So you want to start a marketing agency?
That’s a super exciting and awesome online business idea! I’m not going to waste your time and explain what a marketing agency does — at this point you probably have a basic idea of that.
What you need now is real, actionable advice on how to start a marketing agency from the bottom up.
This article gives you four key steps that will help you identify your niche, establish your online presence, start finding clients, and safely scale your agency.
4 Steps to Start a Marketing Agency From the Bottom Up
1. Identify your agency’s niche
Big marketing agencies can go the full-service route and offer a wide array of services for their clients — branding, web development, media planning, social media marketing, email marketing, etc.
Big agencies can do that successfully because they have big teams of people who are all really good at specific services.
When you start a marketing agency, it’s just you, and to stand out, you need to be awesome at what you do. You will be a much more valuable asset to your clients if you focus on a couple of stellar services.
Think about what skills you already have… Are you amazing at SEO? Is copywriting your thing? Do you have a knack for building high-converting sales funnels? Do you have a killer Facebook ads strategy?
Leverage your existing skills when you start your marketing agency. Let those services be your focus when you start. Become known as an expert in that niche. You can add services as you go, but niching down gives you a foothold to establish yourself in the industry.
I want to give you an example of this with our good friend Kat of Dragonchasr Digital Marketing. Kat took our Facebook Side Hustle Course a few years ago, got really good running Facebook ads, and built up her repertoire.
Her agency now also offers:
- Social media marketing
- Email marketing
- Website design
- Course creation
- Advertising on Pinterest, TikTok, Facebook, Google, and more
Her agency went from a one-woman show to a six-figure business in 3 years. Kat’s serious hustle is a major part of her success. However, her approach (niching down in the beginning with Facebook ads) meant she established herself as an expert and grew to match her client’s needs.
2. Build your online presence
Marketing yourself is key in this industry. It’s not just how potential clients may find you, you’re showing them that you understand what you’re doing.
One of the things that’s great about digital marketing is that there are some low cost (even free) ways to build your online presence, and I highly recommend these two things:
- Start a website: You don’t need to spend a ton of money on a web designer — a Wordpress site hosted on Bluehost. costs as a little as $2.95/month, and you can get a professional looking website. Use your site to explain your services and tell people a little about who you are.
- Create social media profiles: If social media will be a focus of your agency, then you need to establish yourself on the major platforms — Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Go ahead and create handles on all of them (keep your name/branding the same across platforms), but you don’t have to use them all when you’re first starting. Focus on one, learn how it works, establish a presence, and move to the next one.
I can not stress this enough: do not feel like you need to be active across all social media channels in the beginning. You will either spread yourself too thin or burn out. Neither one of those things are good.
As you establish yourself online, start following related accounts and industry leaders. This will help you stay on top of trends. Learn which hashtags to use, and use them as you create content.
Your social media channels are a good way to talk about your work and skills, but don’t make them 100% self-promotion. No one is interested in another marketer trying to sell them. Open a conversation, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to get personal.
For your website, make sure it’s optimized for SEO (search engine optimization). This Money Lab SEO course has some solid advice if you’re new to SEO.
I will encourage you to blog about what you’re doing on your site too. This is an extremely valuable in-bound marketing strategy because it’s a good way to drive search engine traffic to your site.
You can write informative posts that share your knowledge with other digital marketers. You can create lists of resources, like must-have software. Basically, you’re showing prospects that they can trust you because you have the knowledge and skills they need as a digital marketer.
Pro tip: Start building your email list from day 1, and read our basic guide to get started — How to Build an Email List From Scratch.
3. Build your client list
Client acquisition is always going to be something you should be working on, but it’s extra important in the beginning for obvious reasons. The last step I explained ideally will bring in some leads, but you also need a more direct client acquisition strategy.
Here are a few of the best options for gaining your first few clients, and why they’re worth checking out:
Look at online job boards
Sites like Upwork and Guru are sites where you create a profile and list your services. Business owners can search for the services they need, and hire you for short or long-term contracts.
The benefit of these kinds of sites is that you can put yourself in front of a wide audience, but at the same time, it’s easy to get lost on these sites. These sites also take a percentage of your fees.
You’ll be more successful on these sites with a profile that really stands out — this is the chance to market yourself. Then you submit proposals to potential clients. Make them as compelling as possible, error-free, well-written, and unique to each client.
