Propositions, products, and why you need them - Part 1

5 August 2019

A digital agency must-have that applies to pretty much everyone else, too

If you’ve been around long enough, and are big enough, then you might have a ‘reputation’ in your industry. If so, clients will naturally think of you when commissioning new work; maybe they’ll even covet your services. You are living in happy times and work is flowing freely through your doors.

Even if you don’t have ‘the rep’, then you until recently you could still depend on your years of experience and plethora of case studies to demonstrate your worthiness – why pick a new team when we know how to get things done, right?

Wrong. Neither a reputation or heritage are really enough these days. We’ve reached a point in service delivery where the small, new teams can offer a viable alternative to the established agency; where reputations for innovation and delivery excellence can be forged in a matter of months. ‘Cool’ is now a commodity, and 15 years in the industry is now more likely to indicate that you’re going to be stuck in your ways than it is your ability to pick the right solution. Bleeding edge? Aren’t you a bit old for that?

So what’s brought this about? Why are the small teams of inexperienced (I mean that in the nicest way) youths suddenly blazing through the world of digital? Why is it no longer enough simply to have heritage and case studies? Have clients caught up, got savvy, and engaged the concept of risk? Really, no.

What’s changed is that these small teams – once deemed suitable only for the smallest of projects that we established agencies wouldn’t dream of touching – have done something extremely clever. They’ve defined themselves.

Before we get too much further into this, let us create some context:

Lets say you’re about to launch a new product – a steel water bottle, for the sake of example – and you’re looking for a supplier to design and deliver a box for it. In one corner, you have Shipping Boxes Ltd**, who have been in the box design and delivery business for 20 years. In the other corner, you have Boxr Ltd***, who have been around 6 months.

Shipping Boxes Ltd responds to the brief in the same way they have for the last 10 years at least: “We’ve been doing this a long time, and we know how to deliver on time, in budget, and without compromise. Check out this list of companies we’ve worked with to deliver what you want over the last 20 years”.

It’s a solid play – buy from us, because we know what we’re doing. In times gone by, Shipping Boxes Ltd would likely be signing up a new customer.

But then Boxr Ltd respond. “Here at Boxr, we deliver bespoke containers, custom designed to protect steel bottles and, thanks to our carbon-neutral packaging and manufacturing process, hug the planet too. Here’s how our product, the BottleShipper 5000, will work with your product, and how we’ll work with you to make sure we deliver what you need, when you need it.”

Now this is a bit more compelling – Boxr don’t do just boxes, they do boxes for the steel bottle market, and they’re demonstrating how their product will work with your new product. To mitigate any worries about delivery, they’re explaining how they’ll deal with your requirements and give you the confidence they can deliver.

Now this might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised just how many organisations don’t do the basics of demonstrating why a customer should choose them, instead relying on their heritage and their case studies to get them through and expecting (hoping!) that the person they’re pitching to will be bothered to put the legwork in to evaluate their suitability. In a world of ever tighter budgets and more bespoke requirements, it’s no longer enough.

Boxr have two things that Shipping Boxes are missing. The first is a proposition, and the second is a defined product. Their proposition is as suppliers of shipping boxes to manufacturers, and their product is a shipping box which they’ve been able to demonstrate as suitable for the your needs.

How simple does this sound? Extremely, I know; but this example is extremely simplified in that we’re talking about physical products from both the customer and the supplier. In service-based delivery, where requirements are far less defined, your proposition and product play a far bigger role in how you connect with customers, as they have to be much more variable to adapt to specific project requirements. At this point, a lot of organisations either don’t get it quite right, or don’t bother at all.

Yet getting a proposition and product properly defined is essential for any service-based organisation to successfully sell their wares, for two big reasons:

  1. They allows the customer to see how a supplier can deliver what they need without having to review their portfolio and make their own minds up
  2. They allows the supplier to easily review potential opportunities and make sure they’re only responding to the things that they can actually excel at in the first place

Imagine that – being able to pitch for jobs that you know you’re good at, and the client being able to see that you’ve got the right solution for them. Sounds perfect, right?

