If people tell you it’s easy, they have either never done it or they’re lying to you.
Building an agency is not for the faint-of-heart. It. Is. Hard. Work. It will take twice as long as you think and require twice as much investment. But it will be is the ride of your life.
When building an agency, you have to quickly come to the realization that this is a business. Your product or output is creative, but if your margins are not covering your expenses, then by definition, it’s a hobby.
Having been in the trenches of building a brand experience agency in San Francisco for the past five years, we’ve learned a four key areas that are necessary for building a truly great agency:
1) Focus on Business Development — Every Single Day
Without excelling here, you won’t need to be worried about anything else because you won’t have an agency. It’s hard to effectively outsource this activity, particularly for a boutique agency. It’s the founders, the leaders of the agency, the people crazy enough to hang their shingle who clients want to hear from. It makes sense. Clients are investing in you. They are trusting, in many instances, that this partnership will help, not hurt, their careers.
People don’t choose an agency based on talent, charisma, or even history. The most important part of good business development is often an overlooked part — sell to people who are inclined to believe you. The best clients are the ones who are already aligned with your thinking. Trying to convince someone to believe what you believe has the potential to be an exhausting endeavor and a likely fruitless one.
2) Invest in Your People — Culture Is Everything
It’s been said before, and it’s worth saying again and again. Your people, who are your culture, are the most important “thing” in your agency. This is another aspect of building a successful boutique agency that simply cannot be outsourced. People work for people, not for “the agency.” People work for the passion that drives the founders. That’s what they buy into. That passion has to be communicated and rewarded and lived — every day.
I’ve experienced time and again. If you hire people who simply want a job, they’ll do it. If you hire someone who believes in what you believe, they’ll give you everything and then some.
An interesting thing happens when you hire enough of these people — I call them “believers” — the culture begins to feed on itself. They’ll protect it. They’ll defend it. Clients will breathe it. And you’ll have time to focus on driving growth, to keep it all going. To keep this beautiful thing, this beautiful agency, creating great work, work that matters for clients that care. It comes down to one good hire at time.
3) Deliver on Your Promise
Every. Detail. Matters. It has to. And it always should. It’s not about perfection; it’s about caring enough to ensure that the work your team delivers to clients is flawless.
Look, every agency gets fired, it happens. There are plenty of elements out of your control. Which is exactly the point. What you do control, make it great. If the first two are done well, business development with clients who believe what you believe, and a culture that makes your passion theirs, the delivery of great work will come naturally. In the end, the team will only be as good as the founders.
After 20 years of doing this, one develops an eye for delivering great work. you’ll be able to “feel” the vibe in your office and know if the team is doing their best work. Nothing should exit the physical or virtual walls of your agency that isn’t flawless.
4) Get Involved in the Industry
This has the potential to be a real brute. But it matters. Particularly in small markets. You got to get out there. Share your thinking. Meet people — competitors and past clients alike. Everyone is a friend or a potential partner or a possible reference. Business moves at light speed. There’s plenty going on and moving and disappearing and changing and adapting. It is impossible to be successful and not take part in your local industry. There’s also a responsibility we all have to share and grow, together, for the betterment of the industry. Get out there. Promote, share, be, speak, and write. Do it because it is the right thing to do, for your business, for your team, for your clients, and for your industry.
Understand Your Commitment
I’m a big fan of building your own agency. I’ve enjoyed every (stressful) moment and celebrated the big and small wins with great people along my side. The opportunity to have clients entrust in you and your team their brand, their careers, their livelihoods is an awesome responsibility. One every agency leader should never take lightly. I certainly don’t.
Start with asking yourself why you want to do this, follow the four steps, run it like a business, and take the responsibility seriously but yourself much less so. It will be a ride you won’t regret.