June 28, 2021 Content Chat Recap: So You Want To Start A Marketing Agency

A #ContentChat header image that says today's topic is so you want to start a marketing agency, with guest John Cloonan.

Have you considered creating your own marketing agency? It can be enticing to cut ties with an employer to pursue your own business interests, but there is also a considerable risk involved with starting an agency. However, by conducting the right research and thoroughly planning your new agency, you can be better prepared to weather the initial hurdles of business operations and chart a path for sustained success.

In this #ContentChat, we’re joined by John Cloonan, longtime #ContentChat community member and co-founder of Audacity Marketing, to discuss what it takes to build a marketing agency. Read the full recap below, where our community of marketers and agency founders explains why they launched their own marketing agencies, how to find the ideal business partner for your marketing agency, operational hurdles to address in the early months, and general tips for creating a new agency.

Q1: If you have launched your own marketing agency, what was your main reason for doing so? Why did you feel like it was the right move to make?

John shares his journey below. Much like John, many marketers explore a mix of in-house and freelance working arrangements before officially launching an agency.

A1: This is the 2nd time I’ve launched an agency. I built Realize Marketing from 2008-2010, and then sold it to go back into corporate marketing a while. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A1b: I spent 10 years as a corporate marketing exec, led an employer branding agency, and then took a contract with a huge consulting firm, which was coronakilled.

A month later, I turned 50. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A1c: I bring up that milestone because it caused me to think about my career. Did I want to tie my fortunes to one client? That’s what a corporate job or solo consulting contract does. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A1d: (Sorry for the long thread)

I sat it on it for a while, then went on a really long solo motorcycle ride to reflect – from Georgia to Maine and back.

When I came back, I launched Audacity.

No more would I tie myself to one client. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A1e: (Will this ever end?)

Starting my own agency allows me to:

– Live & work on my own terms
– Diversify my income streams
– Build a company free of corporate bullshit that focuses on what’s important#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

There are many benefits to launching an agency. Our community says that it can give you complete (and potentially much-needed) freedom to conduct your work, enables you to explore new passions or interests as possible, and your agency brand can elevate your personal profile (and vice-versa).

A1: launching my own agency started out as a response to getting laid off and ended up as a partnership to help make me better and more resilient. Honestly, I was bored at my day job and the move was the right one to keep me engaged #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

a1b: I left the world of building marketing departments from the ground up, and my hobbies were running small boutique businesses, so when I left, I was ready. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A1: Although I have a design agency, we have a heavy focus on marketing + work with other marketing agencies on their design work. I founded the co. straight out of art school after freelancing b/c I didn’t want to go work for someone else! #ContentChat https://t.co/a8ocgV4JQe

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

A1: While I didn’t officially put out my shingle as a consultancy (my flavor of agency) until 5 years ago, it had long been my goal. I wanted to have the variety + control over my work, and to focus on the stuff I do well & get excited about (not maintenance mode). #ContentChat https://t.co/UrR8AvwjmC

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

A1: I always wanted to be my own boss. I was coming out of the music industry with some creative skills and I wanted to serve clients with those skills. It was the right entrepreneurial move for me in 2010. #contentchat

— Chris Craft (@CraftWrites) June 28, 2021

Q2: What research do you recommend someone conduct before starting to plan their new marketing agency? How do you know if this is the right career path for yourself?

It is best to gain at least a few years (if not decades) of marketing experience working in-house and/or in an agency environment. This first-hand knowledge is invaluable for understanding how businesses operate and to understand your personal working preferences.

A2: I’m not a researcher – more the type to jump and figure out how to land on the way down. Is that the best way? Probably not. Has it worked? Reasonably.

That said, I have the benefit of having done this once, 20 years experience, and an MBA.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A2a: I’d been a freelancer off and on throughout my career, so I knew I had marketable expertise. But since I wanted to have a consultancy with a small team and not just work alone, I took a job at an agency in my niche to see agency life from the inside. #ContentChat https://t.co/qzkapqLJ2X

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

A2b: After that, my first major client was a PR agency, for whom I acted as their Chief Content Officer. Both experiences helped me get me feet wet and understand what I did/didn’t like about agencies. so I was ready to go forward with my own. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

There are a lot of marketing agencies. Determine your strongest differentiator and unique service offering and review any overlap or shortcomings with your potential competition.

A2: There are ONE BILLION AGENCIES out there, you need have a strong differentiator about your POV that someone really wants. Figure that out first. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A2b: Then make sure that you have the skills to make it work. Can you balance client work and running the business at first? Do you have sales chops? Can you identify you weak spots? Do you have money set aside for runway when you have a bad month? #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A2: I think much like other business ventures, one key way to start is determining who your audience will be (B2B, B2C, a specific niche/industry, other agencies, etc.). #ContentChat https://t.co/dxtzp8IL5w

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

How do you know if launching an agency is the right choice for you? We recommend the following qualities for agency founders: comfortable with risk, flexible, have a financial buffer, and eagerness to learn.

