't ... How is it? If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit?

DAVID: I don't know.

BLAIR: Let's pretend I didn't make any of these bad jokes. Let's get into this.

DAVID: Okay. So, the idea is you either aren't ready or you don't believe in the idea of a tight positioning, but you'd like some of the benefits anyway. These are some hacks or some legitimate ways to cheat at that positioning. I want to remind people before they go down this path of the three particular advantages that you talk about in this subject for great positioning, those three advantages. The first is a sales advantage. I want you to just give me a few sentences about what you mean by ... The first benefit of great positioning would be a sales advantage. Then we're going to ignore these three things and we're going to talk about the ten hacks here.

BLAIR: Yeah. Well, let's talk about the first two together, a sales advantage and a price premium, and strong positioning should allow you to command both simultaneously. So, a sales advantage is simply that you win more often than not, and when you come up for an opportunity that's within your sweet spot, your area of focus or your area of specialization, then you usually win. A high percentage of the time you're the winning firm.

The second point, at a price premium, you win while charging more. So, you win not on price, not by cutting price. You're able to command this premium price and still win. So, that means you're seen as meaningfully different because a price premium kind of signifies a few different things, but ultimately it's the big indicator of how meaningfully different you are seen to be from your competitors. So, you win while charging more. 

DAVID: And impact the buying process. You did a really interesting study a while back about the role of impacting the buying process and the impact that has. So, just summarize that for our listeners today.

BLAIR: Yeah. So, the more meaningfully different you are seen to be, the greater impact that you can have on the buying cycle. So, that might look like pushing back on a client's arduous or flawed, or sometimes that ridiculous selection process. So, you might say, "Mr. Client, instead of responding to the RFP blindly as you suggested, we think a better next step would be we sit down with the decision makers and have a conversation about a fit and we'll see if it makes sense to take a next step from there. So, gaining access to decision makers when you're told access isn't allowed, getting them to change their process for you. All of that is a sign, again, of how meaningfully different they see you to be. 

In the brief study that I did on it, I'm not going to remember the statistics, but essentially if you don't impact the buying cycle, in some ways your odds of winning are about one in eight. If you moderately affect the buying process, then your odds of winning are greater than they are of losing. And if you significantly affect the buying process, then you get to decide what does moderately and significantly mean ... Or at least those in the study did. If you significantly affect the buying process, your odds of losing are really only about four or five percent.


BLAIR: So, if you significantly affect the buying process, you are almost a lock to win the business. So, these things become important. They're indicators of how much power you have in the buy-sell relationship, and that power really only comes from one place and that is your positioning, how different. How meaningfully different are you seen to be? Then, we could talk about leveraging that power because some have power and don't leverage it. That's a whole other topic, but those are the three primary benefits of a well-positioned firm.

So, what we're doing is we're talking today about how you, if you value those three, then how you might achieve them without making the hard choices, doing the hard work of positioning. These would be ways to cheat towards a good in for you. So, there's ten of these. We're going to have to move through them fairly quickly. The first one is to add a strong perspective. 

DAVID: Yeah. So, let's say ... The way I'd look at your positioning is discipline for market. So, what do you do and for whom do you do it? Those are the two primary elements of positioning. But, the third element is kind of that higher level after defining discipline for market because you might decide that you do marketing for pharma or physician retention for hospital systems. That's pretty specific. But, those are two examples of discipline for market.

So, marketing for pharma, that makes you a pharma expert or specialist, but how many other firms are also in that space, marketing for pharma? There's at least dozens, right?

BLAIR: 30 or 40, I would think.

DAVID: Yeah, 30 or 40 firms in that kind of direct competitor space to you. So, how do you set yourself apart from those other competitors is you add a strong point of view, which we refer to as a perspective. So, it's your overarching viewpoint on how this marketing for pharma should be done. That's really your secondary level differentiator. So, when you've maybe made some compromises in the first level, you've chosen branding for corporations.

BLAIR: Yeah. You love the branding word. I can tell by how warmly you describe that. 

