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EPISODE 20 – Seb Mackay

Standing Out in the Herd. Strategies for Differentiating a Marketing Agency

Most markets are highly competitive so how can you stand out from the morass of similar businesses and get your ideal customer to choose you over someone else?  The answer is to craft a differentiated position and communicate in a way that makes you memorable and causes people to take action. But it’s easier said than done, in fact even most marketing agencies suck at doing this for themselves. 

In this episode, I’m joined by Seb Mackay, co-founder of Soba Private Label, a boutique agency that helps marketing agencies stand out and make their competition irrelevant.


In this episode, we discuss:

  • The importance of having a clear and unique position to stand out 
  • Why it’s better to be a stallion than a zebra 
  • The power of specialising
  • The results of Soba’s Pay-What-You-Want Experiment and what Seb learned from it



    Episode Transcript
    Episode transcript

    Most markets are highly competitive, so how can you stand out from the morass of similar businesses and get your ideal customer to choose you over someone else? The answer is to craft a differentiated position and communicate in a way that makes you memorable and causes people to take action.

    But it’s easier said than done. Even most marketing agencies suck at doing this for themselves, which is why I’m so pleased to be joined by Seb Mackay, co founder of Soba Private Label, a boutique agency that helps other marketing agencies to stand out and make their competition irrelevant. Seb, good to see you again.

    Welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much for having me. That was an incredible intro that I will now spend the next, what, 55 minutes trying to live up to. I think I nicked it off your website.

    What a stitch up. We’re going to, this is going to be friendly, he says when we go straight into the stitch ups. How are you doing anyway? Yeah, good man. It’s it’s obviously a lovely Friday afternoon here and we’ve had a bit of sunshine in Glasgow. So that’s pretty much all you can hope for.

    Happy days. Yeah. Loving the sunshine. Long time. So just for everyone listening, can you give a bit of an introduction to you, your background and what it is you do for your clients? Yeah, absolutely. So I run Soba Private Label. I’m the creative director and co founder, as you said before, I started Soba, just about a year ago, coming out of the back of a career of in house B2B marketing, my.

    Business partner, Dan does, or used to do, I should say B2C marketing for companies like Unilever. And one thing that we found when we were in house marketers was that we were hiring a lot of different marketing agencies, but it was quite often really hard to tell them apart. It was really difficult to see what value they offered without trying to get them in the room without putting them through the pitch process.

    And we all know that pitching absolutely sucks and it’s a waste of everybody’s time, right? It’s a practice that has to die. Ends. The way that we came to that challenge or the solution that we came to for that was starting Soba and thinking, okay, we’ve hired a lot of agencies, we’ve had a lot of agency conversations, we’ve fired a lot of agencies, so how can we help agencies avoid the common mistakes and pitfalls that we often see?

    As in house marketers, hiring agencies, and also how can we help them stand out so that, work’s not only going to incumbents or it’s not only going to the people, who are running the marketing department, who knows someone that runs an agency. Cause as Business quite often works like that, right?

    it’s about who, and part of the reason for that, I think, is because the agency landscape is so samey, it’s so hard to tell people apart. So it’s easier to just go with who, and so we want to help agencies solve that problem, with positioning and differentiation. I saw a really nice social media post of yours recently that was talking about being a stallion in a herd of encapsulates the problem and the situation that a lot of agencies find themselves in.

    Yeah, absolutely. The thing with zebras is that their stripes make them blend in to each other, not to the environment, right? This is where the analogy comes from. And so agencies are often like zebras in that they all look the same. And what this does for is it makes it very hard to pick a zebra in a pack.

    And that, if lions are B2B or B2C in house marketers, that makes it hard for them to figure that out as well. And so by being a stallion, you are this sort of big, beautiful, sleek animal that, that stands out. Yeah, I think that’s such a nice way of putting it and you’re talking about in your career You’ve worked with a lot of agencies.

    you’ve gone through the pitching process with lots of agencies and in previous conversations I’ve shared my views with you about my experience with some agencies as well. I know there’s some good ones out there From what I’ve seen, there’s also a lot of dross out there, and it’d be good to understand from your experience, being mindful of the fact that you work with agencies that employ you, what it is that differentiates a good marketing agency from the rest.