A2b: I’m better equipped to tell you how you know it’s the wrong career path for you. If you…

… are risk averse
… like (or need) the security of a paycheck
… aren’t flexible
… don’t like to learn new things

Then don’t start an agency.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A2c: I’m a self-starter, and I like to GSD as my friend @JasonSchemmel says. I think those are both great traits for agency founders. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Q3: What makes for an ideal agency co-founder or business partner? What red flags do you look for in the search?

John started with four partners, but two left during the launch process. It is best to identify any potential misalignments early on to ensure the company is best positioned for success.

A3a: I have no idea what makes an ideal agency partner.

I started this company with 3 other partners. One left early in the process after deciding that what we were offering wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A3b: I bought out a 2nd partner after I realized our growth goals weren’t aligned.

What I would have done differently: Launch solo, then look for partners who share your vision. Make them work with you for a while before offering equity. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

John shares this advice he received: To be successful more quickly, take on debt over partners.

A3c: Another agency founder I know told me he’d have been successful more quickly if he’d taken on debt over partners.

I don’t have that option. I’m an old white man who founded a DEI focused agency – I’m not credible without a diverse partner.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Find an agency co-founder or business partner who is honest…

A3: An honest person with self-control who compliments your skills/weaknesses! #contentchat

— Chris Craft (@CraftWrites) June 28, 2021

Complements your skillset and addresses your skill gap…

A3: One of the things I heard early on in my career is to find someone who not just complements you, but has qualities that you may lack. For example, if you’re highly creative, find someone who is a business-minded go-getter. #ContentChat https://t.co/UuJsG5FLiz

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

A3: An ideal agency co-founder should compliment your skills. I’d heard this advice before and ignored it resulting in disaster. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A3b: @CraftWrites for instance brings in a long game, content expertise and perspective I don’t have. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

Builds on your network…

A3: You want a co-founder who brings interests + experiences + a network that complements your own.

In my case, I decided not to have a co-founder b/c that felt like a route that would detract from some of the reasons I wanted to found my own business. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Understands/agrees with how you define success or shares similar goals…

A3 addition: Be sure your goals align. The partner I bought out looked great on paper, and we had worked together in another agency, but when the rubber hit the road, we weren’t aligned in some key areas. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

You can have a respectful disagreement with…

A3: Find someone you can have respectful disagreements with. When you’re under pressure for results, you want a partner who will help or trust in your ability to deliver, not someone who will bully or micromanage you. #ContentChat

— Alek Irvin (@AlekIrvin) June 28, 2021

And you can admire and want to emulate.

A3. I appreciate get up and go. A doer. Someone who you admire and would want to emulate. Motivation and follow-through is required. An inclusive attitude and passion to do good work and source good clients. Micro managing and bitchiness about others is a red flag. #ContentChat

— Caroline (@CAZJAMES) June 28, 2021

Q4: Where should a prospective marketing agency founder start in terms of planning their new agency? What are the main buckets to address?

Per John, start with the four P’s of marketing when planning your agency: Price, product, promotion, place.

A4: Easiest question ever! You gotta start with the 4 P’s of marketing.

Price – How much you gonna charge?

Product – What you gonna offer?

Promotion – How you gonna sell it?

Place – How and where are you gonna deliver?

The rest is administration.#contentchat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Erika recommends starting with your why and differentiators. Who are you the perfect agency to serve?

A4: Start by defining your why, and your specific differentiators.

There are already a ton of other agencies, like @NeoLuxeMo said—so who are YOU the perfect agency to serve? What industry do you know inside and out? What work will leave clients raving about you? #ContentChat https://t.co/xX8gddzDjo

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Interesting about industries you know inside and out – I chose specifically not to chase one particular industry I know very well, just so I don’t get pigeonholed and end up competing with some folks I know well.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Fair enough! And that’s why despite having a bunch of financial services experience that’s not one of my core client areas. It doesn’t get me excited to work on in general. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

We have several specialties to keep it interesting and have personnel ready to go on those. Chris and I take care of the new industries to make sure they are a good fit, and then we create a practice expertise if it is! #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

Maureen and Chris built NeoLuxe Marketing by defining its ideal client roster and building on their most successful past client relationships.

A4: I was lucky, I got to start my agency TWICE! So I learned from every thing I did one round one and I was able to apply it along with @CraftWrites perspectives making us even better. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A4b: We started with what we wanted our client roster to look like. We went back through our most successful clients and hand picked which ones we want to work with more. Then we built our brand and offerings around that. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

And Sherry recommends you address other items like naming, financing, and legal, and conduct a SWOT analysis.

