Does your creative firm speak to the world in a way that stands out and inspires?
If the answer to this question is yes, congratulations. Your studio is well positioned.
As for me, I learned the hard way that great creative firms must also be great marketers. After all, if you aren’t great at marketing and positioning your own brand, what client would trust you to market and position theirs?
We know in today’s saturated marketplace, brands that cannot differentiate quickly die. This is not only true of your clients’ brands, it is true of your brand. So if your creative firm doesn’t stand out, soon it won’t be standing at all.
Which should lead us to ask, what defines a well-positioned creative firm? Do any of us in our industry really know?
Starting with WHY
Simon Sinek’s famous presentation is one of the most-watched TED Talks of all time. If you haven’t seen it – or seen it recently – watch it. His words will inspire you.
Why is his talk so popular? Because not only does Sinek get to the bottom of how great leaders inspire action, he also presents a way of speaking to the world which is very nearly a “Unifying Theory of Marketing.” Here is his model, which he calls The Golden Circle:
WHAT Becomes Irrelevant
I share this model because years ago I applied it with great results at my own studio. Over a period of a decade my firm’s evolving positioning enabled my firm to stand out, attract clients and propel my business forward. Applying Sinek’s model, this is how my firm spoke to the world:
WHY -> HOW -> WHAT
It worked wonders. But… only for so long. Because although Sinek’s model is very close to a unifying theory, our industry evolved and it was no longer effective.
WHAT became irrelevant.
You may not like hearing it, but in today’s marketplace your studio’s WHAT are commodities, such as the types of work your studio produces (commercials, promos, explainers, etc.) or its services (strategy, design, live action, post-production, etc.).
Leading your positioning with commodities is informative, yes, but it won’t make your firm stand out. There are simply far too many competing studios in the marketplace who offer the exact same commodities as you.
If your firm introduces itself to prospective clients – whether verbally, on your website, in your email blasts, etc. – with WHAT your firm does, you are blending in and wasting your breath. Your WHAT should not be a key component of your firm’s positioning.
But if WHAT is no longer important, what is?
A Prima Donna Industry
As Tim Thompson often notes, “Our industry is a prima donna industry (in the classical sense).” Meaning, our industry is driven by artists who are the premier asset of the businesses. Whether you refer to them as artists, directors, designers or even auteurs, today’s motion design and production studios are uniquely identified by the amazing individuals running them.
Meet the WHO.
Yet most owners are too close to their businesses – or too humble – to put their WHO into proper perspective. This results in a huge missed opportunity. As I’ve grown fond of saying about our industry:
“People don’t buy from companies. People buy from people.”
Your WHO – far more than your WHAT – is a quality unique to you (the owner) and your team. By definition, speaking to the world in terms of your WHO establishes a deep, defensible positioning to which no one else can lay claim.
For these reasons, RevThink recommends all our client motion design and production studios structure their positioning as follows:
WHY + HOW + WHO
These three core attributes form the foundation of a powerfully positioned creative firm.
Yet another lacking feature of Sinek’s model is how his model emphasizes the prioritization of messaging. He argues you should speak first from your WHY, then your HOW, then your WHAT. (Thus the title of his book, Start With WHY.) But when applied to creative firms, this prioritization approach doesn’t quite fit today’s marketplace.
For years I resisted challenging Sinek’s gospel. But as I increasingly sensed it was no longer working, I undertook a curious project to qualitatively analyze the positioning of hundreds of creative studios, all over the world.
At last, I had an objective understanding of what defines great positioning. What did my research discover? That the positioning of the world’s top studios is not a prioritization of messaging, it is an intersection of messaging.
This deceptively simple insight led me to formulate a new model which I call The Three P’s of Positioning.
The Three P’s
The ideal expression of a creative firm’s positioning will succinctly convey the union of your firm’s WHY + HOW + WHO. For convenience, I name these Three P’s core attributes as Purpose, Power and Personality.
Why is this approach so effective? Because it tells your client what they most want to know. Put yourself in your client’s shoes and think about it. If you met a new creative firm and immediately found yourself thinking:
“This team is super passionate! I’m inspired to get to know them.” [Purpose]
“This firm has incredible expertise! I’m confident they can deliver on their promises.” [Power]
“This studio’s leadership is one-of-a-kind. I trust these are the right people.” [Personality]
Inspiring, expert and one-of-a-kind. What more could you want? If you’re the client, this is the firm for which you’ve been searching.
While developing this model, I drew a Venn diagram (pictured below) and made another discovery. The intersections of any two P’s – but lacking a third P – reveals how creative firms which fail to speak from all Three P’s inadvertently display a weakness. Let’s take a look at the diagram and see what we can find:
Your Purpose is WHY your creative firm exists: your mission, calling, dream or beliefs.
- Example: “We are thick as thieves. We are Friends of Mine…” at creative studio Friends of Mine.
- Note if your positioning lacks Purpose, your firm appears uninspiring.
Your Power is HOW your creative firm does what it does better than anyone else: your expertise, methodology or unique aesthetic.
