Positional Awareness

Frameworks for aligning your content and business strategies

Hello, friendly human. Every week (or so!), this dispatch helps you make better creative and strategic decisions. Sometimes that means essays. Sometimes that means resources. Last time it was an essay on meditation. This time it’s a framework for aligning your content strategy to your business offering. I wrote this for the folks who ask me about my time as an agency content lead, and how we decided what our content strategy would be. It’s oriented towards agencies, but I think it’s a useful framework for any brand. Anyway, hello, it’s good to see you. -Steve

Every agency needs attention

Agencies don’t really want attention. Agencies want revenue. An agency acquires revenue by selling its service. But in order to sell its service for revenue, the agency must first get people to pay attention.

The more attention the agency gets, the more services it can sell, and at a higher price. Attention, in this way, is the great differentiator. So every agency needs to be in the business of getting attention whether they want to be or not.

There is only one way to get attention

That way is to tell stories.

A story is an idea you put out into the world. A story can be a case study or a story can be a sizzle reel, a story can be a quote in The New York Times or Ad Age, or a story can be something your co-founder drunkenly scribbled on a cocktail napkin and asked the intern to publish on the agency blog.

Regardless, you have to put stories out into the world if you want people to pay attention to you.

There are only two business cases for attention

There are only two business cases for getting attention. Those business cases are Public Relations and Business Development.

Public Relations is things you do to get noticed.

Business Development is things you do to get business.

Ideally, the things you do to get noticed are the same thing as the things you do to get business. Winning at Cannes Lions, for example, might win you admiration and new clients. 

Similarly, publishing a great case study might get you a great client, which will then get you noticed by trade press and creatives.

There are only two audiences for attention

Regardless the result of an agency’s methods, they’re usually only trying to gain the notice of two types of people: 

Creatives and Customers.

Creatives are people you want to hire.

Customers are people you want to hire you.

Public relations and business development for creatives and customers. That’s it. No matter how you express your story. No matter what that story is about. It’s all just PR and BD for creatives and customers.

This reveals a simple 2x2:

Each type of attention has a different benefit

Every type of story an agency might tell fits within this 2x2.

Because an agency only wants attention to make revenue, the telling of stories becomes a strategic activity. That is, an activity done to assist the agency’s competitive position.

And, because an agency only has so much money and time for its strategic activities, the agency needs to make decisions about which stories to tell. 

The opportunity is for the agency to align their strategic activities (the Attention Getting Function) to other strategic activities (the Service Offerings). 

This is why most agencies have historically focused on The Wins and The Work. Wins get you more of work. Work can be submitted for wins. And both wins and work get the attention of creatives, who make the work that gets the wins.

Everybody wants (and needs) to be different

Here’s the problem, tho. The market has gotten crowded.

Once there were fewer agencies that offered fewer services. Those agencies serviced fewer customers for longer periods of time. The agencies had pricing power. Now there are many agencies that specialize in many different services. Those agencies service more customers for shorter periods of time. The customer now has pricing power.

Classic acceleration scenario: everything has gotten much faster and more complex. 

In this crowded and inhospitable environment, agencies must compete that much more effectively. And as anybody named Michael Porter will tell you, competitive strategy is all about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.

But...how do we be different?

That’s where the fourth quadrant, The Ideas, comes in.

If an agency can establish itself as a leading voice by consistently publishing its point of view, then it further and consistently differentiates itself from its competition and increases the number of at bats with potential customers. 

This is why Huge publishes Magenta. And RGA publishes Future Vision. And Ideo publishes the Journal. And on and on and on.

Content, in this way, can be a mechanism for generating interest and leads, and generally keeping your name out there when it’s not awards season, or when that MSA you signed prevents you from crowing about your work.

But...what do we say?

Agencies face many challenges to creating content. There’s no client. There’s no brief. Without a client or a brief, there’s no prescribed topic to talk about or voice to speak with. And agencies, accustomed to marketing themselves directly—The Wins, The Work—default to thinking they should, perhaps, make more content about themselves.

And you should crow about your wins! And you should brag about your work! And yes, maybe you should hire a MarCom minion to get you into Ad Age!

But if you want to consistently differentiate yourself over time and build an owned audience that you can influence, the opportunity lies in publishing content. The opportunity lies in picking an audience, understanding what that audience needs and wants, and then understanding how the agency can help that audience be a better version of themselves

This is why Huge gives creatives and brands cultural perspective, and RGA provides insight into cultural trends, and Ideo helps readers think about how to think. It’s all very generous—but it’s generosity with PR and BD ends in mind. 

So there’s no universal answer for the question what do we say?

But there is a universal question. In fact there are a few. They work for agencies. They work for brands. They’ll work for you. They are, and simply:

Why do we want to speak to people?

Who are the people we want to speak to?

What do they need?

How is what they need connected to what we sell?

How can we help them see our value by helping them realize theirs?


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Last week’s most clicked links:

  1. Why is this interesting? The Meditation Edition

  2. Expiring vs. Permanent Skills

  3. The 48 Laws of PowerPoint


Another framework I’ve been thinking about

I didn’t have a lot of time this week to read the internet, so unfortunately there are few delightful links to share. But! As I was writing the thingy above, I started re-visiting foundational texts about competitive strategy. One of my favorites is Michael Porter’s 1996 HBR article What Is Strategy? In it, Porter lays out a powerfully simple way to consider your org’s positioning—basically, you need to match your offerings to customer needs, then align your strategic activities to that position. Porter didn’t provide a 2x2, but I’ve gone ahead and boxed it up. Where does your org fit on this chart?

You can apply this 2x2 to any industry, and maybe I’ll do it for a few in next week’s letter. In the meantime, if you’re given to obsessive noodling, it can be useful to consider your content strategy in the context of business positioning. After all, they should be aligned.


How can I help you?

This 100% organic, free-range, desktop-to-inbox newsletter is devoted to helping you make better creative decisions in marketing and beyond. Delivery at 6pm ET every Sunday, sharp as cheddar. Your host is Steve Bryant, who is for hire. If you’d like to chat just grab a 30-minute meeting. I’d love to meet you.


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