A4: Practical business items – naming, capital/financing, legal, SWOT, etc.; location/remote logistics; who do you want to do work for (your audience); who will be doing the work (finding your team); scaling. #ContentChat https://t.co/VjyWe4hE8e

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

Q5: How do you decide which marketing service(s) to offer?

John shares his team’s product decision matrix below.

A5a: Here’s the Audacity product decision matrix.

Strategy:

1. Spend as much time as possible in upper left.

2. Use lower left to learn new stuff. Offer it later.

3. Stay away from right column. If you have to offer something from there, hire or outsource it.#ContentChat pic.twitter.com/uqdfvmu0CF

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A5b: Make sure your team spends their time in the left column.

That’s how to broaden service offerings effectively – find people who love what they do and are great at it.

Sound obvious? It is.

Sound easy? It’s not. Finding the right people is challenging.#ContentChat pic.twitter.com/GLrLSFXCWv

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Per the rest of the community: start with what has worked well for past clients (as long as you wish to continue those services). Expand that list by introducing complementary services that your team is interested in and can learn.

A5 We started with what we knew well and expanded only with services clients needed and that we were confident we could learn. We stay in our lane though and don’t take on tasks held by our colleagues. We love to partner and work in teams with others. #ContentChat https://t.co/QTWHOLR7RJ

— Shane Shaps (@520eastbrands) June 28, 2021

A5: we took a hard look at what were the most profitable services for our ideal clients, then we also noted which things we enjoy the most, and finally we identified most strategic services that would help us grow. Then we went from there! #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

Avoid services that typically involve an unmanageable amount of busy work or services that typically are a “race to the bottom” for pricing.

A5: What kind of work is profitable, keeps your staff interested, and keeps your clients sticky? that’s what you do! Cut out anything that’s basically busy work, race to the bottom on price, or that anyone can do (let them go and do it) #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Your agency does not need to provide every service. Stick to the value you are certain you can provide for clients. Partner with other agencies or solopreneurs to help fill service gaps for your clients.

A5: Starting with your/your team’s strengths and expertise is solid, but also think about what will = ROI for your clients. If you’re missing something key, consider adding someone to your team or forming a relationship with another established company who does it. #ContentChat https://t.co/mTDkjLQEPM

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

Partnering is a fantastic way to add things you don’t do in-house. #ContentChat

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

Agree. We strive to be the best at what we do so we can’t spread ourselves too thin. AND… our strategic partners are seriously the best at what THEY do. #ContentChat

— Shane Shaps (@520eastbrands) June 28, 2021

Spreading yourself too thin is a big mistake agencies could do! Outsource and always let the experts do what they know best, while you focus on your best! #ContentChat!

— Shruti Deshpande (@shruti12d) June 28, 2021

Q6: How did you create your agency website, and what tips do you have for someone first launching their agency website?

Before you start building a webpage, document your entire brand identity. This includes your values, statement, personality/voice, visual brand, etc.

A6: Before we spent any time on the website, we did a full brand study and came up with our values, statement, personality, and iconography. We also wrote up our services and a site map before anything was coded. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

WordPress has countless plug-and-play themes that can expedite your site creation.

A6b: After that, I sat down with WordPress, picked a theme, and pounded it out. After which, the partners reviewed it.

Once it was up, I created a plan for version 2, which we’re working on now. Mainly it’s an expansion of v1. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Your website will evolve with your brand. Get your site to be as-done-as-possible for launch, but remember that you will never truly be finished.

A6c: Your website is never actually done, particularly in the early stages. You’ll always be adding to it and changing it.

Make it a priority to have a basic site up ASAP. It’s the 1st place people look for you. Build modularly so you can add later.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

This is gold dust! Your website is your shop window, make it presentable, professional, but don’t wait for it to be absolutely perfect, cause it will never be! #ContentChat

— Shruti Deshpande (@shruti12d) June 28, 2021

That’s so true! Websites are iterative. It’s a living, breathing creature that need to have room to grow and build and change as you do the same. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A6: Agree w/ @johncloonan. We’ve kept ours updated w/ new work + byproduct is we’re producing less decks for meetings, instead we’re working off the website — it’s current + allows for choose-your-own-adventure approach. “What do you want to dive into first?”#ContentChat

— Keith Stoeckeler 🍔 (it’s stek*ler) (@keiths) June 28, 2021

Start big with your website plan, and stay focused on attracting your ideal customer.

A6: Our agency website started with some big crazy dreams (evidenced by the result: https://t.co/EV1mJZjyiM). I wanted it to be fun and down to earth to attract the type of customer that brought me joy. They were either going to love it or hate it. That was perfect. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

And customize your site to express your unique brand identity.

