The Genesis of an Idea
The inception of every successful marketing agency begins with identifying a void in the market that your expertise can fill. Often, the most prosperous agencies are those that can spot a market need early on and establish themselves as leaders in that space. For example, we were an early adopter of TikTok advertising, taking our experience from Meta advertising and knowledge of TikTok trends into TikTok advertising had us ranked#1 Top TikTok Agency in the UK for TikTok Ads.
For many, the path to starting an agency often originates from their passions or skills. Perhaps you're a content creator who sees a lack of quality content in a particular industry, or you've mastered the ins and outs of performance marketing for a specific sector. The key is to recognize where your strengths lie and to understand how they can be of service to a particular audience.
If you are just starting out, contrary to what many Gurus will sell you - do not charge clients a premium to learn ‘on their dime’. You will move a lot faster by gaining real industry experience (one year at a good agency will teach you a lot more than going solo unless you are incredibly motivated or have a good network of mentors), plus some people just don't thrive being business owners...
One crucial element to remember is the importance of selecting a niche. While it might seem limiting at first, zeroing in on a specific area allows for deeper expertise, reduced competition, and a clearer brand message. For those in performance marketing and SEO, this might mean specializing in a certain industry, business size, or even a particular type of content or campaign. You can quickly become an expert in ‘TikTok ads for ecom stores’ or ‘SEO for law firms' rather than a jack of all trades, master of none.
Laying the Foundations:
With a clear idea of your service in mind, the next phase is building a solid foundation. No skyscraper stands without a strong base, and the same goes for your agency. Here's where the intricacies of turning a passion into a prosperous business come into play.
Creating a Business Plan:
Every venture requires a roadmap. Your business plan should not only outline the services you plan to offer and the target audience but also financial projections, operational structures, and marketing strategies. For an agency focused on performance marketing and SEO, likeNorsu Media, metrics will be your best friend. Highlight how your offerings can lead to quantifiable results for potential clients and any guarantees that you can offer.
What do you need to start? This goes beyond just financial capital. Firstly, determine your team's structure. Will you need content creators, SEO specialists, or performance marketers from day one? Or will you begin solo, taking all of the work or outsourcing specific tasks?
Additionally, investment in essential tools – performance marketing platforms, SEO tools, client management systems, etc. Norsu spends thousands of dollars every month across platforms such as TripleWhale, SEMRush and Ahrefs amongst many others. This can be incredibly expensive when just starting out as it can be a big chunk of your revenue.
Remember to consider your operational space. Will you have a physical office, or will you function remotely? If you’re remote, what systems will you need in place for any remote employees? While the digital world is moving towards remote operations, the answer heavily depends on the nature of your clients and your management style.
Lastly, don't neglect the power of networking. Forge relationships with industry peers, potential clients, and even competitors. In the realm of marketing, word-of-mouth and testimonials can work wonders for building credibility and trust. This can be especially useful if you have no prior agency experience and seek mentorship from industry experts.
Growing and Scaling the Business
Building a Strong Team:
As your agency begins to scale, the demands and complexities of the tasks will increase, necessitating a larger team. The key is not just hiring, but hiring right.
Recognizing the right moment to expand your team is essential. A common mistake is waiting too long, overburdening existing staff, or hiring too soon, leading to unnecessary overhead. Consider hiring when the workload consistently exceeds capacity, new opportunities arise that demand specialized skills, or you’re sacrificing the quality of service due to time constraints.
The way we structure our hiring process is based on our sales process. If (for example) each SEO Analyst can handle 4 clients, and it takes 1 month to onboard an SEO Analyst and we sign 1 new client per month, we can work out exactly when we need to start hiring. This type of overview of your company is crucial to timing your hiring.
A cohesive team is one where every member is aligned with the agency's values and goals. It starts with a good onboarding process, which is key especially if the team is mostly remote. Regular training sessions, team-building activities, and open communication channels are also important. A motivated team not only delivers efficiently but also contributes innovative ideas, fostering a culture of continuous growth and learning.
