Marketing agencies are excellent cash-flowing businesses that don’t require any capital to start and can scale from comfortable lifestyle businesses to nine-figure companies.
To start a marketing agency, all you need are clients and talent to execute the work.
While building a marketing agency sounds simple, it isn’t necessarily easy.
From learning how to find great talent to building excellent client relationships, plenty of nuanced challenges make the process tricky.
Whether you have zero clients or are a freelance marketer interested in scaling into an agency, this step-by-step guide will help you close your first clients, find the right talent, and scale your business. It will also help you avoid the pitfalls most new agency owners make.
Step 1: Establish Your Positioning By Selecting One Niche and One Service
A key mistake new agency owners often make is immediately offering any marketing services to any type of business.
For example, you might want to offer SEO, social media marketing, email marketing, PPC advertising, and web design services to ecommerce, SaaS, and local businesses.
However, you’ll be more profitable and gain traction faster by specializing in one service for one type of business.
Here are a few of the unique benefits of specialization.
1. You’ll Deliver Higher Quality Work, Allowing You To Charge More/Earn More Referrals
If you invest all of your time into learning how to execute one particular service for one type of business (i.e., ecommerce, SaaS, local business, etc.), you’ll become an expert much faster than if you divide your time between learning multiple different services for different kinds of companies.
Delivering higher quality results allows you to charge more for your services and earn more organic referrals, which will help you become more profitable faster.
Once your time is maxed out and you can’t justify charging more for the service, you can add another service and hire someone to execute it.
2. Offering a Specialized Service Helps You Stand Out From Competitors
Potential clients often compare multiple providers before making a selection, so rather than competing directly with a full-service provider that has a large team to execute each service, you can stand out by being the best for one particular service.
In fact, many clients prefer to hire individual consultants because they know that individual experts often produce better work than a full-service agency.
For example, this potential client is much more likely to hire Julie over Sam because Julie is a specialist in the service this client needs:
By specializing in one particular service for one type of company, you’ll also generate more case studies, which can help you win more clients.
3. Adding More Services Increases Operational Complexity and Headcount
Many beginner agency owners think that by adding more services, they’ll be able to charge more and therefore be more profitable.
However, this isn’t necessarily true. First, you’ll have to pay for salaries, which immediately cuts into profit margins. In addition, adding more people adds complexity to your organization, so your focus will be pulled more toward managing the business than overseeing client work, which can lead to poor work quality. If the quality of work declines, you’ll deal with more churn issues and won’t receive referrals.
In addition, it’s never a good idea to hire for a service you know nothing about.
Even when you’re ready to hire for a role, it’s a good idea to execute the role yourself first so that you know what you’re looking for in a candidate.
Step 2: Close Your First Client
Your marketing agency doesn’t exist until you have your first client.
So before building a website, getting a logo, and creating a name, go out and get your first client. The best way to get your first client is to identify a well-connected industry influencer and then offer to do some work for free in exchange for referrals.
For example, Diego Vetencourt built his TikTok agency, Shortzy, to multiple six figures in less than a year by working for free for business influencer Sam Parr. The deal they made was that he would work for Sam for free for a certain period of time, and then if Sam was happy with the work, he would give Diego referrals.
So first, identify the influencers your target market looks up to, and then offer to work for those influencers for free for a set amount of time in exchange for referrals.
This is also a great way to build your portfolio with impressive samples to show to other potential clients.
Assuming you produce high-quality work for that influencer, you’ll soon have a strong client roster.
Step 3: Collect Feedback And Level Up Your Skills
Now that you have clients, your top priority is to deliver the best results possible so they feel compelled to refer you to their friends and colleagues.
If you can deliver results that are truly better than any competitors, you won’t even need to market yourself, and your clients won’t churn.
Alex Hormozi states this well in the following Tweet:
So how do you become the best at the service you provide?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any shortcuts to the learning process, but here are a few ways you can accelerate your rate of learning:
- Collect customer feedback: You can survey your customers and ask them what they think of your work and what they like about working with you. You can also ask them what they’ve found most and least valuable about your services. This feedback might be brutal, and if you feel uncomfortable asking your real customers, you can ask anyone you’re working with for free.
