How to start your own marketing agency
If you have excellent communication skills and a strong work ethic, consider applying them to starting a marketing firm. Learn how with our guide
Are you a marketing professional who’s looking to take what you’ve learned and strike out on your own? Or maybe you dream of running your own business and want to transfer your skills and apply them to a field that’s new to you? Whatever your reason for wanting to start your own marketing agency, we’ll provide you with step-by-step instructions.
Starting a marketing firm can be a full-time venture – with so many possible functions and, at times, a hectic schedule, it could be that you wish to give your complete attention to this start-up idea.
Alternatively, you could begin it as a side hustle – a business activity that you do alongside of your regular employment. Whichever route you choose, what do you need to know to get started?
In this article, we’ll cover how to:
Now you’ve learned about what skills and qualities you need, let’s look at the key steps you need to take when you’re thinking about how to start your own marketing agency.
1. Find a niche
Marketing is a competitive industry, so you’ll need to identify what makes your agency unique to help you stand out.
One way to do this is to offer a specialist service – with this, the aim is to eventually become well-known for being experts in a particular type of marketing.
- Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising – the purchased ads at the top of search engine results
- Search engine optimisation (SEO) – the processes to maximise how highly pages rank when searched for online
- Content marketing – online content created for specific audiences about products or services
- Event marketing – promoting events
- Guest blogging – writing articles for blogs and linking to sites
- Email marketing – promotional material sent in email form
You could also focus on the type of marketing your agency will create – will it be for B2B or B2C purposes?
- B2B stands for ‘business-to-business’. Your agency could create marketing material to help other companies position themselves within their industry or to target other businesses
- B2C stands for ‘business-to-consumer’. With this approach, your agency would be responsible for producing marketing aimed at customers directly
If you’re starting a marketing firm as a side hustle, assess what type of services you’ll offer – you may want to work on specific one-off projects, or you may want to work consistently for the same clients over a longer period of time.
Whichever specialism you choose, it’s important to have a clear, unique focus so that people know what your agency does and how it’s different from the competition.
Initially, it’s wise to build up your business around one key service and do it really well. When you’re ready to expand your business, you could consider offering additional services to diversify your business’ offering.
2. Identify your target market
After deciding what type of work you want your agency to create, the next step is to pinpoint who you will be marketing to and why. You may want to take as much work as possible, especially in the early days, but remember to ask yourself if it’s serving your target market – if it’s not, don’t be afraid to say no.
Bridie Gallagher, founder at Glass Digital, says: “When you're starting your own agency or even just going freelance, it's tempting to overpromise in an attempt to secure clients. However, this is a short-term strategy. Be confident in what you can deliver and upfront with what you can achieve and, while it might take longer to build up a client base, you'll set yourself up for success.
“In our experience, clients value transparency in an industry notorious for lack of clarity. So, while you might feel like you're up against some big competition, honesty truly is the best policy, both at the pitching stage and throughout your partnership. This might mean having the confidence to say ‘no' when a client wants to take the campaign in a certain direction.”
Another part of positioning your company is knowing where your target market is located. For some businesses, this may mean large-scale international projects, whereas for others this might entail focusing on a local area.
Analyse the market and look for gaps, whether that’s in terms of a particular industry, service or location that’s currently under-served. View gaps in the market as opportunities that your business could fill.
3. Write a business plan
A business plan should include:
- Your business’ goals
- Cashflow and financial forecast
- Projections for business activity
- Which revenue stream(s) you’ll use
- Who your target audience is and how you’ll reach them
Download a free business plan template here.
4. Find clients
Every marketing agency needs clients, and we’ll provide advice to help you find yours – whether you want one or 100!
While you may want to acquire as many new clients as possible at first, over time the goal is likely to be more around retaining clients for the long term, as continually replacing them can be difficult.
That being said, it’s important to know when to let a client go as well (see above for our previous point about saying no as part of your brand).
So how can your agency find clients?
One of the most important ways of finding clients and letting people know about your agency is through networking. You can do this through:
- Attending trade fairs and industry events
- Presenting at conferences
- Reaching out to your contacts and network
- Taking part in networking sessions
- Contributing to LinkedIn groups and discussions
- Posting on relevant business forums
- Sharing content on social media
Networking is about making connections and offering value – note that this may not be a source of income straightaway. Instead, think about it this way: connections create customers.
Hannah Brice, managing director at Upmarketry, says: “Finding new business is different in every industry but for marketing, there are two sources.
“The first is your network – I have received the bulk of my agency’s new business from referrals or from old colleagues and clients who like working with me and are confident in my abilities. It also makes the new business process easier as you skip out the time-consuming pitch process!
“The second best source of new business is to run targeted Google AdWords campaigns linked to landing pages showcasing your most popular service. If you know enough about what your target audience needs – and the pressures they’re under – you can build landing pages offering that solution and drive traffic to them using niche keyword phrases. The more specific you make the keyword phrase, the higher return you’ll have on your ad spend as you’ll get very few time wasters.”
Nothing makes people more interested to try or do something more than the word ‘free’, and you can apply this to your agency’s services too. It’s essential for agencies to have portfolios – but how do you create a portfolio without any clients?
In the beginning, consider offering your business’ services for free to show people what you can do. Gradually, you’ll build up your portfolio and can use this work to help secure paid contracts.
Once you have some clients to work with (by following the steps above), utilise them to expand your client base even further. Ask if their customers or suppliers need marketing services and let them know your agency is available.
Being recommended by another company could increase your agency’s chances of finding more clients to work with, as it helps build trust. This is especially important in the early days when your agency is still forming a portfolio and a client list.
