There’s a common misconception around creative agencies…
That it’s “easy” to start one, and that you don’t need much preparation.
But starting an agency isn’t the same as finding creative success and maintaining it.
In 2024, I want you to find that success and maintain it for many years ahead.
So, here’s how to start a lasting creative agency.
Before you skip: Start with the “not so creative” parts
I know it’s tempting to just jump into it, I really do.
It’s exactly what I did in early 2020, and it came back to haunt me 2 years later.
Spending 1 - 2 weeks on the boring stuff will save you a LOT of headaches months, years, even decades down the line. Creative agencies are businesses, and businesses are (unfortunately) prone to failure.
As a former small agency owner, I can tell you that the biggest challenges you’ll face are around money and time. They’re not pretty topics, but they’re the lifeblood of a successful creative agency.
To succeed in this business, there are 3 things you need to obsess over:
- Always delivering on time and with consistent quality
- Optimizing time spent on non-billable tasks
- Conserving your cash and profits
It’s so easy to get excited about a particular customer project and end up spending the entire month on that project only, leaving little room for new customers and cutting your profits to the bone.
To start a creative agency, you need to think in agency terms.
Let me take you through a few preliminary guidelines.
(P.s: If you’ve already sorted most of the legal / financial stuff, feel free to skip to the 7 steps!)
How to close mutually beneficial agency contracts
Every successful agency is built on talent, hard work, and humility.
But rushing your way to closing contracts without thinking about their repercussions can hamper your ability to provide value for your customers and your creative agency in the long-term.
If you’re unsure about the sustainability of your services as you’re first starting out, offer short 3/6 month contracts that won’t automatically renew.
That’ll give you the opportunity to figure out the costs associated with the service and renegotiate more sustainable contracts later on.
The last thing you want is to be stuck in a multi-year, legally-binding contract that bleeds money.
And I perfectly understand if you’re not a finance person, I’m not one either!
But I learned a few tricks to help get your creative agency to profitability…
Test your service with small pools of potential clients first
With the Fiverrs and Upworks out there competing for your customers, it’s super tempting to just open the floodgates and let customers auto sign up for your services publicly on your website.
» Packaging your creative agency’s work into flat-priced services that are billed on a monthly, quarterly, or even yearly basis—introducing limitations to ensure you remain profitable.
This was the structure I had taken with my agency back in 2020.
And it totally worked!
People were buying services and were happy with them.
It’s a model that still works wonders in 2024, especially as a small creative firm.
BUT—even if I recommend this approach—you should test the waters first.
I learned firsthand what it means to hastily launch a service so popular that it works against you. Remember 1 of the 3 success points I mentioned?
“Always deliver on time and with consistent quality”
You can’t do that when you’re inundated with demand you can’t realistically meet.
The best way to avoid this scenario is reaching out to potential customers in small, targeted pools, and observing their reactions.
Carrying out the first commitments without overburdening your agency.
Then, as your processes become more effective and efficient, you open the service up to more potential customers, with the success stories of the smaller pool to support your growth.
By all means, display the price publicly if you find it a good strategy.
But don’t just take on any customer—filter requests down to those you know will benefit from your creative services the most.
(You’ll be surprised by how much demand there is for professional services!)
It’s ok to offer services you’ve never done before (but do it thoughtfully)
If you’re selling something you don’t have a lot of experience in, you’re not an impostor. You just want to deliver value in a particular line of work.
(And should be ready to demonstrate commitment.)
Unfortunately, many agencies take this definition on the nose, offering every service under the sun and clearly showing that they don’t have an understanding of the value they deliver.
The reality is, customers are looking for specific creative solutions to their problems.
You need to take a stance on a particular issue and see if it resonates.
If it doesn’t, you can always “pivot” (i.e. change your offering to something new).
But unless your agency has 1000s of employees, listing a lot of services works against you. Here’s what I recommend you do instead:
- Offer services that naturally link your strengths to market needs. For example, you might enjoy creating infographics, so you’ll want to offer a standalone infographic service rather than a more general “graphic design” service. This will allow you to sell that specific format at a premium by showing that your creative agency produces some of the best infographics around.
It will also significantly reduce your burden of having to manage impossible, “do-it-all” expectations typical of customers that hire graphic designers without having their mind set on why.