- Collect qualitative data: The numbers don’t lie. Measure your results each month, and don’t try to massage them to make yourself feel better. For example, if you sell SEO services and know that it’s driving traffic but not conversions, face that reality and adjust your approach to ensure it drives conversions.
- Hire a coach: Once you’ve collected feedback from clients and data, you might not know what to do with it or how to improve your services. This is where hiring a coach can help. You can book one-on-one coaching calls with experts on a platform like Intro or Clarity. We also offer a membership group, the Copyblogger Academy, that gives you access to one-on-one coaching with Copyblogger CEO and digital marketing agency owner Tim Stoddart.
- Join a peer group: Mentors are excellent for helping you solve specific problems, but it’s also helpful to surround yourself with others struggling with similar challenges. So consider joining Slack groups or creating your own peer group. Alternatively, if you want to join a paid group of serious marketers, you can join the Copyblogger Academy.
- Experiment frequently: Marketers tend to ruin tactics because tactics become less effective when everyone uses them. So do your own experimentation to determine what works and doesn’t.
Note: Many early agency owners worry that their agency needs to look bigger than a one-person team, but potential customers are often willing to pay higher prices for individual experts because they don’t want a junior staff member at a marketing agency doing the actual client work. So don’t be afraid to show that you’re a solo consultant.
Step 3: Create Documented Systems And Processes
Once you’ve leveled up your skills and can consistently produce outstanding results, take some time to write it out in a documented system.
This will allow you to produce repeatable results for all of your clients, which will help you improve customer satisfaction.
Documented systems are also excellent sales tools, as clients want to know how you will help them grow. By showing potential clients the systems you use and client results they’ve helped you produce, the perceived likelihood that you can help them achieve similar results increases dramatically. As a result, you’ll close a higher percentage of prospective clients and be able to justify a higher price point.
In addition, documented systems and processes are essential when you start hiring.
If you give employees step-by-step execution instructions, they’re much more likely to duplicate the same great results you’ve delivered to clients as a solo marketer.
However, the overall results will also suffer if you leave new employees alone to develop their own systems and processes. As you hire more and more employees, the problem will multiply, and the entire agency will likely fall apart.
So how do you create documented systems and processes?
Start with your main marketing service and then write out each step used to deliver that service.
Then, write out the strategy used to achieve that step.
For example, let’s say that your main service is content marketing, and you have the following steps within your content marketing process:
- Keyword research
- Expert interview
- Blog post outline
- Blog post draft/approval
- Promoting the content
Now, write a step-by-step guide on exactly how you execute each of those steps.
For example, you’d write one step-by-step guide on how you do keyword research, another step-by-step guide on how you do expert interviews, another guide on how you create blog post outlines, and so forth.
To give you an idea of how to write one of these step-by-step guides, check out this blog post that documents Powered By Search’s keyword research process.
You’ll notice that this guide is both an internal process guide that Powered By Search can give to its employees, and a sales and marketing tool they can show to prospects.
As you can see, documented systems and processes can just be simple Google Docs or blog posts.
Step 4: Find And Retain Excellent Talent
By now, you’re a skilled marketer with a documented strategy that allows you to consistently produce excellent client results.
Note: Reaching this step won’t happen overnight. You’ll probably spend months building skills and processes, so don’t worry if it takes time to get to this stage.
By laying that foundation, you can now hire employees without the entire agency falling apart because:
- You’ve done the work yourself and know the skill set you’re looking for when hiring for that role.
- You’ve documented the strategy well enough that you can ensure anyone can easily duplicate your results with a high degree of accuracy.
So the next step is to decide the first role you want to hire for. First, be sure to hire an assistant to offload any administrative tasks like client billing, taxes, and other required operational processes.
Once you’ve offloaded all of those processes, categorize all the client work tasks you do in the following matrix:
Now, select a role from the fourth quadrant as your first hire. For example, if you offer Facebook ads and don’t enjoy designing the ad creative and aren’t very good at it, consider hiring someone to do that for you.
