Is it still possible to start a new agency or has marketing become too complex?

Is it still possible to start a new agency or has marketing become too complex?

Data, analytics, digital, social, integration – there are so many areas adding complexity to marketing these days that some believe the well-trodden path to starting your own agency has disappeared in the dust.

Yet there is reason to believe this is not true. Many founders of today’s agencies believe the old ways and means of building your own future and leaving a mark on the industry you love are still relevant.

Jim Hawker, Co-Founder of independent, award-winning agency Threepipe, believes the barriers to entry are perhaps higher than ever before but that it is still possible: if you find a partner to share the challenge.

Find yourself a partner

“I think marketing is more complicated than ever before and requires much more integrated thinking and collaboration. Doing that from scratch on your own would be incredibly difficult unless you are armed with a war chest like Sir Martin Sorrel’s,” he says.

Jim started a PR agency in 2004 then merged it with a performance marketing agency in 2012. The firm then acquired an SEO agency and then a creative agency.

Jim Hawker

“We have now built out a brand performance agency with experts across key channels that work in client-facing teams,” says Jim.

Robert Pepper, Strategy Partner, PS London (see main image), agrees that starting an agency alone is ill-advised. He co-founded PS with Creative Partner Tony Speight in 2007.

Robert says, “Don’t do it on your own. Whatever you’re doing, you need partners as it can be a very lonely place otherwise. And partners give you a proper ability to discuss and challenge your thinking, which is particularly important in the services sector.”

What are you about?

The biggest challenge when starting an agency is not always the complexity, says Robert, but deciding what you stand for.

“Focus is the hardest thing to do; you have to be able to answer the question: what is ‘our thing’?” he says.

Paul Williamson, Managing Director of award-winning agency Realia Marketing, agrees, explaining how he faced similar challenges when founding his firm.

“If I was starting the agency today, I would start by asking: Who do I know? Who do I trust? And what do they believe in? What are the challenges faced by potential clients and can I demonstrate that I can do things differently?” says Paul.

What you really need

It is tempting to think you need a certain level of headcount and a plush office to get into the marketing agency ownership world. But you don’t. There are other ways.

Paul Williamson

Paul advises, “You can’t do it all yourself but there are lots of high-quality freelancers able to deliver content and design. There are many good arguments for doing it that way.”

You also need to know how to run a business. Jim filled his knowledge gaps as the agency grew.

He says, “We sought out mentors for various stages of our agency growth. We refreshed this support every couple of years depending on the challenges we were facing. In the early days it was focused on the basic principles of business and went on to be more focused on growth strategies.”

Money matters

Funding will be necessary. Robert and Tony have never borrowed. Yet they did receive cash investment from another agency, which gave them six months’ worth of cash flow in exchange for a shareholding.

Paul borrowed £10,000 to get started. Yet he warns against borrowing in general.

“Be careful how you manage cash flow because if you’re chasing cash to manage debt that’s a really tough place,” he says.

Who would launch an agency today?

Marketing is changing and being disrupted all the time. So if existing owners were to launch a new agency today, would they change their game plan?

Jim says: “I’d focus on a niche, which for me at the moment would be focused on data and analytics. Helping brands make sense of their own and other data sources to figure out what is important and what isn’t.”

Robert says, “In my view, there is always room for really high-quality ideas that engage people. Yes, technology has altered execution opportunity and speed but a good idea still works and there is no structural reason why it shouldn’t.”

Paul believes an integrated agency is the best idea going.

He says, “As an industry, we are magpies. We always head to the shiny new thing. Up until last year, there were lots of segmented agencies serving SEO, content, media planning and buying, digital, and so on. Now I run an integrated agency so I would say this but I see clients coming back to the integrated model.”

So if you’re looking to build your fortune in marketing, there are still many ways and means.