- Test 2 new services at a time before settling on what to offer. One on the safe side, and one on a more “daring” side. This will allow you to see in practice if taking a stance pays.
For example, you might offer a simple infographic service and test it against an infographic + enclosing blog post + SEO research service.
The former requires that the customer knows what they want beforehand, and you simply produce the deliverable. The latter has you as a consultant for the customer, taking the helm of their content strategy and delivering value from A to Z.
By putting them side by side, you can identify which delivers better customers at better rates, and where you ultimately retain more profits.
Drop the underperforming one and invest in the other.
- Stay the course for services that you know are sound. One of the most problematic bugs in agency ownership is wanting to change service structure without evidence to substantiate the change. If a service is profitable, iterate on it, but don’t just straight up change it.
Creative agencies grow well when they are able to maintain the quality of existing services and expand into other service areas without sacrificing the experience of previous customers.
In my experience as an ex-agency owner, we did best when we doubled down on the value of existing services, and worst when we expanded to other offerings too quickly.
Don’t let customers drive the value narrative for your creative services
This one is straightforward, but deserves an honorable mention.
» You, and only you, are the one setting the value of your services.
It might sound “obvious,” but I’ve seen so many instances of customers exploiting a service provider, basically trying to take control of the value narrative and making them an extension of their employees.
That’s something you need to guard yourself against early in the startup process.
Imagine if you went to a grocery store, saw the price for 2 cartons of milk, took them over to the counter and started arguing that they should cost $0.40 less each because the ticket price is too high.
You’d be given the boot in no time.
The same thing applies with professional services.
If you have customers constantly trying to drive the price of your services down, you need to (gracefully) show them the door. Know your worth and protect it from those who want to bring you down.
Tracking time for billable and admin work at your agency
Keeping track of time is one of those things that intuitively make sense when working on customer projects but is hardly ever done or even set up when first starting a creative agency.
Let me tell you how I see it.
* quick pause *
Because it tells you how profitable you are.
Apart from enabling you and your team members to work on projects you love and are proud of, the primary concern for your creative agency should be healthy, long-lasting profits.
Since all agencies are human-powered, their economics revolve entirely around time.
You can’t start, run, and much less grow an agency without proper time tracking.
And you don’t have to go crazy trying to implement it either.
Agency management platforms like ManyRequests make it super easy to link time spent on specific tasks directly to the customer and the project being carried out.
That’s it, that’s all you need to do as a start.
As you move into your first few months of operations, you then look back at those time reports, compare them against the project’s overall budget, the man hours and admin costs associated, and…
You’ve got yourself your gross profit!
(More on that in the financial section below)
If you’re planning to start your own creative agency, time is literally of the essence.
Keeping an eye on your creative agency’s finances
Back to the 3rd thing you need to obsess over for a healthy creative agency:
I’m not the type of guy to say that profits are the only thing that matters. I don’t actually believe that because it often skews the view towards cutting costs which might actually be important.
But they’re 100% the biggest part of starting and maintaining a creative agency.
Forget that—they’re the biggest part of maintaining any business.
If you don’t have your eyes set on a business model that will help you become profitable within a year or so, you’re either a tech company or someone with a lot of money to throw around.
If you’re intimidated by financial records (I know I was when I first started my agency), I promise you they’re not hard to learn, and you don’t need an accountant to understand them. You want to keep track of 3 key documents every other week:
- Your profit and loss (P&L) statement, a.k.a. income statement: For a set period of time (usually quarterly), the P&L shows how much money you’ve made in revenue at the top, how much money you’ve spent to provide those services (cost of goods sold or COGS)—leaving you with your gross profit—and how much money you’ve spent for admin tasks and taxes, going all the way down to net profits at the bottom of the document, a.ka. the “bottom line” in colloquial business speak.
- Your balance sheet: A representation of the financial health of your agency at a point in time, with assets being your cash and valuable things your agency owns, liabilities being debts and other obligations, and equity being the value leftover if all assets were sold and liabilities paid. You hear about “equity funding” all the time because it’s the true value of a company, and it’s easy to spot on the balance sheet. An agency is no different, you want to retain significant equity.
- Your cash flow statement: Perhaps my favorite of all 3, this report shows the fluctuations in cash intake versus spending over a period of time, with a detailed month by month view. You may see some months where you’re losing money and some where you’re gaining money in this report.
