How to start your own agency

Josh Peachey's picture
by Josh Peachey

After growing tired of in-house work, Oliver Hopkinson decided it was time to start his own agency. Not long after, his agency, Bind, was named Small Digital Agency of the Year at the Prolific North Awards.

He's grown his team rapidly, won clients, and implemented fresh management ideas. After proving that he knows how it's done, Oliver has kindly shared some words of wisdom detailing how you should start your own agency...

Nail your value proposition

What are you going to stand for? and how you are going to stand out in a crowded space?

The industry is around 25,000 strong, with lots of me-too propositions. Agencies claiming ‘full service’, ‘built on transparency’, ‘results-driven’ and ‘agile’. If you’re entering this industry, get used hearing these waffley claims.

Sustainability comes with having a real point of difference – this may be based on personal experience, from researching the players in the market, or from looking outside of the agency bubble to businesses you idolise.

Think about Lego. Coolest business going. They are NOT a toy company manufacturing interlocking bricks; they are a global brand inspiring creativity and innovation. I have a Lego minifigure attached to my office keys as a constant reminder to think like Lego!

And guess what? Your value proposition today will change. It is inevitable. Markets change, trends mature. What’s hot today, sucks tomorrow. Ensure you stay ahead and on top of it.

Win some clients

Client #1 is by far the hardest to win. You’ve got no examples of success, no financial accounts, and no one is talking about you…

You have to make some waves, and ensure your voice is being heard. If you don’t, there are 25,000 better options for a client to go to.

Go to the industry meetups. Post your opinions on LinkedIn. Comment on news articles of interest or relevance.

Look at your own networks. Personal and professional. Is there an opportunity buried in there? Or maybe a ‘connector’ that can introduce you to someone of interest. A personal recommendation is worth 10,000 cold calls and allows folks to overlook the fact you are client-less.

If I have learnt anything about starting a business, it is that people respect the sacrifice you are making. If your value proposition is airtight, people want to be a part of your journey and genuinely want to help.

Build the dream team

The ingredients of an agency are really simple – talent and time. That’s it.

The challenge is getting ‘A’ players to join a business without the stability of a network.

The beautiful thing about being a startup is that you can break traditional rules and write your own, (hopefully) allowing you to attract the best talent in the market despite the fact 8 of 10 businesses fail in 18 months.

Consider the following:

Replace flexitime with anytime, and let people work remotely. Professionals are not children; they know how, when and where they work best. The best contributor to innovation and creativity is trust.
Kill holiday entitlement. Brains operate like muscles. When handling a client’s media budget, you must be razor-sharp and taking time off (as and when you need it) allows you to stay at the top of your game.
Gift share options to employees. There is no better carrot than ownership, and let’s be honest, if they choose to join a startup then they deserve a piece of the pie
None of this works however if you do a crap job recruiting. We recently made a couple of hires. It took us six months, 140 CVs, 100 phone interviews, and 40 face to face interviews.

Do not rush hiring people to join you on your quest - it will destroy you from the inside out if you make a mistake.

 Grow, but not too fast.

Modified from Michael Porter - the essence of growth is choosing what not to do.

When pitching for business, be mindful that not all clients were created equal.

While you’re cutting your teeth, it’s tempting to prioritise revenue over cultural fit. Your positive energy and mental fortitude are both far more important than short term cash falls, and both will disappear quickly if you don’t stay true to yourself.

Understand the opportunity cost of taking on a new client. If you keep growing your client base without recruiting, your output is going to fall. Remember, you have two ingredients – talent and time.

Be selective of who you want to work with and take your time.

Don’t judge your performance by your P&L – it’s short-term vanity. Judge it by the number of contract renewals you get.

The best way to grow is to do a great job for your clients. The best companies drive growth through advocacy, and from my experience, folks in digital are friends with other folks in digital.

Your brand

An agency’s brand is nothing but a reputation. Behind the curtain, you may have a shiny office, some bespoke complex processes, and a load of masters of industry; but to outsiders, you are just a name.

Communication that reinforces your positioning statement is key to building and nurturing your brand.

Write thought leadership pieces and put them in the public domain. PR them to relevant publications and frequently post to your social networks. Enter yourself for industry awards (no one will enter on your behalf). Speak at events. Host roundtable discussions. Define how you want to be perceived with regular, relevant actions; or risk becoming insignificant.

Above all else, have fun! Take this too seriously and you won’t get out alive.

If success was easy and achieved by following a load of rules, everyone would be doing it.

Be bold, be brave and smile lots.