    Yeah, it’s a great question. Part of the challenge, I think, is that the usual agency founder story is that the agency founder starts out as a freelancer. They do a thing that they’re really good at, and that’s how they start making money. And then someone comes along and says, Oh, Hey, I, can you also did this other thing?

    So say, for example, I start off as a freelance email marketer. Someone comes along and says to me, Oh, can you also do PPC? Now I would say no, right? But I need the cash. I currently turn the work down. So I might know someone that does PPC. And so I’ll bring them in. The PPC goes, I start getting PPC referrals.

    Now I’m doing that at the same time that I’m doing email marketing. And this is how agencies grow, right? One people become one people. One person becomes two people. I know I do words for a living. Can you believe it? And then that becomes 10 and the agency is starting to hit the seven, 800, 000 in revenue.

    And by the time that’s happened, they’ve lost. What it was that made them unique and different at the start. And so what really differentiates an agency beyond your brand, beyond your positioning, beyond the words that you use is your ability to say no, to say, actually, we specialize in this one thing, and we’re very good at this one thing.

    And so that’s all we’re going to do. But we have a network of partners that we can refer you to if you need anything else. And is that the process then that you take your clients through, is to really get under the skin of what they are brilliant at, what’s in their DNA that makes them totally different and unique in their space, and cut out the rest?

    Yeah, exactly. And also looking at how they communicate that to the people that they want to work with. Because a lot of agencies use this, word salad, buzzword, bingo, whatever you want to call it. Everyone’s talking about how they’re for growth hungry companies or they’re innovative or they’re outside the box thinkers.

    And I think a lot of the times, this is one of those sort of harsh, but true things. Agencies tend to end up in situations where they’re using table stakes as selling points, right? So anyone that hires an agency, The bare minimum is that you do excellent work. the bare minimum is that you have a great team and the bare minimum is that you hit deadlines.

    And people use this on their websites as being, a selling point. And what we try to help them do is go beyond that and say, okay, how can we show your dream client that you’re an expert? In their field, you’re an expert, not only in what they do, but in what their customers do. How can we help you communicate that, and position yourself so that you aren’t one of many agencies grasping for their attention.

    You’re the one agency that has their attention. And a lot of that is really digging in deep with those agencies and looking at what they’re really good at. And what they want to be known for because like I said before, they seem sometimes drift away from the things that they used to have. And so sometimes we just have to bring them back to a place where they’re focusing on the thing that they’re absolutely killing it for.

    And you can often do that by looking at your clients and seeing if they broadly come to you to solve one problem. And most clients will write, and then you’ll bolt on other things or your upsell. So it’s about figuring out what that one problem that you solve really well is, and then putting that at the core of what you offer.

    Do you find that you encounter a bit of resistance from agencies that you’re working with to, get rid of some aspects that perhaps aren’t core to their offering and their skillset? Yeah, we do. And in those instances, we talk to people about things like productizing, or we talk to them about looking at.

    how they can begin with one position and then move into another one, right? And what I mean by that is that you might be hooking new clients cause no one’s suggesting first and foremost, right? That you fire your entire team. that would be insane. So it’s looking at, okay, if you are hooking clients on how good you are with PPC, for example, what’s an appropriate way to then get in upsell those clients on the other things you do.

    If there’s other things that SEO or email or anything like that, But when someone hits your website, you need to have an immediate clear and obvious position. And sometimes that might mean stripping back the things that you offer right on the homepage and rethinking about how you offer those things as different packages and other points in your website or at other points in your client relationship.

    Have you got, say a definition of what you mean by a clear and obvious offering? Because in my mind, it’s if you’re going for that, then it can’t be three sentences worth of copy to communicate that it’s got to be short and punchy. But that’s just. Off the top of my head, I don’t know if you’ve got any guidance there sometimes, and this is going to sound like one of those cop out answers, which always makes this sort of slightly challenging, but sometimes it does depend on your niche, right?

    If you’re an agency, that’s really strongly niched, then 50 percent of that work is broadly done for you because you’re communicating to your niche that you’re an expert in their niche in your niche, rather that you’re an expert in their businesses and that, the problems that they face. And so if you’ve really gone through and you have a proper, thought out niche, not just a target industry or a target sector, then a lot of that work is done for you.

