How to Start a Marketing Agency (a Practical, No-Bull Guide)

So you want to learn how to start a marketing agency? You dream of a new challenge. You’re ready to build a business and a team you look forward to working with each day.

I get it. I was in your shoes not too long ago. In 2015, I started my consulting business because I was fed up with bad marketing and all of the noise online. My goal was to build a no-BS approach to marketing.

Did it go perfectly? Not exactly. But I gained a lot from my experience, and I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned along the way to my podcast listeners.

For starters, most marketing agencies are BAD.

Can this be true?

Unfortunately, there are too many sleazy marketers out there. So I brought David Baker on the show to share his thoughts on why this is and provide a strategy for how to start a remarkable marketing agency from scratch.

How to Start a Marketing Agency - David Baker

David Baker works with entrepreneurs to teach them how to make better business decisions and create firms that are scalable and sustainable.

We discussed:

  • What exact steps to take before launching your agency
  • How good agencies can stand out from their competitors
  • Why you shouldn’t focus on serving local businesses
  • Where to search when you’re looking for your first client
  • How to get good clients to come to you
  • And more

What follows is the step-by-step approach David Baker would use to start a marketing agency from scratch.

Ready to learn how to start a marketing agency?

Step 1: Identify a Viable Target Market

So why are most marketing agencies so bad?

The truth is because they’re afraid to position themselves.

Agencies fear that positioning will limit their opportunity. They become trapped in thinking that if they specialize in the services they provide, they’re stuck in a box.

They risk the chance to work on different projects.

Let me explain why this isn’t true.

“If you’re really good at what you do, it’s hard to imagine limiting opportunities so much that you starve in this world.”—David Baker

When I started my consulting business, we focused on everything. We took on all kinds of companies and projects—from conversion optimization to lead generation and registration.

After a while, we noticed that we worked better with specific business niches. We decided to take a risk and start narrowing our position to only work with these types of companies.  

Did it hurt our business?

While it closed a few doors for us, it opened a lot of doors too. I only took on clients that I enjoyed working with, instead of taking on projects I didn’t appreciate.

According to David Baker, positioning is the first step to finding a viable target market. You want to specialize your agency in an area where there IS some competition, but not more than 200 worldwide.

Think of it this way.

If there are already agencies specializing in a narrow niche, you know the market is profitable and worth pursuing.

But keep in mind, we can work from anywhere (thanks to the internet). That’s why it’s important to look at the competition from a global marketplace. David recommends looking for at least 2,000-10,000 prospective clients around the world that need what you’re offering.

Limited competition + a small pool of prospective clients = your positioning.

How to Start a Marketing Agency - limited competition and a small pool of prospects

So how do you know when you’re not niching down ENOUGH?

If you can find 250,000 potential customers for your agency, your positioning is too broad. Your prospective clients will have too many choices, and your agency becomes more of a commodity than a specialized service.

When you’re perceived as a commodity, you can’t charge a premium for your work because you’ve become indistinguishable from other agencies.

Start with being honest about what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.

Lastly, if you’re feeling stuck on how to identify your strengths, reach out to your friends and network for help. Ask for honest feedback about what your friends or colleagues think are your biggest strengths. You’ll want to ask at least 5-10 people because not everyone will give you an in-depth answer.

But you’ll probably be surprised at some of the thoughtful insights you DO hear about your best traits.

When you figure out what you’re good at helping clients with?

Make that your specialization.

Step 2: Find Your First Clients

This is the step that a lot of new marketers get stuck on. How can you find a scalable way to bring new clients in?

You know it’s possible.

But when you’re just getting started, it seems like magic. Good news: there’s no magic to this. We covered this topic in the episode. David brought up inbound marketing as the most powerful tool for bringing in new clients. I agree with him 100 percent.

Here’s how he explained it:

It’s 2018. We don’t have to jump on the phone, and cold call people like business owners did in the past. Or try to drum up business and opportunity. We can now attract clients to come to us.

And we can do it for free.

It just takes time.

How to Start a Marketing Agency - inbound marketing vs outbound marketing

You might be able to spend a little money on outbound marketing, but your main priority should be on getting clients to find you first.

 

You can write blog posts on topics that demonstrate your specialized expertise. Host webinars for your target audience. Start posting on social media.

Me? I started a podcast.

The point is, there are a ton of different routes for inbound marketing. You don’t have to blog, though it’s a great way to get found on Google.

How to Start a Marketing Agency - in Google

Inbound marketing probably brought you to the post you’re reading now via Google.

 

But let’s circle back to webinars. We’ve all seen them, but David explained an approach to webinars that I found interesting. He suggested new agencies offer to do a webinar sponsored by an association that hosts conferences in your niche. These associations have an email list of your prospects already built in.

Plus, they always need content. You get to host the webinar, but they take care of the marketing and draw in hundreds of people! And then you get access to all of the email addresses.

It’s important NOT to abuse these email addresses.

That’s shady marketing.

But you can send out emails to the list with helpful information. You’ll probably win 1-2 clients with this method. Boom! You’ve found your first client.

It is that simple. However, there’s a catch.

I’ll tell you about it in the next step.

Step 3: Start Your Marketing Agency While You Still Have a Day Job

Let’s be honest, you’ve probably heard this advice before.