DAVID: You've chosen something really broad. My point here is you can get away with the broad discipline for market if you add a strong perspective. In fact, if your discipline for market does not describe a nice, clean area with little competition density, so that's taking into consideration the size of the market and the size of the number of competitors. So, if it doesn't do its job there, if you've got a lot of competition density after proclaiming your discipline for market, then it's incumbent on you to add a really strong perspective, a polarizing perspective. If you've done a really good job on discipline for market, then you can away with a weaker perspective, or maybe not even having a perspective at all if you're one, two, three, four firms in a space. But, the more dense the competition is in your space, the more you are required to have a strong perspective to polarize the audience, and what you want to do is you want your audience who is reading your thought leadership or listening to your speech or listening to you being interviewed on a podcast, you want them to lean forward and to be drawn into your point of view. 

I often say about thought leadership people will ready for the X for Y, discipline for market, the knowledge that you're going to impart on X for Y. But, they hire you for your point of view. They hire you because you believe what they believe or you look at things the same way that they look at things and the implication is that's a narrower, more unusual way than most people. Or, you've got a really unusual point of view and you convert the reader to your point of view. That's what we're trying to do with a strong perspective and it can make up for an otherwise weak positioning.

BLAIR: Okay, great. Number two is to define and market different practice areas. Before you explain that, I would like you to speak to whether this replaces the generalist firms website. Would they have multiple websites, one for each of these, or are they in addition to? So, talk about that as well, after you've explained it. 

DAVID: Yeah. You could do that different ways. The multiple highly specialized practice area websites, or you could have basically bottom-up or top-down or you could have the big agency brand up top and then the specialist areas underneath. So, I don't think there's just one way to go about that.

BLAIR: But, the idea is the prospect would see themselves more specifically somehow in your marketing presence. So, you haven't made this big courageous choice over the whole firm, but you've been more specific as they dive in, so that they see themselves more readily. Is that a fair description? 

DAVID: This is really a mechanism for those larger firms for whom it really does not make sense to specialize.

BLAIR: Okay. It might be the larger global agencies or the larger maybe not-so-global agencies who are the generalist firms who have good, lucrative, deep relationships with a bunch of different clients in different areas just look at the business and ask the question does it make sense to break this up into different specialized practice areas? When you do that, whether you have dedicated websites to those practice areas or not is one thing, but if they don't have dedicated websites, there should be dedicated sections on the websites.

The other thing I would say is you need to have somebody who is the visible leader to the outside world of that practice area. Does that make sense? And when those practice area definitions are real, then you start hiring for those practice areas. If you're not hiring for those practice areas, they're not real, that means you're just a small firm trying to get away with a broad positioning. So, this is really only a hack that's available to the larger firms.

DAVID: Okay. And sometimes those larger firms will refer to this not just as a practice area, but also from the perspective client's standpoint, a category experience as well.

BLAIR: Yeah.

DAVID: Alright, third is launch a new entity. Are we back talking about smaller firms at this point, or not necessarily?

BLAIR: Size isn't really an issue here, although the smallest firms don't really need to think about this. Having said that, I know some small firms who have launched specialist entities. It's really a way of hedging your bet about you've got this idea ... We see this in our training program all the time. In fact, I'm doing a webcast for the folks in our training program on this very subject next week. It's called Project Skunk Works, the hows and whys of launching a separate brand.

So, let's say you're a generalist firm and you're going through the positioning part of our program and you arrive at a really novel and narrowly focused positioning. You get really excited about it. But, the fear is also just too massive because it's so specific, it's so specialized, compared to your current client base. You might have clients, good, well paying clients in a variety of different areas and now you're proposing to specialize in a new area. So, it's a way of launching the new entity without freaking out your current client base, but usually those concerns are overstated. 

So, it's really a way of launching a new specialized entity without freaking out yourself. So, you keep the mothership as it were, same brand, same website, et cetera, and then you launch a new specialized brand that might specialize in property marketing or pharma or health care or whatever it is.

