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:

Who is suited to starting a marketing firm?

The following skills and traits are useful:

  • Able to adapt – it’s a fast-moving industry. You should be open to change and comfortable with taking risks to run a successful marketing company
  • Desire to learn – there’ll be a lot of information you need to take in (often quickly), especially if you focus on SEO or digital marketing (see below) where the climate can change rapidly so an interest in learning is essential
  • Strong communication skills – you’ll need to able to talk and connect with a wide range of people, whether that’s prospective customers or potential hires

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.

Marketing agencies can offer services for print, digital, radio, TV and other forms of media.

How to start a marketing firm – what can your agency specialise in?

  • 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

If you want to start your own email marketing business, find out how to refine your email copy with our how to optimise email open rates article.

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.

Polly Buckland, managing director at The Typeface Group, offers the following tips for starting a marketing agency:

  1. “Keep overheads low – don’t over stretch yourself.
  2. “Stick at what you’re good at – don’t generalise. If you want to expand into different areas, get the specialists in.
  3. “Be measurable. Report on everything you do and learn from it – you can therefore prove ROI for your clients AND learn from what you are doing.
  4. “50/50 invoicing. Cashflow is king – invoice 50% upfront for projects and 50% on completion, or 25/25 at defined milestones.
  5. “Practice what you preach. Don’t proclaim to be social media specialists or blogging superstars if your own content and social media output is outdated and lacklustre.”



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.

Early on, it’s essential to think about your agency’s brand – this incorporates what your business does and why it does it.

Think of your brand as the story of your company.

You’ll need to identify the main characters (your team members), the plot (what your business does) and the style (how your business communicates). Then, tell this story over and over again.

Your brand is communicated through all actions your company takes, from overarching concepts such as your name and logo, down to the smallest details, such as the fonts you use on your website.


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.

This is also a good time to register as a business, if you haven’t already done so. If you’re starting as a side hustle, you’ll most likely register as self-employed.

Conversely, if you’re setting up a full-time business, you may want to think about setting up a limited company.


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?

Networking

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.”

Free trials

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.

Referrals

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.

Location

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. To keep a work/life balance and ensure maximum productivity, check out our working from home survival guide.

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!

Pricing

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

Although it can be fairly easy to manage your time (both for acquiring new clients and maintaining existing accounts) during the early stages, as your business develops and grows you may need to consider additional tools.

This is where customer relationship management (CRM) software can help – it offers a central point for all interactions a customer has with your company to be stored in one place. To find the best CRM system for your business, compare quotes here.


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:

Website

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.

Social media

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.”

Promotional material

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.”

Ensure you understand your role as an employer. Read our articles on setting up a new employee and employers’ liability insurance.

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.

If you’re not yet at the stage where hiring staff is feasible, you can still think about what skills you can learn to enhance your agency even further.

For example, you could get some on-the-job experience at an agency before you branch out and take on staff of your own. Alternatively, you may want to get formally recognised qualifications, such as a diploma or a degree.

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!