It’s an absolute eye opener for pinpointing whether your agency is sustainable for the long-term (cash flow positive), is relatively flat in its cash intake, or bleeds money.
Ok, we’re basically done with the “boring” stuff.
But trust me, as an agency owner you’ll thank yourself for learning these things first.
You don’t have to take a long course either, just sign up to a bookkeeping service like QuickBooks or Xero, connect your bank account, categorize each transaction based on the expenditure and income options QB provides, attach invoices and receipts, and—once you’re finished—use their standard reports.
All of these tools have standard versions of the 3 documents shown above.
7 non-trivial steps to start (and grow!) your creative agency
You’re now at the “creative” part of the article.
This is where I’ll show you a few steps—partly inspired from my agency experience—on how to effectively start, grow, and manage your own creative organization.
A few things to note:
- I’ve done my best to follow a logical path that applies to most creative agencies, but you may want to add or move certain steps. Starting an agency effectively is not an exact science.
- You’re welcome to add your own flair and modify entire parts of the process if you don’t think they fit your particular case. Each step comes from real experience but your mileage may vary.
Enough talking, let’s get to it:
1. Round up partners and form your creative agency
When you’re starting an agency, your people are by far your most valuable asset.
And, spoiler alert, they will remain such throughout your agency’s lifetime.
So it’s only natural to start from the talent, even before the logo (ouch).
But what if you’re a solo founder?
Or you have a potential co-founder who’s on the fence…
Or perhaps you have a huge team ready to go!
These are all just fine, you can absolutely start an agency on your own and scale it gradually, or get your entire network in and push for big contracts out of the gate.
All good possibilities.
So what’s the first step?
Identify your team members’ strengths and assign roles
When you boil it down to its core value, a creative agency is made of raw talent: people who have honed their craft and know the difference between mediocre work and top tier quality.
If you’re not at that stage yet, don’t sweat it.
Starting an agency at different stages of your career is a-ok.
But you need to consider a few things:
- If you’re flying solo, don’t go too fast unless you truly believe you have the skills and foundations to scale your agency. It’s not fun to realize you’re building an unscalable “company of one” if your ambition is to develop your work into something bigger than just your contribution.
- Keep your eyes set on the “team” part: It’s easy to forget you’re trying to build something bigger than yourself if customers are satisfying your personal needs. But if you end up overburdened with work, quality will decrease and the agency’s costs will skyrocket.
- Invest in people as soon as you can: After taking your salary, re-invest profits in people before anything else. You want to see the economics of an agency at play, and the only way to have that is to make sure you delegate almost all operational work.
- Split your time 50 / 50 between customer work and education: You’re not going to know it all, nobody does. Especially as a solo founder, you’ll have less input from people around you, so it’ll take more effort to “figure it out.” Learn on the job and off the job.
- Let technology support you, but don’t overdo it: A client portal like ManyRequests takes you from zero to operational in < 1 hour. But that’s because it’s specialized in creative agencies. Don’t overinvest in tooling or your admin costs will eat into your profits.
- If you have a co-founder and contributors to support you, lean on them for things you’re not 100% sure about. Be candid in what you know but especially what you don’t know. Your agency’s success depends on identifying your weaknesses early on and delegating them to others.
- Establish immediately who’s the lead of the company (i.e. Managing director): This avoids potential downstream conflicts and sets the tone for onboarding new team members as well as working with customers. One managing director and one operations director.
- Take on growth opportunities proactively early on: If you’re starting an agency, there’s no need to wait for someone to give you direction—you’re the one setting direction! Bring that energy of: “I’m confident X will work,” or: “Let’s try Y this week.” It’s contagious.
- Put your money where your mouth is: If there is an imbalance between co-founders around investments made into the company, it can lead to early conflict. Showing that you’re 100% in day after day will push early contributors to trust your guidance.
- Don’t keep any secrets: You want everyone to equally support you in your mission. Why keep any information from them when they can reveal themselves crucial for your growth? Especially early on in your journey. Share often, share wide, and share with intent.
- If you have a team to start with, you know more than I do! I’ve had the pleasure of starting both solo and with a co-founder, but never as a full group. In your case, I would probably advise to invest in sound processes early on so that everyone knows their area of contribution.