Where you’re based says a lot about your agency, too. Again, it’s all part of your brand, so choose your office location carefully, as it can say a lot about your company.
If you choose to work remotely or you’re looking to keep costs down, you may want to consider using a virtual office or coworking space to have those essential business services, such as a city centre postal address or reception facilities.
Initially, it may be possible to run a marketing agency from home, particularly if you’re doing the majority of the work yourself.
Finding the right premises for your business isn’t only about having enough space to work in, it’s about showing potential clients – and competitors – that your agency is a serious contender.
As agencies tend to be located in the same areas, being in these places can help potential clients trust you more (which is vital, especially at the outset) as you’ll have a recognisable address.
However, depending on your target market, it may actually be preferable to not have a central location. Or you may just want to position yourself away from the competition, and so stand out in that way.
For example, if your agency focuses on marketing for agricultural businesses, then an office in a city centre miles away from your clients is probably not going to be very helpful!
While you may begin with offering work for free, that’s only to secure clients in order to create a portfolio. Once your agency has one, you’ll need to move on to paid work. But what pricing options should you offer clients?
There are essentially two ways to approach this: ad-hoc or contract work. With ad-hoc work, your agency will offer its services to specific projects, while with the latter, you’ll work for the client for a set timeframe.
Some examples of typical pricing formats include:
- Charging an hourly or daily rate
- Offering set services for a fixed monthly fee
- Providing a dedicated team on an ongoing basis for a retainer payment
Whichever you choose, be sure to set a price that fairly reflects the work your agency creates and the resources required to produce those results, in a way that is most appealing to your target market.
How to retain clients
Once your agency is more established, you’ll need to ensure your clients stay with you and aren’t swayed by what other competitors are offering. Here are some tips:
- Ensure everything your agency does is client-focused
- Keep reports and document work
- Stay up-to-date with the industry
- Approach work creatively
5. Promote your business
Promoting a business is essential, but for a marketing agency, it becomes an even more interesting question: how to market a marketing company?
While people may be expecting higher standards (this is your company’s area of expertise, after all), don’t be concerned – instead see this as a creative challenge. Here are some of the main ways to promote your business:
First of all, you must have a professional, well-designed website. This is non-negotiable for a marketing company – customers and others interested in your agency have to be able to find your business online and see a site that best reflects what you do.
However, this needn’t be expensive. In the beginning, you can use a website builder to quickly and easily set up a basic website, without requiring much technical ability.
After some time, you may consider hiring a professional web designer to create a website with bespoke design and increased functions, such as an interactive portfolio.
In addition to your site, your agency will need to be on social media to contribute to your overall online presence. While there are a number of platforms out there, concentrate your efforts on connecting with your target market. This means finding out which networks they use and then sharing content on them. You can use social media to promote your business, but also to engage with, and find, customers.
Generally, Facebook and Twitter are the key networks to be on. If relevant, consider using Instagram, Pinterest and other platforms too. Let this be a way for people to see what goes on in your agency, as well as allowing you to keep up to speed with what matters most to your customers.
Brice continues: “I invest a lot of time on our company blog and on social media but I find the most effective way of raising awareness of Upmarketry among my target audience is by reaching out to them directly and finding ways to work with them for free. For example, I frequently appeal to entrepreneurs and start-up leaders to contribute to my blog posts and PR articles. This starts a relationship and helps their SEO programme.”
Even if you’re running a solely online marketing business, don’t forget about paper-based promotional material. This could be as simple as creating business cards for you (and eventually other key team members too), which are useful to give out while networking.
Similarly, you could consider creating brochures and other physical documents to promote your business. You could sample a range of work that you think portrays your agency best into a brochure to distribute when needed.
6. Gain skills and hire staff
At first, you’ll likely be doing all the tasks that running a marketing agency requires. Once your agency earnings are at a high enough point, then you’ll want to consider hiring staff.
Brice adds: “Don’t do it too soon. In the early days, you’ll most likely be taking on short term projects and income will fluctuate wildly month to month. To be stuck with employees when you don’t have the work for them can break your business so I recommend finding high quality freelancers you trust until you know you’re ready to hire permanent staff.”
You’ll need to think carefully about this – which skills are lacking and what processes could be improved?
While it may be sufficient for all critical information to be known only to you when you set-up your start-up, at this stage you’ll need to think about making this information accessible to your team members when they need it.
Which roles you hire for are totally dependent on your business’ individual workloads and requirements. However, some ideas for key roles to hire for early on include:
Finance officer – as cashflow and financial forecasts are a core component of your business plan (and your business’ success), an accountant, a financial officer or similar may be one of the first roles you hire.
Support staff – it can be easy to forget which papers need to be returned and when or which supplies the office needs, for example, so support staff are crucial to maintaining your business’ everyday operations.
Once you’ve created your team, remember that clear, transparent communication is essential to success. Similarly, don’t forget to show your staff they’re appreciated – for example, you could take your staff on a company holiday or offer perks. It all contributes to a creative, positive working culture that allows a happy team to do the best possible work.
Gallagher adds: “At first, you'll need to hire multi-talented staff who can turn their hand to lots of different tasks. Then, as your agency grows, start identifying opportunities for these employees to specialise. Adopting a more modern approach to working will make things easier: the more flexible you are, the more freedom staff have to make the best decisions and come up with new ideas.”
What are the next steps?
At this point, you’ve learned the essential elements of starting a marketing firm. We’ve looked at how to identify a target market, as well as what should be included in your business plan. In addition, you’ve learned how to promote your business – whether that’s to find clients, attract talent or simply spread the word.
So what do you do with all this information? Now’s the time to actually start your marketing business – good luck!