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Why There's No Such Thing as Full Service

May 5th 2011
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The following is an excerpt from Tim William's new book, Positioning for Professionals: How Professional Knowledge Firms Can Differentiate Their Way to Success.

Tim leads Ignition, a consultancy devoted to helping marketing firms create and capture more value. He welcomes your comments at [email protected].

Why There's No Such Thing as Full Service

For the first time in history, the largest agency in the U.S. is not on Madison Avenue, but in faraway Little Rock, Arkansas.

Acxiom, a firm most mainstream agency executives have never heard of, earned more U.S.-based revenues last year than any of the well-known multinational agency brands.

This one startling fact proves the point of this article so conclusively that we could stop right here. But of course we won't, because the idea that "full service" is the ultimate growth strategy is deeply rooted in the collective business psyche.

The common wisdom is that, as a business strategy for professional firms, "broad" has more potential than "narrow." As evidenced by the rise of firms like Acxiom--a specialist in "interactive marketing services"--nothing could be further from the truth.

Narrow is not the same as small

In fact, of the top 25 advertising agencies in America, more than half are specialist firms, not "full-service" agencies. In Minneapolis, a city that has spawned more than its share of talented advertising agencies over the past few decades, the largest agency is not Fallon or Campbell Mithun--firms that help put Minneapolis on the advertising map--but rather Carlson Marketing, a specialist in customer relationship marketing.

With revenues of some $265 million, Carlson Marketing is nearly four times larger than any other agency in the city. How did this happen?  It happened because marketers are in search of specific solutions to specific problems in specific categories, not a "full-service agency with a wide range of experience in diverse categories."

No client ever hires an agency because it can do everything, but rather because it can do something. In fact, whenever "wide range" or "full service" appears as the main promise a firm makes, you can assume that it has been either unable or unwilling to actually name what it stands for.

What exactly does it mean to be full service?

When you stop and think about it, there's really no such thing as full service.

There isn't a brand in any category that actually can fulfill every need. Most agencies follow the "full service" model because they have fallen in the trap of defining their value proposition solely in terms of product or service attributes.

Believing that the more attributes the agency brand can claim, the more valuable it will be to prospective clients, they continue to add more and more services until they appear to be "all-in-one" solutions. 

Saying that you do everything is not a strategy, but rather the absence of a strategy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in packaged goods, where many categories ultimately come up with a "total solution" brand (in the U.S. there's Colgate Total, Crest Complete, Tide Total Care). But can a laundry soap brand really stand for protecting color, enhancing softness, cleaning thoroughly, fighting stains, and preserving fabrics?

After years of marching down the "compete" path, marketers are realizing that a single-benefit brand is often stronger for the simple reason that it stands for something. It promises to do a specific job extremely well instead of attempting to do a lot of jobs moderately well.

What's true for packaged goods is true for professional services.

Your firm is defined by the services and clients you DON'T have

As a brand, would you rather be mildly appealing to a large group of prospects, or intensely appealing to a select group of prospects?

Most businesspeople would say the latter. But most often, their business strategy centers on the former.

In life and in business, our natural tendency is to go broad instead of narrow, to want the most and the biggest. Diversification feels safer and smarter.

The problem is that if your approach is to "keep your options open" and "not limit yourself," then you actually don't have a strategy. By definition, having a strategy means deciding to do one thing but not another.

By deciding to have low prices and broad selection, Wal-Mart is making a conscious decision not to have a high degree of sales help and ambiance. Given finite resources, Wal-Mart can't deliver low prices and high service. Deciding what you'll do at the expense of something else is the very essence of strategy.

Strategy at the edges

No agency wants to be thought of as just average, yet that is precisely where an undifferentiated "full-service" business strategy places them--in the center of the bell curve.

The most interesting and powerful agency brands are at the edges of the bell curve, because they're doing things differently. 

It feels like common sense to play in the center of the market, but the middle is actually the least desirable place to be. If you try to simultaneously appeal to the high end of the market and the low end of the market, guess where you end up?  You'll end up in the "mushy middle," where you appeal to no market.

Look at most markets and there are examples of successful brands at the high end and low end, but very few successful brands in the middle.
This is most visible in retailing, where there is almost no middle market at all. Professional service brands that follow a "best of both worlds" strategy--selling to the middle--will never be the most famous, the most profitable, or the most successful.

Vertical success vs. horizontal success

Viewed another way, most agencies have the unrealistic aspiration to compete across all segments of the market. But success doesn't require that you serve all segments. It just requires that you serve one well.

This is the difference between horizontal success and vertical success. Very few firms are able to achieve real horizontal success, although many attempt it because it has the illusion of being the richest strategy. And even those horizontal players struggle mightily to earn a profit. 

Take General Motors--a horizontal player if there ever was one--versus Porsche, a car company that focuses on one vertical segment of the market. For most of the past decade, GM was the least profitable car company in the world. Guess who was the most profitable?

Consider the massive energy and resources required to maintain a horizontal positioning strategy. It only stands to reason that a vertical positioning strategy allows you to make a better product, offer better service, and charge a higher price.

This is why the premium brands in categories from golf clubs to outdoor furniture are niche players, not conglomerates. The very definition of excellence is to be good at something in particular. It's not only impractical for a company to be excellent at everything, it's quite impossible.

Finding a more valuable spot on the value chain

In defining your value proposition, begin by identifying where your firm falls on your industry's value chain.

To understand the changing dynamics of the value chain concept, observe what's happened to the music business. Consumers are still spending roughly the same amount of money on music, but the money isn't going to the record companies and music stores; it's going online, mostly to iTunes.

The money in the music business value chain is still there--it just moved.

The same is happening in other rapidly evolving industries like advertising and marketing. Companies are spending, but they're spending in new and different areas of the value chain. Instead of trying to squeeze the last bit of value from traditional sources of revenue, marketing communications firms should be focused on finding a different spot on the chain.

Defining a positioning capable of producing the most profit means selecting a place on the value chain where the offerings are still scarce and underdeveloped. If you analyze the value propositions of most agencies, they're based mostly on widely available overdeveloped services; they are placing themselves on the wrong side of the value chain.

By focusing on the underdeveloped features or benefits of the category, you are in effect positioning your firm not just for where the profits are, but for where the profits will be.

The model is Columbus, not Napoleon

Defining a focused, differentiating value proposition requires that we stop focusing on reclaiming old territory and instead discover new territory. The model is Columbus, not Napoleon. Most firms are engaged in fighting "turf wars" instead of finding new turf.

Turf wars often manifest themselves as pricing wars. Witness the rise of procurement's role in selecting many professional services, particularly advertising agencies.

When choices in a category are perceived to be at parity, the key buying criterion becomes price. The fact that procurement now "shops" agencies based on costs and hourly rates is the clearest sign that agencies have failed to effectively differentiate and position themselves in the marketplace.

Worse, with pressure from procurement, agency executives have started to believe that efficiency is what they're selling. But as Adam Smith taught several centuries ago, in mature markets profits don't come from increased efficiency, but rather from increased innovation and differentiation.

Defining a positioning strategy is usually very counterintuitive. It requires a different mental map of what truly succeeds as a business strategy.

The "more is better" model that most of us carry around in our heads is the wrong mental construct. What works is narrow, not broad. And narrow doesn't mean small, which is why the largest agencies now and in years to come will be those that stand for something instead of trying to stand for everything.


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