How to become a niche agency – PART 4

niche agency

First WHO now WHAT

In my previous articles on how to become a niche agency, I outlined the benefits of a niche specialism. I also detailed what I look for in a Value Proposition. In my last piece, I explained how I start to guide the articulation of a Value Proposition. I encourage my clients to start with WHO they’re targeting. The next stage of the process is to consider WHAT you do or, more importantly, WHAT value you deliver to the people you’re targeting.

On the face of it, “what do you do?”, is a simple enough question. But I find many agency owners struggle to give a clear answer. Is this because of the industry we are in?  I reflected last time that so many agency owners seem to find it difficult to articulate WHY they exist. Surely explaining WHAT you do is easy enough? Once again we can’t be in a unique bubble here in agency land, can we?

WHAT do you do?

Explaining what you do as an agency is vital to engaging new prospects and winning new business. You must be able to communicate what you do quickly in easy to understand language. Its the essence of the fabled Elevator Pitch.

When I ask agency people WHAT their business does, I usually get one of the following responses:

1. SERVICES – A service or list of services centred on a marketing channel(s) e.g. we’re an SEO agency, we do social media, we’re a web agency etc.

2. LABELS – An industry label that we’ve become accustomed to using e.g. we’re a full-service agency, an integrated agency, a digital agency, a UX agency.

3. BUZZWORDS – Something convoluted containing lots of marketing-speak e.g. we’re a group of superheroes developing human-centred immersive experiences designed to disrupt and engage.

Whilst the responses are naturally different, a common occurrence is that they invariably start with the words We or We’re.  I think this points to a wider issue and something I touched upon in my last article.

People in agencies often view WHAT they do as WHAT they actually – physically – do. They create ads or design logos or produce social media campaigns. This is not wrong of course, but when I ask people what they do, I really want to know what value they deliver. What are the results of their endeavours? What do their clients’ actually pay them for? 

In short, I don’t want to know what features their agency has (they’re predominantly the same as every other agency), but what benefits they deliver. This is teh essence of an agency with a niche specialism.

WHAT can you do for me?

It’s an overused stereotype, but it’s often noted that we British tend to be more reserved than other nationalities. In general, we’re not as brash and self-promotional as people from the United States, for example, tend to be. We can view confidence as a negative quality and occasionally as even a bit vulgar. We can also be guilty of being too self-effacing or modest. These are not bad qualities, but when it comes to business it can mean our true intentions and the value we offer are hidden.  You don’t have to be from the United Kingdom to display these traits or behaviour of course, but either way, I think I think they can be limiting.

I’ve heard people say that American networking events are quite different from those held in the UK, particularly if you are in the commercial hubs of New York or LA.  I’m told it’s not unusual for somebody to approach you with the phrase “Hello, what can you do for me?”

Whether this is true or not,  I think we can learn something from this concept. If you’re operating a service business, your customers are rarely interested in the service itself. They’re interested in what the service can do for them.  How it can solve their problems or enhance their lives?  And it’s not just about the physical results. How does your service make your clients’ feel emotionally? What do you do for your clients as people as well as for the companies and brands they represent? What is the value you deliver?

At your service

Unless they have a productised aspect of their business, marketing agencies sell professional services. Just like accountants, lawyers, plumbers or hairdressers, agencies sell their skills, not products.

Increasingly, agencies are being viewed as more of a commoditised service, just like some of these other trades. Clients buy on price and availability. Relationships are becoming shorter and more transactional.

Unlike some of the other service-based businesses, agencies are not subject to any scrutiny or governance by professional bodies. Marketing agency staff don’t have to undertake any formal training or gain any professional qualifications in order to sell their services unlike, say the legal profession. Competition in the agency market is fierce and trust in the sector is at an all-time low.

Moreover, mirroring the attitude towards marketing in general, marketing agency services are often viewed as a cost rather than an investment. Something to be bought as cheaply as possible.

Part of the reason for this is that despite the prevalence of digital media, marketing activity as a whole remains difficult to measure and quantify as ROI.  The other reason is that marketing is often seen as less of a need and more of a desire. If you have a leaky pipe, you need a plumber and you need one now. If you run a company, you must legally file certain financial information that most people need an accountant to support them with. 