A6: Your website is the hub of all your online marketing. Make sure it’s professional, on brand, and connects with your audience. Also, make sure it’s expandable – don’t get stuck in someone else’s box (pre-made templates, 3rd party platforms you can’t go with, etc) #ContentChat https://t.co/jOJgFwaYNt

— Sherry Holub – Wizard of Design (@jvmediadesign) June 28, 2021

Q7: What operational hurdles should marketers expect to face when launching a new agency?

One of the biggest hurdles is learning how to navigate the various paperwork and filings needed to register your business.

A7: The biggest operational hurdles will be people telling you that you can’t do something yourself, particularly anything you need to file with the government.

You can do it. And in most cases, it’s faster and cheaper to DIY. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Finances are a significant hurdle unless you’re significantly funded.

A7b: After the initial launch, the rest of your operational hurdles are likely to be financial, unless you’re funded. Mainly things you want to do but aren’t sure if you can afford. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Determine if you want to work with contractors or employees (or a mix of both).

A7: There are a few big decisions around contractors vs employees, as well as making sure your pipeline is full. But the post sale management is as (if not more) important. Make sure there is a good way to communicate client requests, track progress, report out.. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

And stay flexible with your project timelines.

A7, Issues with budget and time are big especially in early days! Keep buffer for both! Projects tend to go over time and over budget, have some solid project management in place! #ContentChat

— Shruti Deshpande (@shruti12d) June 28, 2021

Q8: What general tips or advice do you have for someone hoping to create a new marketing agency?

If you think you can handle launching your own agency, then do it! It will be a difficult process, but you’ll never know what you can build unless you try.

A8a:
If you think you’ve got what it takes, go do it.

You’ll laugh and cry and scream and love and hate, but at the end of the day, you’ve built something.

(Image: Nike)#ContentChat pic.twitter.com/OKDfFUuPAG

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

A8b:
Stand for something. Build your brand on that standing and stick with it.

(Image: Coaches on Fire)#contentchat pic.twitter.com/XgsdstX13G

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

Get reliable money, and be prepared for the financial uncertainty of starting a business.

A8: Get reliable money. It takes the pressure off of everything and allows you to make better decisions down the road. Feast or famine living is crap. OOH, or marry rich. That works too. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

A8b: Also, if you’re living off of your agency, prepare for some hard times. Like really, really hard times. The last 4 years (and the pandemic) have taken a serious toll on my mental health. I needed to attend to that first and it took me a long time to get there. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

Understand your workspace motivation. If you need in-person conversation and collaboration, budget for an office or coworking space.

A8a: Make sure you understand what fuels you workspace-wise. If you are an extrovert who thrives on in-person conversation and collaboration, budget for an office or coworking space so you don’t get burnt out working from home, and don’t solopreneur start! #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Stay patient, and leverage your trusted colleagues and happy customers to recommend your business.

A.8 Prepare to hustle. There are so many competitors, you may have to respond to RFPs. Usually the potential client can find an exact fit for what they’re looking for. Referrals will therefore be a better bet, and try and revisit people you’ve worked with in the past.#ContentChat

— Caroline (@CAZJAMES) June 28, 2021

And don’t underestimate the value of physical business cards.

I feel like my personal brand is 12 years in the making and people in the industry know my name. Nobody knows the brand new name I just gave to a company. Do I go down the press release official launch route? “Dom launches marketing agency for unified comms” #contentchat

— Dominic Kent (@DomKent) June 28, 2021

You can use your network to get the word out. PR may be important if you work with or as a PR firm too. @NeoLuxeMo is a fantastic example of leveraging her network. B/C I went with a consultancy, I used my name as the primary brand name. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Press release, and also social media posts where your network lives.

I promise, if you’re known in an industry, they’ll find you.#ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

It’s all about your audience. If you find all the clients you’d be perfect for are passing you over for agencies, for example, then you know it’s smart to look into. The initial cost can be as little as business cards and a website. Maybe not even the cards! #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

I’d never give out a business card. Aren’t we living in a digital world? 😂

The small cost of a GOOD website is not so small either. Anything mediocre reflects the quality of the work you produce. 1/2 #contentchat

— Dominic Kent (@DomKent) June 28, 2021

Pffft. I give out 10 cards a day. Spend money.

And your first site…

Well, that’s a later question. #ContentChat

— John Cloonan (@johncloonan) June 28, 2021

To each their own! I often give out my business card at in-person events as a “follow-up with me” reminder.

If you are starting up a marketing or design agency, it’s going to not just be a reflection of your work, it’s going to be your first project too. #ContentChat

— Erika Heald | Founder @ErikaHeald Consulting (@SFerika) June 28, 2021

Also have amazing cards. My cards are show stoppers and end up furthering a conversation every. single. time. #ContentChat

— Maureen Jann (she/her) (@NeoLuxeMo) June 28, 2021

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