We have an open-door policy and every month a member of our team will make suggestions that get implemented and increase the efficiency or effectiveness of our campaigns.
Managing Client Relationships:
In the world of marketing, the relationship with your clients can make or break your agency. This means that increasing revenues and ensuring profits lies not only in accessing new clients but maintaining existing ones.
Your initial clients often come from networking, word-of-mouth, or previous professional relationships. While your portfolio might be limited, emphasize your expertise, passion, and the personalized attention you can offer as a new agency. I dislike advising discounting your work but sometimes it’s necessary to discount a few of your initial projects to get revenue, and more importantly, case studies.
Maintaining long-term relationships and managing clients: Building trust is paramount. Deliver consistently, communicate proactively, and always remain transparent, especially when challenges arise. Understand their changing needs and be prepared to adjust strategies accordingly.
We will often down-sell a client if we know that a smaller package or different service will get them better results. Our focus is on building lasting relationships and not making a quick buck. That being said, we have a strict rule - if you set a deadline, stick to it. Nothing erodes trust faster than missed deadlines.
Another vital part of our strategy is saying no. If we get too many red flags from a potential client (being unreasonably late to a call, rescheduling multiple appointments at the last minute, rudeness on discovery calls etc) then we will politely decline to work with them. This saves me and the team endless headaches down the road - which are never worth the money!
Ensuring financial stability is the backbone of any successful agency.
Setting budgets and forecasting: Begin by understanding your fixed and variable costs. Set clear budgets for campaigns, operations, and other endeavours. Forecasting, while challenging, provides a vision of where the agency is heading, allowing for informed decisions. It’s important to also have an understanding of what your acquisition cost of a client is so you can compare that to your expected lifetime value of the client.
Handling cash flow challenges: Agencies often face payment delays while incurring upfront costs. Diversify your client base to avoid over-reliance on only a few. Consider staggered payment structures or retainers, and always have a buffer fund for unforeseen circumstances.
Many agencies request funds upfront or in the instance of web design, a percentage upfront whilst others operate on net30. Generally, we work on a middle ground of 2 weeks from the contract start. This gives a buffer to the client between work starting and payment due (a sort of cooling off period) whilst not leaving us completely out of pocket.
Staying agile in a changing market (E.g., AI): Embrace technological advancements. For instance, AI can revolutionize SEO strategies, content creation, and ad targeting. Stay updated, invest in continuous learning, and integrate innovations that align with your agency's goals. Whilst we don’t use AI as much as other agencies, we often use it for creating new ideas quickly and starting off brainstorming sessions.
Pivoting services or offerings based on demand: Listen to the market. If there's a surge in demand for a particular service, be ready to pivot. Maybe there's a newfound interest in video content over blogs, or local SEO becomes crucial for businesses during a specific period. Adaptability ensures longevity and relevance. When TikTok started offering a solid ad platform, we started to learn everything about it and began offering our learnings as a new service.
Growing and scaling a marketing agency is a meticulous blend of team-building, client relationship management, financial responsibility, and market adaptability. Each phase presents its challenges, but with foresight and flexibility, these hurdles can transform into stepping stones for success.
Dealing with Setbacks
In the journey of running a marketing agency, setbacks are inevitable, but it's the recovery that defines the success of a business.
Personal experience of unexpected challenges: During our early years, a significant client unexpectedly terminated our contract due to internal restructuring. This not only impacted our revenue but also affected the team's morale. Their retainer was 30% of our revenue and was a big blow. A key lesson in not letting one client get too big for your agency - keep growing and diversifying income streams.
Another challenge was adapting to constant algorithm changes which, overnight, altered the effectiveness of long-standing SEO strategies. Not to mention the iOS 14 updates. The takeaway here? Keep on top of your industry and monitor trends and updates.
It's crucial to adopt a forward-thinking mindset. Always have a contingency plan. Encourage a culture where mistakes become lessons. Embrace change, learn from it, and consider diversifying your services and clientele to reduce dependency.