    And then when you’re in that position, you can say, okay, we know what the pain points are for, Our customers and the problems we need to solve. And I think that’s a part that’s always missing when it comes to talking about things like productizing and stuff is that we talk about it with the assumption or the inference that people have done the market research to get to that point first.

    or that they’ve done the thinking behind that and they’ve not just gone, fuck it. We’ll throw together a bunch of different products and see how it goes. Yeah. Yeah, okay, makes sense. And then, once you’ve helped a client to, find their differentiated position, and maybe communicate it in as clear and obvious a way as possible.

    There’s another job to be done with just more words about supporting that position and since we connected via LinkedIn I’ve subscribed to in fact, I don’t know if I subscribe to it, but I’ve been receiving your newsletter on Fridays and Honestly, it is one of the few marketing style emails that I actually look forward to getting and there’s been a couple of occasions where It’s arrived late in the afternoon and I thought I hope they’re gonna send it today.

    Thank you so much it’s it’s a really enjoyable read and there’s a bit of magic There’s a real skill behind creating something like that’s a skill that I don’t have Now I my assessment there is that suits having had a couple of conversations with you that really reflects Your personality and your style of writing, and it chimes really well with me.

    How do you go about when you’re working with a client that maybe has a different personality or wants to be perceived in a different way? How do you uncover that style of writing for them? Yeah, that’s a good question. firstly, it’s noodleclub. substack. com. If anyone wants to. I’m going to include a link.

    It is really a great read. but yeah, that’s very kind of you. Thank you. I think one of the things that we wanted to do with that was really lead with our personalities, right? because we know that we’re. Good writers. And we know that we’re interesting and funny. And so we thought, what we can really do is we can just push the boat out with this and it gives us the opportunity to do that when we’re talking with other people, a lot of the things that we’ll be thinking about and talking to them about is the way that they’re their target market speak as well.

    So we’re obviously agency to agency. And so we know that agency owners roughly speak like us roughly have the same sort sometimes they don’t, right? but we send out cold emails as an example, and we have a nurture funnel that we do for our clients. And we do get emails back from people saying, every time I get an email from you, it makes me laugh, which is very nice.

    Some of those people haven’t even bought anything from us, but they stay on our nurture list because they enjoy the things that we send. And the reason that’s relevant. Is because we know so well what works for agency owners. And this is what we try to do with our clients, right? We try to get them to get in the head of their end customer and think about, okay, if you’re going after accounting firms, for example, how does accounting firms think, how do they speak, match their tone, match their style.

    You can have your own personal flair, but you probably wouldn’t F and Jeff as much as we do. Because it’s a slightly different professional service, right? It’s the same if you’re going after lawyers or something like that. and so that’s where we always start with them is how does your end customer speak?

    And then how can we add your personality into that to make sure that you’re memorable? Because a lot of the time as well, it’s that kind of memorability that will cut through the dross on something like LinkedIn or something like email. we’ve all got cold emails where you can hold them all up side by side and they sound the same.

    Yeah. Absolutely. We want to avoid that as much as possible with our clients and obviously our own stuff. And why do you think it is that so many businesses and so many people in marketing actually struggle with communicating in a way that is actually differentiated and engaging? So I don’t think this is a marketing problem.

    And this is where it all comes crashing down. And if you have people like this guy’s mad, he’s never going to be on a podcast again. I think it’s an organizational problem. And the reason that I say this is because I think the hardest job of a lot of marketers, and I’ve been through this myself with many of my marketing roles, is that everyone in the organization thinks they can do marketing as well as you can.

    or they, it’s the kind of outward facing thing where everyone has an opinion. Yeah. UX might get something like that too. If you’re in a software development, company and people are looking at it and they’re saying, Oh, this button’s in kind of a weird place, but marketing end to end, everyone has an opinion on qualified or not.

    And you’ll often find that a marketer will start at a certain point and maybe it’s a very differentiated point and then it’ll have to go through, the CEO, the senior leadership team, like all of these other people, all of these checks that you wouldn’t have for any other department.

    And by the time you get to the final product, it’s been so sanitized because it becomes about appeasing the people within your organization and not about speaking to the customer. And this is where a lot of marketing falls over, right? Is that people end up marketing to get things signed off, to get them out the door.

