RSW/US Discussion With Ignition Group’s Tim Williams-Agency Specialization Not Just About Sector

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Tim Williams of The Ignition Group, a practice dedicated to helping agencies create and capture more value, kindly agreed to offer his perspective on one of the key discussion points coming out of our latest survey on agency new business:  Agency Specialization.

Tim Williams

It was a great exchange and Tim offered some fantastic insight that can be extremely helpful to any agency trying to figure out how to tackle the issue of specialization in an attempt to improve their appeal among marketers.


Here are some of the key takeaways from my discussion with Tim on agency specialization:

“Specialization” gets misinterpreted often to mean “sector” specialization only.

Agencies think the only way they can specialize is to “own” a sector like healthcare or professional services – which, according to Tim, isn’t true.

In his book, Take A Stand for Your Brand, Tim describes positioning as one or more of three things:

WHAT – some competency like a specialization in digital, shopper marketing or social media

WHO – an audience like seniors, or working moms, or blue collar males

HOW – processes or approaches, like Chiat Day’s “disruption”, or Saatchi’s “Lovemarks”,
or Victor & Spoils’ “Crowdsource”.

According to Tim, an agency can be strong in all three areas, like Smith Brothers in Pittsburgh as an example.

Their “WHO” is CPG, their “WHAT” is advertising creative (that’s all they do), and their “HOW” is outcome based agreements.

They have been extremely successful with this three tiered positioning.

According to Tim, you can have a strong or narrow “WHO” and a broader “WHAT” or a narrow “WHAT” and a broad “WHO”.

It all depends on what your desires are.  Key is sticking with it.

agency specialization

Agencies have to focus.

Law practices do it. Artists do it.  Science professionals do it.  If you need heart surgery are you going to go to a generalist?

Why don’t agencies do it?

Tim cites a few reasons why agencies tend to shy away from it:

Variety.  Creatives don’t like just doing the same old thing in the same category all the time.
Narrow Cast.  Agencies fear being too pigeon-holed and losing out on opportunities.
Staleness.  Agencies think they might be viewed as not being able to bring fresh thinking to the table.

None of this has to be true.


It’s all within the control of the agency.

Variety is something an agency can control.

Creativity can be pushed within the bounds of a single category.

If you want it to get old and boring, it will get old and boring.

If you worry about losing out on opportunities in other categories all the time, you will lose out on opportunities most of the time.

The more you walk away from your focus, the more general you’ll get and the more you’ll start looking like everyone else.

And relative to the latter, we’ve seen it on the RSW/AgencySearch side of our business – Marketers wanting to look outside their category for “fresh” thinking.

But as Tim reminds us all that some of the best and brightest innovation and thinking comes from specialists, not from generalists.

Agencies simply need to make it a priority.


Tim Williams is founder of Ignition Consulting Group (, a consultancy devoted to helping marketing organizations create and capture more value.  As a recognized thought leader in the advertising and marketing business, he is a frequent speaker and presenter for major business associations and organizations worldwide.  Tim is a regular contributor to leading business and marketing publications and is author of two books, the latest of which is Positioning for Professionals.

Mark is a 30-year veteran of the consumer packaged goods, advertising, and marketing service industry. Mark started his career at DDB Needham in Chicago prior to earning his MBA from the J.L. Kellogg Business School at Northwestern where he majored in Marketing and Economics. Prior to starting RSW/US in 2005, Mark was General Manager for AcuPOLL, a global research consultancy. Sneider worked in Marketing for S.C. Johnson and KAO Brands. Sneider has been invited to speak at numerous Agency events and network conferences domestically and internationally including the 4A’s, Magnet, NAMA, TAAN, and MCAN. Sneider has been featured in prominent industry publications including Adweek, Media Post, e-Marketer, and Forbes. When not working (which often seems like not often), Mark likes to run miles, go to church, and just chill with a hard copy issue of Fast Company.