Remember, invest in people earlier than anything else.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to your creative agency’s success.
Create an index of everyone’s responsibilities
Once you have a good idea of the people structure in your agency, you want to assign responsibilities.
BUT, you don’t want to be rigid with it, you want to be broad initially.
That’s because the startup process for a creative agency is full of twists and turns, and it wouldn’t make sense to say: “Graphic designer! Focus only on creating blog graphics every day.”
You want early contributors to proactively seek areas where they can add value.
- A co-founder with UX design experience could help you implement a client intake process.
- An early contributor with graphic design skills could kickstart your social media presence.
- You could use prior marketing skills to write copy for the website and collateral.
During the startup phase, it’s all about defaulting to action, where producing and delivering anything is better than overthinking every detail or endlessly planning your strategies.
Because it helps you point your finger at something tangible and say:
“Mh, what if …?”
It’s a process of trial and error, where the first output leads to the second output that leads to the third output—you get the idea. As a creative, you should lean into this “chaos” of activities early on and slowly guide them towards a refined, consistent, long-lasting version of your agency’s value proposition.
Choose the right legal entity structure
I won’t spend much time talking about this as:
- I’m not an attorney
- Rules vary for each country
My recommendation is to find a legal structure that allows the most flexibility in dividing shares between contributors. But if you want to retain 100% ownership, the equivalent of an LLC in the US will do just fine.
2. Write your agency’s value proposition down on “paper”
Let’s address the elephant in the room:
» You don’t need to and shouldn’t write a business plan!
They are the most rigid way of thinking about a business, and they simply don’t work.
Instead, you want to obsess over one concept: positioning.
Brand positioning is the most tangible process for identifying, drafting, and delivering your agency’s “unique value”: a representation of what you do that’s uniquely valuable in the market.
It doesn’t have to be anything crazy.
It could just be a creative twist in the way you deliver your services.
What’s important is that the brand positioning exercise will force you to extract who your services are best suited for, why they solve their problems, how they’re delivered, and which competitors you’re up against.
This is the only written exercise that’s worth going through during your agency’s startup process.
Turn brand positioning into your growth mantra
Why focus on positioning instead of a business plan?
Because it’s fundamentally way more flexible.
You can write parts of it, test them in the market, see if they resonate, and either double down on that idea or pivot to another one. It’s a living document that puts your creative services in action.
So how do you carry out a positioning exercise?
- Put yourself in your ideal customer’s shoes: Emphasis on the word “ideal” here. You don’t want to try and target a billion different types of people, focus on those that you believe will get the most value from your services and, in return, will help you retain more profits for your creative agency.
- For example, your base idea for your company is to sell web design services. You are 3 people in the agency, so you can tackle small- to mid-sized projects. You do some market research and find out that companies between 10 and 20 employees in industry X and Y are most likely to want to refresh their website, and support 3-5 years of growth with it.
That is an “ideal” customer because they are in the market for a solution like yours, they have the right budget for a team size like yours, and they need recurring services to help them support their website and media / marketing strategy long-term. You want to target customers which have the most potential for recurring revenue at profitable rates.
- Write down 3 to 5 of their pain points and link them to your messaging pillars: For each of the problems and objections your customer has, create a “pillar” of benefits and capabilities your services provide: “We don’t need an internal design team” » Add a “team extension” pillar.
- Important, you have to speak to potential customers to identify their pain points. You can’t just rely on market research (although it helps for statistical relevance).
Once you made a few educated guesses on what your clients are experiencing, “simply” address those concerns directly.
You’ll want to learn about benefit-capability mapping here.
- Study competitors, but don’t obsess over them: One big part of brand positioning is competitor research, but I would argue from my experience that it’s detrimental for small startups to obsess over the competition—you risk sounding exactly like them instead of showing original value.
Listen to your prospects and come up with your creative solution to their problems. Don’t look elsewhere, create something from scratch that they’ll value.
If you apply your own creativity, you’ll often produce something entirely unique.
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side!
Keep a 2-3 page positioning document handy and update it over time.
Especially the benefit-capability mapping and messaging pillars!