    Instead of marketing for client acquisition or for brand building one of my favorite expressions is that Individuals build stallions and committees make camels right being that stallions are these kind of like I’m gonna sound like a horse boy These stallions are these really beautiful majestic horses.

    Yeah that you can only make on your own Camels are just fucking ugly right and they’re the kind of thing that like everyone And it becomes a camel. No disrespect to camels. They’re great, but they’re ugly and they look like they’ve been made out of spare parts. Yeah, exactly. And so that’s why I think that’s not necessarily a marketing issue as much as it is an organizational one.

    And I think it’s true for agencies as well. People talk about the quality of marketing that goes out there, right? and how Out of home ads suck or TV ads are boring or whatever, but your agency could have the best idea in the world. But if the client doesn’t trust the agency enough or if the client’s a meddler, wherever that idea starts off as a stallion, it’s going to end up as a camel.

    Yeah. I’ve also, it’s interesting. You’ve prompted me to think of an example from my career. and I think organizationally there’s, I’m sure this happens a lot. I’ve, had experience of where, The marketing, particularly around copywriting, particularly around press releases, is massaged by the board, not with the customer in mind, but with the press.

    And the finance community that they’re trying to impress. And it’s okay. We know that in the next few years, we’re going to have to go on a round of private equity investment. We’re going to have to go and raise some funds. So what are the hot topics there? Everyone’s talking about cyber security is hot.

    We’ve got to put that in there somehow and talk about it in exactly the same way that someone else has talked about it. That’s just received a valuation of 20 X EBITDA, whatever it is. And it ends up like everyone just sounds exactly the same with its Buzzword. Bingo. A hundred percent. And that’s where it comes from, I think, is, too many cooks in the kitchen and not letting the cooks that you have do the things that they’ve spent their careers getting good at.

    Yeah. and you’ve literally, I’m sure you’ve just now pulled off a scab, a wound of mine that’s just been reopened. You’re so welcome. Work, working in house. It was a frustration of mine. To be honest, I’m sure it was my fault for not being better at communicating the marketing strategy. But it used to piss me right off when people would come up and just start coming up with loads of great ideas that marketing should do.

    It’s we don’t need any more fucking ideas. we need more resource and budget to do the ideas we’ve got. That we can prove work really, well, but just do more of it. And that’s the thing is having the freedom to stick with those ideas and to really run them out. We talk a lot about how, great copy wears in, not out.

    It’s this idea that people, they don’t, Get used to it. And this is a problem that we have as agency owners, as copywriters, as marketers, as all of it is we spend so much time at the call face, looking at the thing that we’re doing, that we’re absolutely sick to the back teeth of it before it even goes out into market.

    So it’s out in the market for two weeks and we go, Oh, it’s clearly not working. but great ads. We’re in, the longer you can run an ad, the better. look at Coca Cola, they didn’t invent Santa and yet 25 years, they’ve been running ads with Santa in them. and if we could do more of that, I think people would be in a better place.

    Andrew Tyndall from system one recently shared a really interesting post on LinkedIn about how marketers in the U S are better at letting ads run for longer than marketers in the UK. So in the UK, we tend to pull ads before they’ve had enough time to really work. whereas our counterparts across the pond tend to let ads have a lifespan before deciding if they’ve worked on it.

    Oh, that’s really interesting. I would have assumed it would be different because there’s very much a, higher and fire culture in the States where people have less. Protection in their, careers. but it’s very, interesting that point that they’re, more willing to let ads run and actually, build a position in someone’s psyche and actually take hold.

    something I saw you do, a couple of months ago was, a promotion for your services where it was pay what you want. I thought that was really interesting. that really stood out in my mind. It’d be great to understand how that went and what you learned. Yeah, we did do that. We ran it for a month and we basically said to anyone and, to everyone that for all of our copywriting services, you can pay what you want.

    So the distinction there was that we offer a thing called Soba Bento, which is our kind of flagship product, which we sell for significantly more than, a handful of kibble and some spare buttons. so we wanted to leave that one alone, but we thought for all of our copywriting. Whatever you need done, we’ll do it and then you pay for it.