Start your day job as a side hustle, while you’re still working at a full-time job.

But here’s why you should pay attention.

As David explains, when you’re starting an agency from scratch you have to find clients that are going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to work with you. This is a lot harder than starting out as a freelancer, where you can work for intermediaries or agencies.

Does it make it any easier to start your agency on the side?

Nope.

Building up a marketing agency while you still have a job is hard work. Are you serious enough about your business that you can go home and work on content or your website during the evenings—after you’ve been at work all day?

It takes a strong mindset.

You also might have heard that you should set aside money as a cushion when you’re searching for great clients.

This is equally important. Cash flow is what businesses run on. When you don’t have enough cash flow, you feel panicked. Your employees begin to panic too.

You might take on client work that isn’t the best fit for you at this stage.

When you start working while you still have a day job, it takes the pressure off delivering results. You don’t have to rush into the work. It makes creating content and marketing way more enjoyable with this method.

I have to admit; this is one of the biggest mistakes I made when I started my consulting business.

I had no clients.

No reputation.

No credibility in the market.

While I did set aside $20,000 in savings, it was still a struggle.

If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve waited. I would expand my list of contacts and build up my skills first. Then I would launch after I had enough clients to work with.

It’s the most exciting feeling in the world when you’re in the beginning stages of your agency. When you land your first client or two? You’ll feel like quitting your full-time job the next day.

I’ve been there.

Be patient. Launch when you already have a roster clients to work with. Focus on building up content without the pressure to deliver results.

The best clients will come to you this way.

Step 4: Focus on Retaining Your Best Clients

Clients are the lifeblood of your agency. So naturally, client retention is a primary focus when you’re building up your company.

How can you get clients to come back for more?

Don’t focus on retaining every single client you work with. Not every project will be a great fit—for you or your client.

Spend the most energy on your relationships with your BEST clients. Treat them like a human.

Here are a few ways to approach this:

  • Be proactive with your clients.
    Not everything will go perfectly. Anticipate when you see something turning into a problem and work on stopping it before it happens.
  • Ask for feedback.
    As business owners, we tend to become pretty attached to our work. But feedback is essential. Nobody’s perfect (especially when you’re first launching an agency), but hearing feedback can help you figure out what areas you can improve.
  • Set expectations from the beginning.
    Nail down specific deliverables for the work at the start. Make sure your client knows when to expect the finished work. Also, provide status updates along the way so your client can see progress towards the goal.

When I asked David how he would provide value over time, he gave me a surprising response.

He suggested agencies shouldn’t focus on retainers.

Instead, start client relationships without trying to make them last forever. Aim for client relationships that last anywhere from 1.5 years-4 years.

“I would start client relationships without trying to make them last forever. I believe as time passes, your value to the client drops. It doesn’t get higher.”—David Baker

You have to plan to lose some of these clients along the way. It’s a reality of running a service-based business.

I didn’t expect to hear this, but it’s a realistic take on client retention. That’s why inbound marketing is such an effective tactic. It keeps clients coming in. You’ll still have to work at finding new clients constantly, but you gain the opportunity to refresh your client base with people who love working you.

Hopefully, that feeling is mutual.

The bottom line is this:

Building a great marketing agency all starts with choosing the right target market.

Key takeaways:

  • The method for starting your marketing agency is to choose how you’ll position yourself to stand out from the competition. Focus on how you can provide value for your clients with what you’re good at.
  • Start building your agency on the side, while you still have your day job.
  • Focus on inbound marketing to find your first client. It will take time, but you’ll see it’s the best way to bring on clients that are a good fit for your agency.
  • Provide tons of value and cultivate great client relationships, but plan to lose and replace clients along the way.

Resources:

How to stand out: 9 bullshit-free lessons from world-class tech marketers

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Insights from Seth Godin, Rand Fishkin, David Darmanin and 6 other world-class tech marketers.

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I’m a no-fluff marketer living in Dublin, Ireland (but yeah, I’m French).

I believe you can treat people the way you’d like to be treated and still generate results without using sleazy, aggressive, hack-y marketing. This is why I’ve started Everyone Hates Marketers – a no-fluff, actionable marketing podcast – as a side project in April 2017.

I’m also the Content Lead at Hotjar – a powerful way to analyse people’s behaviour on your website or app and understand how you can improve their experience.

6 thoughts on “How to Start a Marketing Agency (a Practical, No-Bull Guide)”

  1. thanks so much louis, this was very eye-opening for me. I’m going to implement this right away. I was trying to just hustle on the business and get result fast, I was always under stress, living with family and trying to make the business pay fast. I was chasing the result so much. for that reason everything i did, just did not work. I wanted fast result so I would try something and quit halfway. it was all complete mess I don’t know what happened but now, I’m going to let it go a little bit, get a day job, get money coming in and just enjoy the process more, and stop chasing the result.
    the past one year, I went through hell. i got a few white hair in the process lol. and i just turned 24
    thanks again this was really helpful advice.

    • Hey Gos, thanks so much for your comment. No business is worth destroying your life over. Be patient and focus on building strong foundations. Also, don’t be fooled by those hustlers, growth hackers, and so-called entrepreneurs who make you think that working 80h+/week is the only way to succeed. We’re all running a marathon, not a sprint.

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