DAVID: And you would develop separate insight that follows that particular focus and publish it along with that and so on to build credibility with that.

BLAIR: Yeah. And in most cases, the idea is once you validate the specialized entity, then the mothership will slowly go away. You basically shift all of your efforts to the new entity and you let the mothership, the old, generalist brand, just kind of run its course and then one day in the future you just shut it down. The exception might be if the specialty you're choosing is in a high-risk area. There aren't many high-risk areas. Property marketing is the one that comes to mind. You might keep the generalist firm open and doing business under that banner just to mitigate the risk that comes with being in a space where all spending stops once there's any type of economic downturn. That would be the one exception I can think of. 

DAVID: I've heard some people react to this idea by saying there's no way we can maintain two marketing plans. Then, if they stop and think about it a little bit more they realize we've never had a marketing plan for this generalist mothership anyway. The work has just come to us, which is why it hasn't been at a price premium. We haven't impacted the sales process, all those things you talked about at the beginning. So, it's really about having one for the first time really serious marketing plan over at this other venture on the side.

BLAIR: Yeah. And you put all of your new business and marketing resources behind the new specialized entity. So, the old one is still there, but you're not doing anything to further it in terms of chasing business under that banner. If business comes in under that banner, that's fine. You're free to take it. But, you focus all of your efforts moving forward on specialized entity.

DAVID: Okay. Fourth one is to cop an attitude. Cop an attitude.

BLAIR: Yeah. This one is related to a perspective. So, perspective is your overarching belief on how this should be done, but an attitude is really a tone and there's something ... I think you and I both know firms who when they publish something, some thought leadership, we read it because it's great reading, not so much because we're interested in the subject area, or even their point of view but the way they write, the boldness or something. I don't know exactly here to put this, but attitude is a factor. It speaks to confidence, which draws people to you. 

So, if you have ... And I can't even define it more than this. If you have a compelling attitude, there's just something about that that draws people to you, and that is what I would call a legitimate cheat, you wouldn't try to build your business around it. And this isn't advice you should go out and try to replicate. Some of this advice, as we get further down, it's a little bit tongue-in-cheek. But, it might explain why you're successful when external consultants, like you and I, David, look at a person's firm and think, "I have no idea how you're succeeding with a positioning like this." Part of it might just be attitude. 

DAVID: Yeah. I was a guest on a podcast recently that's called Everyone Hates Marketers, and that's an example of an attitude. The firm that runs this podcast is a very small firm in Ireland and they had Seth Godin on the podcast a couple of episodes before me and I'm thinking that's got to be partly the explanation for why somebody like Seth Godin would be on Everyone Hates Marketers because it's a very specific topic or point of view. It's copping an attitude, plus of course, he, Seth Godin, would also believe in that notion, too. So, this is related. It's pretty interesting. 

Can you think of some examples of firms that would portray this attitude? It doesn't have to be a mean attitude. It could just be a very specific attitude.

BLAIR: I'm a big fan. I've done some work with this firm. You've met one of the partners as well. He's come to an event we did. Velocity Partners in London or just outside of London, they're in the content marketing business. I think their creative director, partner, Doug Kessler, is probably the best content marketing writer out there today. Maybe one of the best advertising writers. I could read their stuff all day long. He's got this article, and he's done a presentation. I think he was at Inbound the year that you and I were speaking there, but I didn't get a chance to see him. "How to Lie in Your Fucking Marketing." He just cops this attitude and writes well. That combination is really compelling.

DAVID: Yeah. Now you've made me want to go listen to that one. Now, of course you just threw an E on the description of this podcast episode, too.

BLAIR: Well, you could bleep it out with the buzzer you don't have. 

DAVID: Alright. The fifth one is to sell on how you do what you do. So, I guess more about process or the how.