    So the way that we made it work was that we would get a brief from people and we would then do the work. We would then deliver the work and at the point of delivery, they would see their price, right? Or they would decide their price rather. And the reason that we did that was because we wanted everyone to know that they were getting our best work regardless of what they could afford to pay.

    So that was the really important thing for us. Was making sure that no one was worried. Oh, I’ve only got a couple of hundred quid or I’ve got less than that. I don’t want these guys to, do a bad job if they’re redoing my whole website or whatever it might be. So that was really crucial to that project.

    It was a really interesting time. I think that there’s a good reason that people don’t offer it. we made some calculations, made some adjustments, looked at what, what the risk would be of doing something like that. And we got to meet a ton of really great and really interesting people, but you can see how these things don’t create a sort of viable business model.

    And we’ve seen things here just, in my local community, even where there was a cafe that was pay what you want. and it recently went under. And we were all wringing our hands over it and saying, Oh, it’s a terrible thing because we all like to think of ourselves as people who would pay the maximum for something if given the opportunity.

    but we have to remember that this is not the case for everybody. and things with big overheads like, like a cafe, it’s much harder, but for us as well, we noticed that one of the kind of downfalls of this, and one of the big lessons for us was people value you. Based on the price that you charge.

    And so if you are charging, and I’m just making this up for effect, 20, 000 pounds for a project, people value you more than if you’re charging 5, 000 pounds for exactly the same amount of work. And so the, which sounds naive when you say it out loud, we’re new to business and we wanted to believe that everyone was like us.

    And so when you say to people, you can pay what you want, I think the biggest drawback or the biggest challenge there was that, It often reflected in people’s minds as you can treat us how you want. And so that was where it started to become challenging, right? So someone, for instance, might have had a price in mind before they started the project.

    and that might’ve been a low price. So it might’ve been 50 quid and then we would do the project. And then they would come back and they would be maybe particularly difficult or particularly rude or whatever. And at the delivery of the project, when they were happy with it, they would then say, okay, here’s your 50 pounds.

    Whereas we found that the people that. Chose to pay us more. We’re also the people that respected our time more and respect our expertise more. And we’re also the kinds of people who were potentially more collaborative and want to say, so for example, we were doing a website copy for an agency.

    And we were playing with different ideas around their positioning as we were coming up with the copy. And they were one of the people that paid us the most. And they were very respectful of our expertise and of our process, but they also added a lot of creativity there, themselves. And they said, what if we tried this?

    And it felt like a really two way kind of thing. But then we had others where, we delivered the project and in one instance on one day it was signed off and then the next day we got, we got a call saying, Oh, I’ve thought about this and I realized I signed it off on the Thursday, but it’s a new day.

    Now it’s now Friday. I don’t want it anymore, and, that was one of those people who paid a lot less. we also found that there were it. Couple of people that didn’t pay, which was really interesting. obviously that they’re allowed to not do that, right? pay what you want means that if you choose to pay nothing, you can pay nothing.

    but it was an interesting choice and I think it was one that we didn’t necessarily foresee, because when we went out in our comms, we. it to the, the extreme, right? And we said to people, we’ll rewrite your website for a pound. We’ll write you a postcard for a million pounds. Like we really wanted people to know that they had enough stretch and flex in there.

    so yeah, people choosing not to pay was a, An interesting, experience. Yeah. and what you described about the client relationships that you’ve had, where it’s successful and where it’s been less it echoes very well with my experience too. there’s clients that I’ve worked with where you are treated, just as, just part of a process and they’ve got an idea and they just want you to just do it.

    And there’s no real respect for the relationship. They just expect you to do it by the time they want you to do it by as cheaply and as quickly as possible. Those ones don’t work out ever. The ones that absolutely thrive for both parties are where they perceive you as the expert. They want to hear from you.

    They want to understand your thoughts. They want to be guided by you. They’re not just there to tell you to do certain jobs. They actually want you to be the expertise in the room. They’ll pay you well, they’ll listen to your ideas, and you can have that equal partnership type of relationship. Those are the ones that thrive for everyone.

    Yeah, absolutely. And it’s been really interesting for me as a person, and I suppose on a really personal level to work out and think about where that exists from a pricing point of view, both doing the pay what you want thing, and then coming out of that and sitting the pricing around our product high services.