Many of your early hires can also be part-time or freelance hires. For example, you can just hire someone on Dribbble to do the ad creative work for you.
You can also look on Upwork for simple freelance work, but the talent level on those platforms tend to be hit or miss.
So instead, start by asking friends for referrals.
You can also join paid Slack groups, communities, and courses. These places typically have high-quality talent as everyone in paid communities is clearly invested in leveling up their skills and therefore tend to be more teachable and invested in delivering quality work.
For example, if you’re looking to hire a writer, become an active member of the Copyblogger Academy and notice writers who frequently ask for feedback and are clearly interested in improving their skill set.
You can give freelancers a paid test project and tell them that you’d be interested in sending them steady work if they do a great job.
Pro Tip: Pay more if you want excellent results. Most new agency owners underpay their freelancers and it shows in the work quality. If you want great talent, increase the price you charge clients and then use the additional profits to invest in better talent. This is critical if you want to build a successful, sustainable business.
You’ll probably be able to scale your agency to low seven figures with freelancers, but you’ll eventually want to hire full-time employees for roles that either:
- Require highly skilled labor and are core to your services, or
- Require extensive client communication and account management
When you’re ready to hire for a full-time position, ask your friends for recommendations or ask one of your best freelancers to join the company full-time.
After finding a few promising candidates for full-time roles, you can give them a test project to see how well they perform and how easy it is to communicate with them.
You’ll also want to start thinking about building a company culture and core values, as this will be key to building a sustainable company that lasts over time.
Step 5: Build a Client Acquisition System
Once you have a proven process and the right people to execute the system, you can take on more clients without breaking the business.
Referrals will likely generate most of your initial customers, but if you want a more reliable inbound strategy that consistently drives qualified leads, it’s time to build a client acquisition strategy.
The good news is that this is pretty easy if you’ve already done all the hard work above.
First, consider building partnerships with parallel businesses.
For example, if you offer content marketing services, reach out to web design or graphic design agencies that already have your target audience. You can give them a percentage of any sales they send you to incentivize them to drive more leads.
Now, build an inbound marketing strategy.
You can start by publishing your documented processes (created in the step above) as blog posts to build a content marketing flywheel and build some SEO traction.
Next, write up some case studies showing exactly how you used those strategies to produce consistent client results and publish them on your website.
Grow and Convert is an excellent example of an agency that has built a masterful inbound strategy through content marketing. They frequently publish case studies with detailed analyses of their processes:
Consider browsing their website to see specific examples of how to use case studies with detailed analysis to build an audience.
You can also run Facebook or Google ads to the case studies and process blog posts to help them gain traction.
There are plenty of other inbound strategies that you can explore, though the ones mentioned should be a top priority.
The final tactic that can significantly improve your lead generation efforts is building your own personal brand both in person and on social media.
You can start by publishing content on LinkedIn or Twitter about client successes, things you’re learning about building an agency, and general marketing tips.
As people continue reading your posts, they’ll eventually grow to trust you and are more likely to reach out when they’re ready to hire a marketing agency.
In fact, serial entrepreneur Alex Lieberman recently launched a social media marketing agency and generated over 70 inbound leads from a single Tweet thanks to his strong social media presence.
In addition to posting on social media, attend conferences, host dinners, and apply for speaking opportunities. It’s much easier to gain someone’s trust in person, which leads to more leads and helps you close deals faster.
These individuals have podcasts, run masterminds, and have strong social media presences, making it easy to close high-value clients consistently.
Get Help Building Your Digital Marketing Agency
Most entrepreneurs quickly learn that while building a business is rewarding, it can also be very lonely. Each of the steps in this post are relatively straightforward, but they aren’t necessarily easy.
If you want to bypass many of the pitfalls that I experienced building my own agency and network with like-minded individuals building their businesses, consider joining the Copyblogger Academy.
You can ask the group (and myself) any questions you wish, access exclusive courses on building an agency, and brainstorm challenges with peers who truly understand your challenges.