BLAIR: Yeah. We get into the sketchier ones here as we get further down the list and we're on number five here. You need to watch out with this one because you really shouldn't be selling on how you do what you do other than late in the sale. Early on, the buyer is over-weighting the benefits of change and later on they're over-weighting the costs or consequences of change, so they're quite nervous and your job is to calm them down. That's where methodology comes in, when you kind of lift the kimono late in the sale and say, "Alright, let me explain to you how this is going to work." The reason you explain how this is going to work is you're trying to prove that you have this demonstrable, repeatable process. 

That's not a hack for your positioning because positioning is supposed to be effective at the front end of the funnel. It's supposed to drive opportunity to you. But, it can be a hack sometimes when it is tied to something we talked about earlier, which is having a point of view or perspective. In fact, I would say we could talk more on this, and we don't have much time. But, any methodology that you have that you would unveil late in the sale to calm down a nervous client, it really should fall out of your overarching point of view if you've been able to articulate one.

So, if you are leaning on that earlier point, I think it was the second sheet or hack, of having a strong perspective, a strong point of view, then it's really kind of incumbent on you to actually prove that you bring that point of view or that perspective to bear once you actually start doing the work. That's what I mean by sell on how you do what you do. 

So, if you're using that earlier one of you've got a novel point of view, you almost have to be able to pay this off later in the sale. Now, the mistake a lot of firms make is they invent this proprietary process that's usually quite meaningless and they put a TM or an R-ball, pay the money and register the trademark next to it, and then they put it on the front page of their website and they say, "We are the XYZ process agency," and thinking that that's going to do it. That's not going to do it. I'm really talking on building a perspective and paying it off later in the sale.

So, you can be a really broad generalist and have a strong point of view that can draw people to you and then once you're into the conversations and the sale, you can open up the kimono, so to speak, and prove that this is how we're going to bring that perspective to work for you, if we work for you. That combination of those two things can be powerful and can overcome a weak positioning.

DAVID: Okay, gotcha. Number six is to build mystique. You were talking with me about this a while ago and you pointed me to this website. I don't know if you remember or not. This was the firm in New Zealand, but I presume that this would fall under this.

BLAIR: Yeah. Alt Design Group in Auckland, New Zealand. And I don't know these guys. We've traded a couple of emails with one of the principals. I hope to be down there in the next four or five months and to go in and see them. But, I'm a massive fan of their website. I forget the URL. 

DAVID: It's altgroup.net.

BLAIR: Altgroup.net. So, how many words of content would be on your website, David?

DAVID: Oh, my God. It's like a terrible version of Wikipedia. It's way too much.

BLAIR: It's well over 100,000.

DAVID: It's well over a million. Yeah.

BLAIR: Really?

DAVID: It's way too much.

BLAIR: Yeah. So, there are a lot of words on your website. You go to Alt Design Group's website and it says, "This page intentionally left blank," and then there's some contact information. I would just have a glass of wine in the middle of the night in my kitchen. Everybody else has gone to sleep. It's all dark. And I would just pull up that page and look at it and go, "Yeah, that's what I want." 

DAVID: How long do you think it took them to write that phrase? I picture weeks of editing sessions and diagrams.

BLAIR: It's the title of a book on graphic designs. I don't think it took them a lot. But, the idea is that this firm is built on the idea that the most powerful thing in marketing is a rumor. So, there are all kinds of rumors associated with Alt Design Group. You can Google them and you can hear the stories and people have all these ... There are all these stories that get traded about how they win business and how they turn away business and how hard it is to get them to work for you, et cetera. 

Who knows how true these are or are not. I'm hoping to find out. But, the mystique is really powerful, so clients seek them out because of the mystique. So, are they properly positioned? No, it's nothing but mystique.

DAVID: It's a 14-year-old boy. New Zealand, yeah.

Okay. So, the seventh is to sell integration. But, you're making a distinction here. You're selling real integration. Talk about what that means.

DAVID: Yeah. So, this is where we get into the area of this is the seventh of ten hacks or cheats for your positioning and this is where this is theoretically possible, but you don't see it very often and I'm not sure I can call to mind any credible examples of this. But, I do know they're out there. I just don't see them very often.