I’ve been seeing more and more new digital marketers find clients from online groups and forums. Slack has channels for all kinds of professionals, there are dozens and dozens for marketers specifically. You can join groups related to your niche, the kind of clients you want to work with, etc. The same goes for Facebook groups.
Your growing list of social media contacts or marketing bloggers will probably have some good recommendations, so pay attention.
These groups are mostly for sharing experiences and networking, but occasionally you’ll find leads.
Use your inner circle
Your inner circle are family, friends, people you went to college with, etc. These are people who know and trust you. Email your inner circle to tell them that you are learning how to start a marketing agency and that you’re looking for some leads. Maybe they know a business owner who could use your services, or maybe they run a business you could help.
Cold email potential clients
Cold pitching is emailing complete strangers. These are business owners who have no clue who you are, so there’s a slight level of difficulty. You’ll want to study the company a bit before you pitch — what they’re about, how you can help, etc.
Then send a concise and tailor-made email that explains who you are and what you can do for that particular business — focus on how you can solve their unique problems. Make sure your email has a link to your website and social media profiles.
Always follow up!
Any time you reach out to a potential client, send them a follow-up email a few days later. Go ahead and put it on your calendar so you don’t forget!
Remind them of who you are and provide some additional value (like a quick marketing proposal). This shows that you have more to offer and are willing to put in the work.
Testimonials give you social proof, and they’re incredibly valuable when you are starting your digital marketing agency.
Because they’re so valuable, some marketers will offer free or discounted services in exchange for testimonials. Make sure the client understands what you need from them. You can also use this as an opportunity to get some feedback and work out any kinks.
4. Don’t quit your day job, yet
One of the major perks of deciding to start a marketing agency is that you can grow it at your own pace and in your own time. You can start your agency on the side of your day job, and then go all-in with your agency when the time is right.
The reality is that it’s going to take some time to establish yourself and that means your first few months might be pretty meager.
For example, if you start running Facebook ads for local businesses, you can realistically expect to earn ~$1,000/month per client. That’s awesome side income, but not enough to rely on. Because you can manage ads for one client in just 3-5 hours a week, you can add more clients to your roster while still working part-time hours.
Working as a part-time contractor or freelancer also gives you the space to establish a solid foundation for your marketing business before you leave your day job.
But here’s the biggest reason you don’t want to quit your day job yet: you can safely take risks.
You are going to strike out a few times. It stings (trust me, I know from experience), but you develop a thick skin and eventually learn from those failures. This is exponentially easier in the beginning if you’re not relying solely on income from your marketing agency.
You get a taste of the entrepreneurial life before committing to it fully.
I actually ran my digital marketing agency through law school and on the side for a couple of years after I started practicing law. It was a struggle, but I knew I could handle the weight of running an agency full-time when I decided it was time to quit practicing.
At that point, I had a process in place for finding and onboarding clients. I was getting really good at maintaining client relationships. And, I was confident in what I charged for my services.
In short, I finally felt like I knew what I was doing.
The last three things I mentioned — processes, managing client relationships, and the cost of your services — those are tough to learn. These are necessary business skills that aren’t specific to starting a marketing agency.
Those three skills are the root of where many agency owners strikeout in the beginning:
- Undervaluing your skills and not charging enough
- Overpricing your services and then struggling to find people willing to pay you that much
- Spending way too much time onboarding clients
- Not knowing how to find clients
- Not having a good follow-up system to make sure your clients are happy
- Not understanding your client’s pain points
You can turn those around in a few ways…
See what other small agency owners in your industry are charging for similar services. Recognize that some have years of experience and will price accordingly.
Keep track of how you find clients, onboard them, set up their ads system, etc. Streamline it by focusing on where you can reduce friction.
Honestly, just talk to your clients. Really listen to their concerns before assuming that you know what’s best. Work on understanding their pain points. Ask them questions like, “How can I better serve you?”
Once you feel comfortable with those three things and have a steady stream of clients, then you can think about going out on your own.
How to start a marketing agency: the final word
The online world only continues to grow, and this means more opportunities for digital marketers who want to start and build an agency online.
There’s not a one-size-fits-all business model to follow, but the steps I’ve outlined above will help you get started.
And if you’re looking for inspiration for your niche, check out the Facebook Side Hustle Course. Facebook ads are one of the best ways for small business owners to grow their business because Facebook lets you create highly targeted ads.
Our course covers everything from how to run Facebook ad campaigns to finding potential clients and getting them to say “yes” to your services.