- Example: “WE PERSUADE CHANGE AND INFLUENCE” at creative studio Psyop.
- Note if your positioning lacks Power, your firm appears unskilled.
Your Personality is the WHO personally driving your creative firm: your owners, partners and/or superstar talent.
- Example: “As alumni of Imaginary Forces, Brian Mah, James Anderson and Kathy Keleha…” at creative studio Alma Mater.
- Note if your positioning lacks Personality, your firm appears common.
The final feature of a powerful positioning occurs when the Three P’s align around your firm’s name. It is especially effective when this is done in a smart, clever or playful way. Although difficult to explain in the abstract, it is easy to demonstrate using examples. Looking again at the positioning nuggets above:
- If your studio is named Friends Of Mine, it follows this tight-knit group of buddies would be “thick as thieves.”
- If your studio is named Psyop (short for Psychological Operations), claiming you have “PERSUADE CHANGE AND INFLUENCE” superpowers just makes sense.
- If your studio is named Alma Mater, naturally you refer your leadership team as “alumni.”
(Note: you might be wondering, “What if my my Three P’s don’t align with my firm’s name?” In some cases where your firm’s name is ambiguous, odd or quirky, it can still work. But if your firm’s name is generic, common or cliché, it may be time to tweak – or even rename – your studio.)
Examples: The Three P’s In Action
Let’s leave behind the theoretical and get practical as we look at positioning examples which deliver on The Three P’s. Below is the Home page and About page copy from LA-based creative studio Alma Mater:
ALMA MATER is a visual studio dedicated to a tradition of beautifully executed and thoughtfully considered design, live action, and animation. As alumni of Imaginary Forces, Brian Mah, James Anderson and Kathy Kelehan have worked closely together for years, developing a mutual trust and a shared design sensibility. The three principals founded ALMA MATER under a common commitment: Pursue new opportunities with creative enthusiasm and a high level of technical execution across all media disciplines and platforms.
Take special note of how this positioning accentuates Alma Mater’s Purpose, Power and Personality while subtly aligning with the firm’s Name.
(It is worth mentioning that when writing this article, I tried to think of a helpful example. I had not visited the Alma Mater website for a year or more, yet this studio instantly came to mind. The takeaway: great positioning that stands out – is memorable.)
A more striking – albeit lesser-known – example is the About page of London-based creative studio Private Island:
This studio’s Purpose, Power and Personality are cleverly and playfully aligned around the firm’s Name.
Carving Out Your Firm’s Positioning
Turning our attention to your firm’s positioning, are inspired to perfect yours? If so, I have three words of advice to get you started:
- Be patient: getting clear about your firm’s Three P’s may require months of discussion among your partners and/or team.
- Be realistic: realize that great positioning is a journey, not a destination. You will never feel like you have truly arrived. Your studio’s Purpose, Power and Personality have evolved greatly since you started your business, and will continue to do so for as long as you are in business.
- Be honest: you may search your soul and, as an owner, find yourself personally lacking a deep Purpose, Power or Personality. No amount of clever copywriting or rebranding can fix that.
Once you possess sufficient clarity to proceed, your first goal is to write an Internal Positioning statement. Communicated only internally within your firm, this is how you describe your company to yourself and your team. Length is not a concern; it might consist of several paragraphs.
Next, you are ready to take your Internal Positioning and distill it down for use in various client-facing applications. Examples might include your About Us on your website, your Elevator Pitch, and your bold and spicy Anthem and/or Rallying Cry.
Warning: distilling your positioning into these various forms is excruciating. After all, it’s like solving an equation with four or more variables to somehow arrive at a perfect, yet subjective, solution.
Don’t forget that you, as an owner, probably lack the proper perspective, especially when it comes to Personality / WHO. Consider hiring a gifted copywriter to drive the process.
30+ Case Studies
Interestingly, in our Jumpstart mentoring accelerator, I assessed the positioning of my 30+ member studios from all over the world. What I found: fewer than 10% of them were speaking from all Three P’s. After the exercise, one member had this to say:
‘I’ve read a lot about branding / positioning/ marketing but… creating a differentiated positioning from the sum total of all Three P’s was a real lightbulb moment for me.’ – Kendal Miller at Cultivate Studios
This exercise also confirmed my assertion that – regardless of whether your studio is young or old – positioning is indeed a journey, not a destination.
Progress, Not Perfection
If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed on this topic of positioning, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re in good company. All creative firms struggle with positioning! The good news: positioning (a subset of Marketing, one of The Seven Ingredients of a Creative Firm) can be mastered. Start making progress now.
I strongly encourage you to get clear about you and your firm’s Purpose, Power and Personality. Craft language that captures the intersection of your core characteristics and aligns with your studio’s name. Distill it down into the various applications to suit your needs. Finally, proclaim – routinely and systematically – your amazing positioning to the world.
Now that you know how great positioning can empower your firm to stand out, attract the kinds of clients and projects you desire, and ultimately propel your studio where you want it to go… you also know that this is one journey that will be worth the trip.