The Importance of Work-Life Balance:
The hustle culture, while glorified, often leads to burnout, affecting productivity and creativity.
Managing personal health and relationships: Just as we strategize for clients, we need a strategy for our well-being. Regular breaks, hobbies, and time with family and friends must be prioritized. Mental and physical health directly influences work quality and energy levels.
For a long time, I found it hard to switch off. With a young family, it’s now increasingly important. Hire a team that has systems and SOPs in place to manage whilst you’re not there. If you don’t have the structure to take 2 weeks away from the office - you do not have a company, you have an incredibly draining job!
Setting boundaries for sustainable work culture: Clearly define work hours and encourage disconnecting post work. Be it turning off email notifications or having tech-free weekends, these boundaries refresh the mind. We set working hours with clients, during work hours they can expect quick replies via slack or email. Outside of working hours, we may not reply immediately unless it’s urgent.
How working less can get more done: Reduced hours often lead to focused work, eliminating the pitfalls of multitasking or prolonged tasks. Allowing yourself time to rest and reset gives your brain the space to think creatively and become more efficient and productive, especially with creative marketing tasks.
Legal and Compliance Hurdles:
The legal landscape of contracts and service agreements is complex.
Ensure contracts are thorough and clear. Highlight deliverables, payment terms, and termination clauses. Consider having a legal consultant to review and draft agreements to protect both parties' interests. This can be expensive but will give you peace of mind. You can also use openly available templates from online but make sure to double check all the wording and research anything you don’t fully understand. Once you can afford it - get legal advice.
Ensuring the agency stays compliant with industry regulations: With data privacy laws, advertising standards, and industry-specific regulations, non-compliance can lead to big fines and potential reputation damage. Stay updated with changing laws, regularly train your team, and consider legal audits to ensure you're on the right track.
There are a lot of intricacies with data protection (including your own team) make sure you’re aware of the laws of the countries you’re operating in!
Key Takeaways for Aspiring Agency Owners
The realm of digital marketing is fluid, with new technologies, strategies, and market dynamics emerging almost daily. If you are still relying on strategies that are 5 years old, you may find yourself left behind. Keep levelling yourself up, because your competitors will be.
Invest in courses, workshops, and certifications for both yourself and your team. This not only amplifies your service quality but also boosts the agency's credibility in the market. Remember, what worked yesterday might be obsolete tomorrow. So, always be in a state of learning and progressing.
Regularly attending industry conferences, webinars, or seminars can open doors to new opportunities, collaborations, and insights. Networking is not just about acquiring clients but also about exchanging knowledge, understanding market trends firsthand, and forming beneficial partnerships.
I have spoken at several events, including SEMRush’s Global Marketing Day - which not only allowed me to meet some of the top players in the UK Marketing space but also gave credibility to me and Norsu Media.
Building a Supportive Network:
While the journey of agency ownership can be solitary, it doesn't mean you're alone. As well as mentors, you should also create groups of your peers. These have the benefit of being more social than a mentor group but also allows you to discuss strategies and ideas with people at ‘your level’. Fostering relationships with peers allows for an exchange of ideas, solutions, and even referrals.
On the note of mentors: Having a mentor, someone who's trodden the path you're on, can be invaluable. They offer guidance, share their mistakes so you can avoid them, and provide reassurance during challenging times. Looking to break through a ceiling but stuck at 5 monthly clients? Who better to speak with than someone who’s already achieved those goals… You can alsochat with me too! We have an invitation-only community for driven marketers looking to learn agency operations.
In summary, the journey of agency ownership is exhilarating, and demanding, but rewarding. For every aspiring agency owner, remember that continuous learning, building a robust support network, and staying aligned with your core vision are your North Stars. They'll guide you through the highs and lows, ensuring your agency doesn't just survive but thrives in the dynamic world of digital marketing.
Setting a roadmap, reviewing it weekly or monthly and making sure you hit your targets is a surefire way to build your own company that’s both financially and mentally profitable.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, if you'd like to get in touch you can book a call with me or head over to my Digital Marketing Agency site!