Not only the results but occasionally the objectives of marketing can be difficult to quantify.  Marketing itself is not a need. Sales are usually the objective, with marketing being simply one route to achieving them. The explosion in media channels and marketing techniques has also served to complicate matters even further. Whilst bringing us massive opportunities and additional – more measurable – options, the additional channels have also served to make the art of marketing more complex and harder to understand and appreciate.

What are you selling (and not selling)? 

If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know I get frustrated with agencies that have a seemingly insatiable desire to promote themselves based upon the breadth and not the depth of expertise. 

Whether it’s working with clients from multiple unrelated sectors. Or agencies that claim to be able to deliver everything from high-level marketing strategy to volume delivery across all the media channels you’ve heard of (and some you haven’t). This lack of focus frustrates me and seriously impacts their ability to project the value and find resonance in the market.

A word of caution though. I’m an advocate of focus, but we live in a complex world. I prefer to push for what I call T-shaped breadth rather total niche specialism. You need to have deep expertise, but you must have an understanding and appreciation for how all the other pieces of the jigsaw fit together. This is crucial if you really want to maximise the value you deliver and work successfully with your clients and their business partners.

The first step to clarifying WHAT you do is to decide – and often refine – what you’re selling. What do you have real expertise in?  What area of your business offer is your real passion? This in itself can be a cathartic experience for some.  It makes them realise their true expertise. Sometimes, it makes them reevaluate their entire business.

It has been said that the essence of strategy is sacrifice. What don’t you do? What will you immediately say you can’t deliver? Again, whilst counter-intuitive to many, this concept can be quite refreshing if you embrace it.

Take a look at your revenue streams. Where does the bulk of your revenue come from?  You might claim to offer – say – social media marketing, but does it make up such a small part of your revenue that it’s not worth thinking about?

Think of it another way. What is usually your first brief from a client? Do they ask you to review their entire marketing and suggest a new strategy? Or do they ask you to quote them for a new website?

Maybe your first conversation with a client isn’t directly linked to marketing at all. Does the client talk to you about their business first?  Do they impress on you the urgent need for more sales or a desire to convert more visitors to their website or increase basket spend?

What value do you deliver?

If your value proposition describes exactly what you do or what you sell, you’ll find it hard to differentiate yourself.  If, on the other hand, it describes what the effect of what you do is, then this is where you can start to stand out in the market.

The benefits or effects of your work. The value you deliver. This is truly WHAT you do, for your clients expressed in a way that most interests them. Not lists of services they may or may not fully understand or desire. Actual goals they want to achieve.

Of course, this is not a simple process. The benefits a client can derive from your efforts can be tangible or intangible, rational or emotional, functional or aesthetic.  

The closer you can get to communicating WHAT you do and what value you deliver in a way that demonstrates tangible and rational benefits and resonates emotionally with your prospects the better. In short…

The Value you Deliver = (Tangible + Rational benefits) x Emotional resonance

The tangible and rational benefits are usually the way you benefit the clients’ company/brand. It can be beneficial if there are some numbers in there (or at least a financial focus). 

Tangible Benefits = Quantifiable things your work actually produces or achieves. More sales, more customers etc.

Rational Benefits = You might save them money or produce work faster or in a different way than your competitors.

The emotional element can be about the clients as people as well as their company of course. How does your work make them feel or help them to do their job? Be wary of being too generic here though. Making clients feel great because we’re a friendly bunch to work with is not differentiating or compelling enough.

Emotional Benefits = How you make your clients feel. Are they able to do their jobs better, safe in the knowledge you always deliver to deadlines? Or maybe you have more expertise than they do and they can trust you to help them get the results they need and get noticed in their role.

However, you express the value you deliver, retaining a focus on how WHAT you do benefits the client is obviously the key. These things can be expressed and communicated in so many different ways. What is important is that you retain a focus on the fact that it’s not about WHAT you do, it’s about the effect of WHAT you do does for them.


If you’ve been following this series on creating a niche specialism, you should be well on your way to creating a compelling Value Proposition. You’ve defined a market and have a clear focus on WHO your clients are. 

You should now be clearer on WHAT you actually do for your clients and what value you deliver to them. You should have more of an insight into what a difference you actually make to their lives and businesses. You should also have some ideas to communicate your value in a more clear and compelling way.

In Part 5 I’m going to be looking at HOW your agency operates, and how this can be used to differentiate yourself. If you have a picture of the office dog on your website, this next one may be for you.