Wear your customers’ shoes every day
The biggest mistake many businesses make is to write from an internal perspective:
“We’re industry leaders for vertical X”
“Our cutting-edge design process is the best in Y.”
Avoid this corpo-speak at all costs.
You always want to write from the customer’s perspective!
In fact, I’d argue you want to think from the customer’s POV every single day, not just for your marketing but for providing support, selling services, communicating with team members, etc.
The problem is, it’s easy to fall back to the old ways.
We’re not hardwired to think as someone else, we have biases.
To solve for this, creative project management tools like ManyRequests link all of your agency operations directly to the customer themselves.
So you’re essentially forced to think like them.
You can even peek into how they experience your services.
Start setting up your marketing ops
While you don’t want to be rigid with your project management, it’s never too soon to implement a few foundational processes.
Task management, agreement templates, client intake forms…
You don’t need to have everything pre-structured to start.
Just get a service out there and see if the people you send it to react positively.
Be candid, mention that you’re running a small pilot test for an upcoming agency you want to build and see what the response is.
People love it when they can be part of someone’s growth path.
The best way to start an agency?
Getting a customer before you even have a brand.
That tells you that there is a need for your creative services, and that the customer trusts you to solve their problem. Logos and pretty colors are just a way to expand that trust, but you can start small.
3. Transfer that value proposition into an actionable service
Picking up from your brand positioning, you’re ready to go all in with your offering.
In my experience, it’s always best to prepare a piece of collateral beforehand (e.g. a landing page, social post, etc.) showing the value of the service starting from the customer’s pain point.
For the same reason that delivering anything—even if flawed—is better than trying to perfect everything and never launching.
Your prospects can point their finger and say:
“Ok, but what about…”
That feedback will help you address objections and ultimately sell your services
If you go out there with just an idea and a long email, you’ll have a tough time.
With your positioning in shape, it’s way easier to produce something that prospects can point to.
Get some collateral up and send it out—let the content do the talking.
Embed your brand’s positioning into your service
At this point, it’s good to start thinking about your brand.
With the messaging pillars you have written in step #3, you’ve already started the process of branding yourself. Remember, a brand isn’t just the visuals: it’s the copy, the people, the mission.
When you’re first drafting your creative services, consider a few things:
- How can you immediately address the customer’s biggest pain point?
- Are there any objections the customer might have to buying?
- What does the service offer that will solve the problem?
- How much will it cost? Does it require a quote?
You want to embed all of the answers to these questions into your services’ collateral, not as an afterthought FAQ section at the bottom, but as a fundamental part of their messaging.
Try not to shoehorn these things in later on.
Write drafts of your service trying to answer all objections in the copy itself, make the marketing a fundamental part of the service, almost inseparable.
Then iterate them together.
Why would I choose you? Tell me now or I’m gone
Picture me as your ideal customer.
I’m a busy guy, I have lots to deal with this week.
I like to take weekends off and don’t have much time for browsing around the internet during the week; I absolutely cannot afford to lose time trying to figure out what your service does. If it takes me more than a minute, I’m out.
That’s a HUGE problem.
Selling today is all about hooking people into taking action.
For that to happen, you need to compel them.
“Infographics you won’t mind spending $1299 on.”
“Visuals + data = Engagement that drives 5x sales.”
You want to give the reader a reason to act as soon as they land on your page.
Think through their pain points, figure out the benefits, and craft a one-line statement for each.
Effective pricing strategies for creative agencies
Pricing is a gigantic topic.
But I wanted to mention it as it’s fundamental to your agency’s success.
I couldn’t possibly do it justice in this (already long) post, so I recommend that you read ManyRequest’s guide on how to price your agency services.
It has all you need to know about pricing!
4. Establish your creative brand on top of your services (the fun part!)
As a creative, you probably already have a billion ideas around your branding.
I’ve built a few brands myself, so I have a few tips.
Like I mentioned in point #3, my biggest suggestion is to embed your branding directly into your service, meaning that the experience of buying and consuming your service is part of the price. We all do business emotionally.
Your brand is meant to “stress” those emotions.
It’s about getting people to buy and stay.
The more you embed your marketing into the service itself (e.g. fun emails that are sent out when something is accomplished during the service), the more customers are likely to stay.
Don’t reduce it down to just buying.
