If you’re curious about what it’s like to start a marketing-esque agency—either for curiosity’s sake, because you own one or because you’re thinking of starting one—this post is for you.
Here are the top questions I get about owning an agency answered in raw form.
Most Asked: “What Made You Decide to Start You Own Agency?”
I’m sure you may have guessed this is the most common one that comes along. This seems like an overly obvious question to ask, but it’s one of the best you can ask.
Agency owners tend to come from diverse and fascinating backgrounds. You can never just assume that agency owners come from agency/communications backgrounds.
For me, I just happen to come from a marketing communications background (yeah, I know all that build up about diverse backgrounds for such an easy answer), but perhaps the biggest driver to start Top Hat is that I wanted to make a difference.
I experienced first-hand the trail of destruction agencies tend to leave in the world. Churn and burn seemed to be the agency way of life.
Back when I was getting started in marketing and PR world, I worked with a website design agency that charged us an arm and a leg, missed every deadline, failed on every promise, created absolute garbage and eventually went dark on us entirely. The more I asked around and kept moving, the more I realized this was normal and to be expected of agencies.
I couldn’t help but find myself scratching my head and saying there had to be a better way.
Top Hat was formed to be different out of the gate. It was meant to flip the traditional agency model on its freaking head. You can’t do the same thing that’s always been done and expect a different result.
Everything from our agency team structure, to holistic communications journey approach stemmed from the desire to be different. To make a difference and to lead businesses to the best of our ability.
- So that’s vague. How are we truly different you ask? Well, I’ll be writing about that in-depth here shortly. Stay tuned.
I will say this to close out this point—to start an agency, you absolutely must have a crystal clear vision of what you want it to be, do and stand for. Otherwise, things are going to get messy really quickly.
“How Much Time is Required to Start and Run An Agency?”
As an agency owner, it’s critical to give more and more of your work to your team as you grow. For the early part of the business, however, you’re in startup phase, so it’s going to be an incredible investment in time. In general, agency life is taxing, but owning an agency is an entirely different intensity.
I’ve worked an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week for three and a half years.
That’s only now starting to shift as our business is graduating the startup phase.
“When’s the Best Time to Start An Agency?”
There is not a set time range on this. It’s not a formula of X years experience and Y amount of some other ingredient.
The best time to start an agency is when you’re experienced enough to lead others to success. You’ll need to set the groundwork to create a business that leads clients to success. More than that, however, you’ll need to be able to lead team members to continue accomplishing that mission.
You also have to want to do it. This business is too difficult to be on the fence about it. You need to be willing to go all in. If you’re not, it’s not the right time.
Where is Important As Well
I think it’s also critical to ask “Where Should I Start An Agency?” If you’re looking to start a regionally servicing shop, you need to evaluate your local markets. Is there potential for an agency to not just exist, but have enough businesses to work with? If not that city, is there enough in the surrounding area?
Or, are you launching a satellite-only business? This needs decided before you dive in.
“What Have Been the Most Significant Challenges Starting/Running Your Own Agency?”
Relationships and Work
The biggest challenges I faced making Top Hat a success have become the agency’s greatest strengths—fostering happy, healthy client relationships and managing work effectively.
Creating a Profitable Business Model
Beyond that, making the business profitable was a challenge that needed figured out within the first few months or else the business wouldn’t have made it.
A product-based business is easier than a service-based business to figure out pricing. You have material and production costs. With an agency, however, it’s ideas and services.
Outplaying the Competition
Last but not least was learning how to outplay the competition. Nowadays, there are more agencies than ever. It’s no longer just a regional game, but one that spans states and countries. You must be able to beat the competition on some front or else you’ll eventually shrivel up and die.
For me, this was just acquired domain knowledge really. At the end of the day, I understood marketing communications. All I needed to do was figure out the agency business landscape and marry those two areas of knowledge.
“But What About Getting Clients?”
This is undoubtedly a challenge that we had to overcome. I’ll most likely spend a lot more time discussing some creative ideas to get clients when you’re just getting started.
But here’s the bottom line—if you’re a marketing agency who can’t develop a strategy to get its own business then you have no business getting paid to help other people try to do the same.
From the beginning, we’ve used our methods to propel our business. In the first two years, somewhere around 80-90% of our business came from our own marketing campaigns. That remaining 10% was from the gracious referrals of happy clients.
“When Is It Time to Hire a Team Member Rather Than Using Contractors?”
I think it’s safe to say that just about every agency has used, will use or still uses contractors to help complete work.
Even with a full-time staff, you may still use contractors. At a certain point, you will find as an agency that a freelancer just isn’t going to cut it. This is when the specific type of work is too much to handle and too time sensitive to expect a contractor to fulfill.
By all means, I’d encourage using contractors to scale up your agency. As you continue to grow, and have the revenue and work stream to support a growing team, you can eventually phase out contractors for full-time team members. You’ll most likely continue to repeat this as you grow.
“What Do You Think Are the Biggest Mistakes People Make Running An Agency?”
The most common mistakes I’ve seen are always the following:
- A lackluster, ragged client experience
- A shoddy final product
- Not identifying and pursuing ideal clients
- Not clearly defining the scope of work and sticking with it
The lackluster client experience and shoddy final product are really straightforward. They negatively affect the client.
Not identifying ideal clients and clearly defining the scope of work (and sticking with it) negatively affects the agency as a business. At the end of the day, an agency still is a business.
An agency is only as great as its clients. Yes, approach, philosophy, method, work and team are foundational. However, it’s all for the clients. If you’re not specific about who you work best with, and you don’t work with those people, you’re going to experience issues. For some agencies, this could be industry, service type or purely culture and budget. For others it’s a mix of all of those things.
For scopes of work: you can’t just have loose scopes and then say yes to everything and anything for one price. Enough of those types of relationships will destroy an agency. You have to price your proposals and commitments based on time, overhead and value. Anything outside of those parameters should be treated at a separate rate.
“How Can An Agency Know How It’s Doing?”
The true measure of how you’re doing is the sum of your clients. Take all of the experiences and average them.
- Is the average outcome outrageous happiness? That means an agency is doing well.
- Is it a mediocre middle of the road? There’s serious room for improvement.
- Is it on average horrible? Something’s seriously wrong and things need investigated.
“What’s Your Favorite Aspect of the Business?”
What I love most is the people we work with. We’ve partnered with the most fascinating, diverse group of people. Name an industry or the age of a business and we’ve worked with them.
I’ve tremendously enjoyed getting to know these people on a personal level. Beyond that, there’s no greater pleasure than helping them achieve their dreams.
Here’s to the agency life,