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, and I went all-in on it, even being fully transparent about our monthly profits.
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 to provide a strategy for how to start a remarkable marketing agency from scratch.
- 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 4-step approach David Baker would use to start a marketing agency from scratch (plus a bonus step at the end from yours truly).
Ready to learn how to start a marketing agency?
How to Start a Remarkable Marketing Agency From Scratch
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.
Looking back now, I realize that narrowing my focus was the best way to compete with bigger agencies.
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.
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 bring new clients in without sleazy marketing?
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.
In step 5, I’ll show you why inbound marketing is super important for scaling your acquisition.
But for now, let’s focus on getting your first clients.
Here’s how David explained it:
These days, 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.
You can write blog posts on topics that demonstrate your specialized expertise, host webinars for your target audience, or start posting on social media.
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.
The important thing is that you’re not creating an agency you think might be helpful and then selling to people via cold email.
That’s not it.
What you want to do is diagnose the market, whip up a marketing strategy, and then it will become clearer how to create a remarkable product that the right people seek out (the definition of marketing), and then you just have to draw them to your remarkable product/service with inbound marketing.
And then once someone is consuming your content, you can convince them to buy without being pushy.
Again, there are so many inbound methods these days.
Take webinars, for example.
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?
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 of 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 4a: Identify Your Best Clients
As I teach in my 8-week program, Stand the F*ck Out…
Your best clients are the ones who:
- Bring you the most joy AND
- Make you the most money AND
- Have the most severe and urgent pain AND
- You have access to them
To identify your best clients, create a spreadsheet with each row representing a segment of your market (a type of client you’ve served).
Then make 4 separate columns for joy, access, money, pain.
Then score each segment under each category with a 0, 3, or 10.
Finally, total up each segment to find which one has the highest score.
The one with the highest score is your best type of client.
You love working with them, and you want to keep working with people like them.
Step 4b: 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 - 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.
Step 5: Acquire More of Your Best Clients at Scale
If I may add step 5...
Not only do you want to retain your best clients, but you want more of them… maybe even a lot more of them.
This is where inbound marketing really shines.
For example, I run a solo business at Everyone Hates Marketers, and I was able to make $60,300 with one single email, and all the people who paid money are my best clients.
It’s not magic. It’s inbounding your best clients at scale.
Here are some tips to help with that.
Step 5a: Talk to Your Best Clients
Get your best clients on Zoom, hit that record button (with their permission), and start asking them questions. Follow the advice of Adele Revella, CEO of the Buyer Persona Institute who was featured on my podcast:
“The only scripted question I want you to ask them is this one:
‘Take me back to the day when you first decided that you needed to solve this kind of problem or achieve this kind of a goal. Not to buy my product, that’s not the day. We want to go back to the day when you thought it was urgent and compelling to spend money to solve a particular problem or achieve a goal. Just tell me what happened.’
The key to this interview is a conversation now. Without a script, we ask people to reflect back on that moment and to go as deep as they can into what changed at that moment.
In January, just about everybody wants to lose weight. We eat too much during the holidays and now it’s time to lose weight.
‘Take me back to the day when you first decided that you needed to lose 5 pounds or 10 pounds.’
People will talk about how they want to be in better shape, or they want to be healthier, or they want to look nicer.
But what we do after people give us that answer is we get them to go deep like, ‘Okay, why didn’t you do it sooner? What really changed to have you decide that now is the time to lose weight, or now is the time to secure your internet infrastructure, or now is the time to go on a big vacation or remodel your home?’
It’s really getting people to talk at length about what changed at that moment. And then just very gradually, walk them through every single thing they didn’t think about as they went through that real decision.”
Step 5b: Create a Buyer Persona
Now that you’ve interviewed your best clients, you should start to see patterns in their beliefs, their goals, and how they see the world.
You can formulate a buyer persona to truly understand who they are as people.
And, very importantly, you can identify what triggered them to buy.
There are three ingredients that have to be in place for your best clients to purchase:
- Constraints (something that makes it hard for them to achieve their goal)
Notice I said nothing about demographics!
If you understand these three things, you have the recipe to bring in more of your best clients.
Step 5c: Be Where the Trigger Happens When it Happens
Finally, if you know what triggers your best clients to buy, you just have to show up at the right time and place.
For example, you might find that some of your best clients were triggered to search for something on Google related to your category, so you could create a ranked article that answers their questions.
- 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.
- Make an effort to bring in more of your best clients by continuing inbound marketing and by being present when they experience buying triggers.
Q: Eh… I don’t know, I still feel like closing the doors to customers and going too narrow is a bad idea. Maybe I should keep my door open to all customers??
I get that, and I hear that a lot from my clients.
But here's the thing.
As Youngme Moon says in her book, Different, excellence in any extreme always implies a trade-off.
If you're a general marketing agency for everyone, there’s a trade-off just like there is with anything else.
Think about what you're sacrificing.
For example, if a company needs an agency to help them get more leads, they'd be more likely to trust a lead generation specialist than a general marketing agency, and that’s because human beings satisfice.
We don’t choose the best solution. We choose the solution that seems the least risky.
The least risky option is usually the marketing agency that specializes in solving their problem, not a generalist one.
When you narrow your focus and simplify, simplify, simplify, you’ll find that you gain a lot of market advantages.
Q: How many of my best clients should I interview?
As many as you can.
Once you gather all of the insights, you can put them into action.
You’ll do more customer interviews as time goes by because the market changes, technology changes… things change, and you need to keep a pulse on it.
Q: What’s the best way to avoid being one of those sleazy marketers you speak of?
Standing the f*ck out is the antidote to marketing bullshit.
The radical differentiation process that I talk about on my podcast, newsletter, and in my 8-week program is what prevents you from being one of those marketers.
It’s similar to what I talked about in this article.
Double down on your strengths, pick a market that is underserved by the big brands, and lead with giving (not taking) to serve them remarkably well.
Marketing is about being generous and serving people with your strengths in the way they need it most.
Nothin’ sleazy about that.
- Episode 40 with David Baker
- Unique Ability by Catherine Nomura, Julia Waller & Shannon Waller
- The Win Without Pitching Manifesto by Blair Enns