    So we’ve been talking to people a lot about sales ladders and obviously the economy’s down, everyone’s talking about it, but people are paying less for things, right? And so working out what that. What that level is, and it has been interesting for us looking as a business, like I say, but mostly personally saying where does the respect kind of start and stop based on the number of zeros that come after a number.

    yeah. I also think that copywriting as a discipline is one of the most undervalued aspects of good marketing because everyone who’s gone through the school system pretty much. can write something. It might not be brilliant, it might not be coherent, but they’ve got spell checkers and got grammarly, so it’ll probably roughly make sense.

    So why should I pay someone to churn out just a few lines of copy? That means I’m paying a thousand pounds per word, but it might be the perfect thousand pounds per word. Now I’ve seen the difference it can make. It’s absolutely transformative of, Having some copy that’s okay versus that extra bit of fairy dust that a professional can sprinkle on it that all of a sudden just makes it sing can be transformative.

    Yeah, absolutely. And it’s interesting you say that because about a week ago we had someone come to us with a quote that they’d got and a copywriter quoted them around a hundred USD, so it’s 120 pounds or something to write four blogs. And we were like, we could, we can never match that.

    The blogs might be great. They might not. I haven’t seen them. they might just be chat GPT written. And again, the guy’s using his, his 120 quid to just edit them. But we have moved into a place where copy is incredibly commoditized. And like you say, Every monkey with a keyboard is a copywriter now.

    And what that’s done is really devalue it. But it’s interesting because it’s devalued it in a price perspective, but I think also in a hierarchy perspective, people seem to have forgotten that the reason that people buy products is because of the words tied to those products. We see words all the time, right?

    We don’t really even think about it. there’s a hundred and something books behind me right now full of all different kinds of words of different kinds of quality. But when you’re looking at an advertisement and trying to get someone to buy, that’s where it really counts. And a lot of people I think are falling down there thinking, anyone can write an ad, so I’m just going to do that.

    And then they’re going, why aren’t our ads working? If they look very pretty, or we’ve spent five grand or 30 grand to be on the front page of the Guardian, Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. You see it with advertising a lot that it’s the image and maybe the headline that captures your attention, but it’s probably the image that captures your attention.

    But it’s the words that actually persuade you to do anything, to change your behavior, to change your perception about the brand itself. But, Seb, I’m conscious of time. You’ve been a wonderful guest. Before I let you go, I’m asking everyone for a book recommendation. So I am very pleased to see your background.

    if you can, narrow it down just to one. Just to one. what I read really recently that I absolutely loved was a book called Other People’s Beds. And it was, Translated from Catalan, it’s by Anna Ponsoda, and it is the perfect sub 100 page book. And it’s one of those books that Everyone should read because I want to say it’s transformative and you’re going to be like, that’s so wanky, but it is, there’s a real sort of clear Keegan effect on that book where you’re reading something that’s very short, but you’re getting the full impact of what you would get from a much greater novel and whether you’re a marketer or a writer or just a fan of reading other people’s beds.

    Shows you the power of what each word can do when it’s really thought out and really well structured in 99 pages or 97 pages it covers sort of 20 years of this person’s life of their trauma of their healing process and the way that it’s plotted in the way that it’s mapped out means that you Feel like you’re really only getting the important parts of someone’s life and instead of it feeling really reductive It’s really just It feels really rich, and it feels really important.

    And I think anyone that considers themselves a writer or is interested in writing, whether it’s advertising or something else, should definitely read that book as a reminder, refresher of what you can do with a really good edit. Love it. I will go and check it out. Thank you so much. Seb, how can people connect with you after the show?

    So I am on LinkedIn, linkedin. com slash Seb Mackay, I think that’s M A C K. but you can also follow the Soba Private Label page. And yeah, that’s pretty much it. Otherwise we are always doing events and talks and stuff. So if you see me at one of those, even an online one, come say hi.

    Brilliant. Thank you. I’ll include links to all of those in the show notes as well as the Substack newsletter, subscription page, because I highly, recommend that to everyone. Thank you so much, Seb. Great to see you. You’re too kind. Thank you so much for having me on. Thanks everyone.