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How looking at our fish helped us position our agency.

If you’ve done any self-reflection as a brand or company, you’ve probably noticed that your biggest milestones — your most innovative projects, your best ideas, your true “aha” moments — often don’t happen exactly as planned. And that in the end, that’s totally OK, because evolution isn’t a finite thing that you can just do.

You probably believe in change, at least in theory. But do you embrace it? Do you practice it? Real talk: When was the last time you took a good look at your work — successes and failures, both — to understand what the hell you’re actually doing, and what might need to change?

In a nutshell, this is what we’ve been up to for the past several months. It’s the “look at your fish” principle:  you can’t really see until you look. And yes, everyone is looking at their business model right now. Which is great. But it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to spark self-reflection. After all, hindsight is 20/20. (It may be the only positive thing associated with 2020.) Here’s what we learned along the way.

What is a creative agency, anyway?

Back in 2015, AG was born out of a consulting practice rooted in product marketing. We were fortunate to have a deep network in B2B technology and a pretty great client list. 

But there were just two of us, and we didn’t know what to call ourselves. We settled on “creative agency” because we knew what that was. People bought that. The work we were doing was creative, after all. We figured “creative agency” could expand our client roster from almost exclusively B2B to include B2C. Which would be cool.

And, in a way, it worked. There was lots of growth! There was lots of success! It was great!

But the thing was, as we grew, we really weren’t winning B2C work. And our clients never came to us looking for a creative agency. We were doing core fundamental messaging work that grew into customer-facing assets like keynotes and integrated campaigns. Article Group was starting to be seen as an agency that was interested in solving meaningful business problems, period. We found joy in the problem-solving space. And because of that, a lot of clients we worked with existed in a space of very complex marketing platforms, challenging value propositions, or complicated sales cycles. A commercial production agency, we were not. And we were totally fine with that. Because of that line above: Lots of growth! Lots of success!

Call it what it is.
 
We tested and learned about our own positioning and, really, our own identity. We confirmed what we had known all along: we weren’t a creative agency. We never had been. We were a problem-solving agency. No, wait: we were an enterprise tech agency! That’s it!
 
And, again: more success, more growth. Because it was true.
 
Solve really hard problems? Check. Clientele predominantly in the enterprise tech realm? Check. But, again, it felt off. Problem solving is too hand wave–y. Enterprise tech is a vertical, not really a positioning for an agency. But at the time, it didn’t matter, because we continued to grow and succeed. It was our drive to think — to go beyond typical problem-solving mechanisms — that fostered the most interesting conversations we began to have with our clients. And as we worked with them, our views provided insight into the flow of product marketing, playing it against other departments in dynamic ways.
 
And there’s that phrase again: product marketing.

There is no “Eureka!” moment.

It was in front of us all along, from day 0 of our founding. We came from product marketing, our clients often came from product marketing, our work often fit into product marketing. We are a product marketing agency! We were just too afraid to say so, back when product marketing agencies didn’t exist.  When you are two people in the proverbial garage, it takes more courage than we had at the time to call ourselves something that we hadn’t ever heard of.

To get there, we did a lot of digging through the work that we’ve done over the years, and looked at it with fresh eyes. We were already thinking about it, but this crazy year gave the occasion, and the confidence, to really go for it.  

Through this process, we ended up in the space we always knew we belonged, but weren’t looking hard enough to find. We arrived here through a fairly normal business evolution: succeeding at some iterations, failing at others.

What’s more important is being open to different processes along the way. 

Acknowledging this fact feels like a clear realization of self: accepting the most authentically true version of who we are or what you do. Call it “business ayahuasca.” Finally, the work that we’ve been doing all along connects to what we say about the work that we’ve been doing all along. 

With this new identity in hand, finding where we fit with clients is just easier.  And, contrary to our initial fears, it doesn’t limit our work to product marketing departments. In fact, we are doing more, different, interesting work than ever. It more clearly communicates to the market how we think, where we fit, and how we can help. And has been part and parcel of all of our work from the very beginning. Imagine that.

Don’t forget: evolution is a continuous process. To that end, we’ve been working on some tools inspired by our “business ayahuasca” experience. In hopes of laying the groundwork for further growth, we’ll be sharing out the first of them here later this month. If you’ve come across anything that’s helped you along your own path, please reply to this email. We’re not bots.

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Article Group // Our essays and such

What We’re Working On

Asking a lot of “Why are we doing this?” questions about our work. When a global pandemic forces you to change your approach, you get to ask fundamental questions about why you're doing the things you're doing. It's so rare you get to break things down and get back to basics. And in doing so, there's a real joy in making new ways for ideas to connect. In the last few months we have done more of this than ever.

What We’re Into/Up To

Andrew has a new puppy. Pandemic Puppy Projections: accidents trending down; treat futures rising. ~ Pete has been “reading the sh*t” out of Black-written sci-fi and fantasy. “In the same vein as supporting Black-owned businesses,” he says, “I’ve been inspired to read more great books penned by Black authors and featuring Black protagonists. I already believed N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy to be one of the best (or, maybe THE best?) epic fantasy trilogies of all time. She was the first African American to win a Hugo Award in 2016 for the first book in the trilogy, and the first person to win it three years in a row when she won for the trilogy’s two subsequent novels.” ~ To honor Daniel Prude, Carlie helped to lower the flag at Rochester's City Hall. “We lower flags for national tragedy,” she says. “Is one of the greatest national tragedies not systemic racism? This was a way to express that void of acknowledgement, but still with the rites of dignity owed to any flag.” ~ Jeffrey won an Emmy! Well, not personally, but his former company, Digital Kitchen, just won the award for Best Title Design for their work on the Epix series Godfather of Harlem. In his own words: “I mean I didn’t really have much to do with it, but I sat next to the people who did and therefore I believe I deserve my own statue.” Check out the Emmy-winning main title sequence here…and congrats to DK!

Further Reading

If we’ve got you thinking about repositioning and reinventing your brand or company, there’s more to dig into:

Article is a 100% organic, free-range, desktop-to-inbox newsletter devoted to helping you navigate uncertainty, seek the most interesting challenges, and make better creative decisions in marketing and beyond. We deliver Sundays at 6pm ET twice monthly. Article is published by Article Group, a delightful creative agency of talented problem-solvers. We're more fox than hedgehog. We are for hire.
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