Propositions and products help you get there.

What is a proposition?

I’ve always described a proposition as you planting a flag. It’s the thing you say you are that allows you to stand out from everyone else.

As a very simple example, you might sell yourself as a ‘WordPress Agency’ rather than just a ‘Digital Agency’ – the former immediately giving you more prominence when it comes to WordPress projects. “But we do more than just WordPress!”, you say. Well, that’s OK – your proposition might be ‘CMS Development Agency’ or even ‘WordPress and Drupal Development Agency’. The point is, your proposition gives you some broad definition that immediately indicates you might be more suitable for a given project than someone who is just ‘capable’ (and that’s really what you’re saying you are if you go as generic as ‘Digital Agency’).

Generally speaking, the more defined your proposition, the better it will work for you. A ‘WordPress Development Agency for the Public Sector’ will appeal more than a ‘WordPress Agency’ when it comes to a Public Sector client shopping for WordPress. Of course, the more specific you are, the greater the risk of effectively excluding yourself from work because you positioned yourself to be unsuitable for something you could very easily have done, so careful planning and consideration is required.

Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that I’m using absolutes here – ‘exclusion’ and ‘appeal’ – when in actual fact, a proposition will rarely be the deciding factor in a win or loss…but it definitely helps you sell yourself, and that’s the point of it – to help you sell.

What’s nice about a proposition is that it’s not a defining feature of all of your agency work. It should reflect the kind of work you wish to work on, but you can (of course!) still do any kind of project you like. Your expertise in delivering WordPress for the Public Sector is applicable across most if not all other WordPress projects, too. The proposition merely intends to help you stand out from the crowd, it’s not a way of life.

Sounds easy, right? Just decide what work you’re going for, and create a proposition that suits it. The problem is, you can only have ONE proposition, maybe two at a stretch. Why? Because a proposition is your declaration of expertise. You are saying that you are THE AGENCY for THE SERVICE [potentially in a SECTOR or GEOGRAPHIC AREA], and it’s not really feasible for you to be an expert at everything. So in that regard, you need to really think about the thing you want to broadcast as your speciality, and how it can be adapted to suit multiple opportunities without effectively limiting your reach.

What’s very easy to do in such circumstances is to go back to being too vague about your proposition. Let’s not limit ourselves to the Public Sector by just being a ‘WordPress Agency’ instead. The problem here is there’s loads of WordPress agencies, so you just lost your USP, and your flag is now surrounded by other, identical flags, in a field full of ‘we can do it all’ flags. Above all else, your proposition needs to be unique.

Good for more than just selling, too

It’s worth noting that whilst a well-defined proposition is primarily about supporting your sales activities, it’s also a worthwhile exercise to run through to help you understand yourself. In the process of defining a proposition, you’ll be thinking about:

  1. What kind of work you want to do
  2. What kind of work you’re great (the best, even) at delivering
  3. What kinds of clients and projects you want to work on

These are important and obvious things for any business to understand that are so often overlooked, especially when the attitude to sales generation is ‘we can do anything’ (which I have no doubt you can, it’s just that no one cares any more).

So how do I go about defining a proposition?

That’s a good question, and the details will have to wait for another post. But right now, if you start thinking about the three points above, you’ll likely find that some high level services and potential target sectors start to emerge, and that’s the foundation of your future proposition work.

What’s next?

I’ll be writing the second part of this post – all about products – in the next few days, and then I’ll cover off the process for defining each in some follow-up posts.


**Made up. Probably exists. Purely coincidental.

***Also made up. See **.

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Propositions, products, and why you need them – Part 2: Defining a product

A proposition is a declaration of who you are and your foot in the door with a new client; a product is what you can actually sell them. Understanding what you can do and how its relevant to customers’ needs is vital if you want to turn that initial proposal into a signed contract.

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