The idea of an integrated ad agency or an integrated communications firm, and somewhere around 15 years ago or so, this IMC was big. Integrated Marketing Communication. It was kind of like a new full-service thing that was taking off, as a saying, and then it just kind of flamed out. You don't hear it anymore.

But, the idea is that an integrated firm takes many of these different specialties, and then somehow with some sort of magic sauce, they stick them all together and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. But, the problem is integration is usually or historically has been a phrase that is used by generalists trying to communicate the message that, no, no, we're actually a bunch of specialists. So, this is a tongue-in-cheek hack. I would say, for most of you, don't use it. But, I do want to acknowledge that it's theoretically possible.

BLAIR: But, it's possible if you're a larger firm, right? Because you're going to have to have the personnel necessary to credibly build out these different arms and legs that make up the whole body. Is that right?

DAVID: Yeah, you could probably do this with about a 30-person firm, I think. So, it doesn't have to be really large, but you can't be really small, either.

BLAIR: Yeah, it's just not true at that point. That's why you put real in parentheses as we're describing this real integration.

DAVID: Okay, eighth is to sell deeper into existing clients.

BLAIR: Yeah. Your firm doesn't have to be well-positioned if you don't have this steady need to always bring in new clients. Now, there's some risk associated with having the same clients for too long. But, if we look at the flip side of the problem, the flip side of the problem is you bring in a new piece of business, you do some work for the client, then they go away and they don't come back. They might come back for a new project years down the road. 

Then you think of the firms where they're like black holes. A client goes in and never comes out. When I was working in the agency business, whatever market I was in, there was always somebody, some firm, who was like that. Man, a client goes in there. If they start working for that client, that client never leaves because they have mastered a deep relationship. And beyond just a relationship. I'm not trying to minimize what's going on here. They're crawling into all the cracks, the niches, the crevasses, that are in that client. They're mining that client in a way and to a level of detail that most other firms don't. And some firms, they're just build on this.

DAVID: They're not going to leave the mine until everything is gone, right?

BLAIR: Yeah. I like to say, another metaphor, is they're like a virus going into a computer. They go everywhere, but the better metaphor is they're not leaving the mine until every nugget has been mined.

DAVID: There's an example of what agencies are doing here that I've seen crop up more frequently now than ever in the last at least four decades, and that's staff augmentation. It's a nasty business to be in. So, in other words, they are leasing employees to their clients. It's a nasty business to be in, in the sense that it's very hard to maintain a position of expertise. It's very difficult to maintain your culture when you have "employees" spread out at other clients. 

But, in every example of the firms that I've worked with, and I've worked with more than a dozen intensely, they are making way more money from staff augmentation than they are making from traditional agency or creative services and they're reluctantly doing it, honestly. But, when you look at who's subsidizing whom, the staff aug is subsidizing everything else in these agencies and it's an example, driven largely by the fact that I think at the Fortune 1000 levels they have all of these ... It's unfortunate, almost artificial body count mandates where they simply cannot expand their staff and it costs more to do it. That's what's so crazy, but they go out and hire these other employees on a staff aug basis.

BLAIR: It's just created this entire new industry, and if you look at the larger consulting companies, they're built on this, right?

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: They go in and you hear stories of clients saying to the consultants, "You guys came in for a project eight years ago."

DAVID: We can't get rid of you.

BLAIR: "And now you're everywhere."

DAVID: Completely intertwined.

BLAIR: In those cases, a lot of the institutional knowledge of the client company is actually held up in the agency or in the consulting company. If you've been intertwined, if you're in a company for six to eight years and the average tenure and the average position in that firm is two years, then you are the holder of the institutional knowledge. Therefore, you're invaluable.

DAVID: Yeah. Alright, number nine, because we only have two more here is to mine for referrals. Again, this is in the context of if your positioning isn't fantastic, these might be some ways that you can minimize that impact. So, mine for referrals.

