Secrets to Starting Your Own Agency: Agency Owners Tell All Part II



Marilyn Heywood Paige shares the real-world application of IMC in marketing agencies.

If you’re thinking about starting your own marketing agency, you’re in good company. According to AgencySpotter, there are 120,000 marketing agencies in the US. Every one of them was started by someone just like you.

In my last post, I gave you tips from small agency owners on finances, charging for your services, and demonstrating your value to the client. In this post, I’ll reveal the secrets agency owners around the globe shared with me on hiring employees and getting clients.


When you finally get to the critical mass of client work that you need to hire staff to help you, it’s a great accomplishment. However, hiring employees is where many agency owners have the steepest learning curve. Here’s what some agency owners had to say about expanding their staff.

Think Carefully

Marcus Miller, head of SEO and digital marketing at the UK agency Bowler Hat, thought every hire would be as great as his first hire, his sister. That wasn’t the case. He writes, “My next three hires did not last six months. I suspect one even stole from the office. A fourth hire was with us for nine months but was a disruptive force in the office. My days became a hell of trying to manage people and creating processes to ensure work was done properly.” He continues, “My advice is to think very carefully about bringing extra people in. You must consider the culture and how to create a space that allows people to learn and do great work. You have to create a place that people will want to come to work in each day. Somewhere that is intellectually nourishing, fun and rewarding. You must do everything you can to hold onto the good people.”

Who You Hire Becomes Your Reputation

For some agency owners, taking on employees equates to feeling more personally responsible. Robin Donovan of the Bozell Agency in Omaha, Nebraska noted, “You’ll feel pride in every single accomplishment made by anyone in your company, and you’ll feel responsible for every single mistake or problem made by anyone in your company. You are completely dependent on the people at your agency, and you are completely responsible for them, too.”

Delegate Well


Nikki Bisel, owner and founder of in St. Louis, Missouri learned that hiring people meant trusting them to do the work so you can focus on the bigger picture.”I learned that it’s imperative to hire people better than you that you can delegate to. Your role as the agency owner is to keep the wheels greased and keep your business growing. The only way you can do that with confidence is to have a team of experts that you can delegate work to. You may love design or social media or copywriting, but your core responsibility to your employees and your clients is to build a solid business.”

Getting Clients

Even if you have been freelancing and have some clients with which to start your business, you’re going to need more to keep your business growing. Getting new clients can be the most challenging aspect of running your own agency.

“During our first year in business, I learned a valuable lesson; stellar customer service and a strong work ethic will not pay your bills. I was under the impression that once I got started if I did my job to the best of my ability that things would fall into place and my money tree would start to flourish. Well, consider that lesson number one that I learned, and a laughable one at that.” Rachael Ekey, President of The Markey Group, a boutique marketing agency located in Westlake, Ohio.

What Rachael is hinting at is that it doesn’t matter how good your services are, at some point you’re going to have to sell them to prospective buyers.

Become a Good Salesperson

Jeff Kear ran a marketing firm for fifteen years and is currently the founder and CMO for Planning Pod in Denver, Colorado.

On this topic he notes, “The biggest lesson I learned in my first year running my marketing business was that I had to become as good a salesperson as I was a marketer. Every marketer thinks they are good at selling, but what they’re really good at is presenting, and there’s a huge difference between presenting an idea or campaign to a client and pounding on doors to sell yourself and your abilities. Most marketers love the behind-the-scenes strategizing, conceptualizing, and campaign building that is so essential to growing a brand. But they aren’t salespeople because, for the most part, they don’t enjoy the constant prospecting, calling, and rejection that just seems to fuel salespeople to plow ahead. And you don’t tend to be as good at things that you don’t enjoy. . . The second piece of advice I have is to take sales training. The only way to get good at something is to practice it, and most marketers are extremely capable of becoming excellent salespeople. And the way you become proficient at something is to develop those skills through practice.

Perform on Every Project

Bob Bentz (WVU’81) is the president of mobile-first digital agency Purplegator in suburban Philadelphia.

He advises that retainer clients are a thing of the past and you have to perform well on every project. “The days of the Mad Men era are gone. Retainers for mobile and digital are uncommon, and you have to perform on every promotion, or you may not get another chance.”

He’s right. At my agency, Fig Advertising and Marketing and many others, retainer clients make up just 40% of the agency revenues.

Don’t Just Take Any Client

But while retainers may be fewer and further between, some agency owners feel that you need to be careful about the clients you take on.

Jodie Cook, the owner of JC Social Media in Birmingham, UK encourages newcomers to choose clients carefully. “I learned in my first year of business to be choosy about who you work with because their reputation will become yours. We see each client relationship as a partnership rather than an ‘us vs. them’ arrangement. This means we work with people whom we like, get on with, and genuinely have a great partnership with. Difficult clients will make your work difficult and your life difficult. Say no!”

Starting a marketing agency is a challenging endeavor. You can be successful at it, but it will test you in ways you don’t imagine at the start. Hopefully, the insights gained from these agency owners will help you avoid some of the same pitfalls they experienced.

Other articles by Marilyn Heywood Paige

3 Responses to “Secrets to Starting Your Own Agency: Agency Owners Tell All Part II”

  1. Bob Bentz (@BobBentz) Says:

    As a proud Mountaineer grad, it’s great to be included in this article. Thanks Marilyn.

  2. Bob Bentz: A Compilation of Intervews | Bob Bentz Says:

    […] 4/6/17 — West Virginia University […]

  3. Simon Weiner Says:

    I agree with Rachael’s comment. I think that because a lot of the Web and social media appears to be free – then it’s difficult for a client to actually imagine paying for something. As a side comment – Rachael and Kristin do amazing work. Anyone who wants to increase presence, market share, sales – the Markey Group is your ticket – plus they are wonderful to work with. Glad to see the Markey Group getting some well deserved press – keep up the good work.

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