BLAIR: Yeah. Similar to number eight, if you don't have this really pressing constant need to bring in new clients all the time, because the new clients come to you not for reasons of what we would say classic positioning, but because of relationships because you're essentially doing good work, but beyond that, and I think that's the last point that we'll talk about, beyond that you have mastered the art of asking your clients for referrals. And I've met very few principals or firms who have mastered this art. It's actually one of the dark arts that we at Win Without Pitching, we're working on it now. I've been saying we don't have a novel point of view on referrals and we've been working on it for a long time. We've been talking to all the people in the referrals business, we're reading all the books, and I don't know that there's anything there. I don't know that I can bring anything novel to the table beyond these three points of do good work, say please, and say thank you. I don't know that there's much beyond that. Be referable. 

These are the three points that I get from Strategic Coach. They've distilled it down to this. Be referable, say please, ask for the referrals, and then say thank you in different ways. So, I think there are different levels of nuance you could bring to each of those three points. But, the big one is just creating a habit around asking. Some firms, and it's usually individuals within firms and it's usually the principals, they've just mastered this art so they don't have to do all of the marketing that others do and there's downsides to leaning exclusively on referrals. There's not a lot. There's not a lot, but if you get better at asking for and getting referrals from your clients, then that will take all kinds of pressure of of your positioning. 

DAVID: It seems pretty obvious to me that the degree to which you want more of the same kinds of clients you have is the same degree to which this will work, right? If you're trying to upgrade your clients, the referral path is not going to be as accessible to you, because they think they know what a good client is and they're going to bring you more of those, and if you don't have great clients already, it's going to be tough.

Alright, the tenth one is to be awesome. Are you writing a Hallmark card here? Be awesome because we know we're more awesome than other people. Does it mean to be more awesome than others? Everybody thinks they're awesome, generally.

BLAIR: It sounds like I got under your skin with this one a bit.

DAVID: My hand is hovering above the buzzer here.

BLAIR: We've yet to hear the buzzer.

So, I said, as we get lower down the list some of these are a little bit sketchy or maybe even tongue in cheek. First of all, I'll say that of the three points that I listed for cheat number nine, mine for referrals, the first point is be referable. So, first of all, you have to do good work, right? I want to point out that if you're really good at what you do, forget your positioning, forget the claim of expertise that you take to the market, if you just happen to be really good at whatever it is you do, no matter how broad you've spread yourself, that's the first step of, A, keeping clients and, B, getting referrals. So, it's a legitimate hack. 

I put here because I want to speak to the point that that's just something that we should all strive for. It's just really an issue that's a level of quality. And I don't know how much you or I, you and your consulting practice and me and our training program, how much time we spend trying to make the firm a better firm. I think we spend some time on it, but the better the firm is, the better the quality of the work, then the less pressure there is on positioning because the lower turnover of clients.

Having said that, I think we've talked before, if we haven't, we'll talk at some point about the fact that a certain amount of client churn is healthy.

DAVID: Right. 

BLAIR: Right. So, it doesn't take all of the pressure off. There's a reason it's number ten. I'm poking a little bit of fun at some the people who essentially neglect the hard work and difficult decisions that come around choosing a focus in the marketplace around positioning their firm and just think that we're just going to be awesome.

So, on one hand, that's a slightly ridiculous notion. On the other hand, we should all be striving for a certain level of awesome, because if we're not at that level of awesome, we're going to churn through our clients fairly quickly and we're going to find it difficult to get referrals.

DAVID: Thank goodness that clients have a preference for different styles. That's why there are so many agencies, right? Every agency thinks they're special. All the clients think the agency is special and they have this mutual love for each other and that's kind of what makes this world work, right?

BLAIR: Yeah. It's all rainbows and unicorns, man.

DAVID: Yeah. Alright, the next episode of this podcast will be called 1Bobs. It's been very nice to have you as a guest for a few episodes. I am taking applications. So...nah.

Thank you, Blair. I appreciate it.

BLAIR: Thanks, David.


David Baker