Design your brand as a journey — not a destination
A lot of brands want to make their collateral the prettiest, the most creative and appealing visuals, they want animations and sounds—all the design bells and whistles possible.
But to me, branding is about the experience.
Not the “in your face” graphic elements.
There is a place for those.
But the core value is how your prospect goes from not knowing anything about you, to having their curiosity piqued, to becoming interested in your service, to buying and receiving support.
So it’s worth sitting down and brainstorming all the possible ways that a customer might interact with your agency’s brand: through your website, via social media, by word of mouth, etc.
How are they going to perceive your brand?
Is your messaging consistent throughout channels?
Will they land where they expect next or will they be thrown off?
Often, you’ll see that it’s the experience that makes the sale.
The core value has to be there, but a pleasurable UX gets them over the line quicker.
Give the logo and name meaning against your services
This one is entirely up to you.
I’m sure you understand the power of good brand names.
A catchy, creative name sticks in someone’s head when they see it, and it’s immediately associative with the things you do best.
Specialized in infographics?
“Infonatics”, “Graphy”, “Info[Animal name]”.
The options are endless.
You don’t have to be literal either.
Use abstract names or foreign words that map to what you do.
It pays off to name your brand based on your company’s mission and services as it increases mental availability from your prospects and enables scalable growth in the long-term.
Use evocative branding elements across every touch point
By “evocative,” I mean branding touches that are unique to your brand.
My company uses sage leaves as an evocative element as they inspire relaxation—plus, they’re not very common in the B2B world where you often see abstract lines and geometric shapes.
They’re also directly linked to the brand name: Sagewill.
At first these small things might not do much, but over time they become so embedded throughout all parts of your marketing that they instantly click in prospects’ minds.
“Ah, I’ve seen these before!”
You want your visuals to have that effect on people.
5. Go “out there” and talk to potential customers for your agency
You have your service and website laid out.
You’re confident in your ability to grow the creative agency of your dreams.
So what’s stopping you from pushing onwards?
Or at least, you shouldn’t feel like something is stopping you.
Sales is hard, it’s a bit of a mental barrier at first.
But when you realize that it’s all about working together with the prospect to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome, it almost becomes fun.
The most common mistake I see early agency owners make?
» Treating sales like a battle.
It’s you against the prospect.
This is almost everyone’s natural instinct at first.
You’re literally battling to get them to pay you, and then they don’t.
So you battle again, and again, and again…
See the problem?
The reality is, sales is more of a therapy session and less of a skirmish.
You’re there to listen 80% of the time and ask questions the remaining 20%.
Once you’ve gathered enough information from the prospect, you recap that information for your customer with the added context of how your creative service helps, and provide a quote.
This way, it becomes a natural conversation, not an argument.
Let your brand positioning do the heavy lifting for you
You’ve done the hard work of positioning your services for maximum customer benefit, why throw it all away with long-winded sales pitches?
When you’re reaching out to prospects, be concise.
“Hey [prospect name],
I just created a personalized report for [your brand] this morning.
It includes [value proposition], are you available for a 30-minute call next Tuesday to discuss it?
Add a link to the personalized landing page / report in the bolded part and you’re good to go. Let your value proposition do the talking.
Get used to recording yourself over and over
As the owner of a creative agency, you are its most important salesperson.
You want prospects to see you—feel what it’s like to talk to you.
Otherwise how do they know if they can trust you?
Or even want to speak with you?
Nobody enjoys dealing with strangers, so you have to make it easy for prospects to see you as a friendly “bud,” without going too informal.
- They show your face, expressions, voice—all immensely important traits for selling.
- They’re perfect to highlight expertise that’s hard to convey in writing.
- People naturally gravitate towards them before reading.
You don’t need to dress like an executive, that stuff is in the past.
All you need is a decent webcam and a good light source shining directly on your face. Use tools like Loom, Vidyard or Vimeo.
They all have generous free tiers, particularly Vimeo.
KISS = Keep it stupid simple
Overcomplicating the sales process is your enemy.
You usually want around 3 - 4 touches to sell small-scale services:
- Plant the seed with prospects through a cold email, LinkedIn message, comment on their post, wherever you can find them. Let your landing pages and brand positioning do the talking.
- Follow up to ensure you’re not losing on them simply because they’re busy. You’re not being annoying if you reach out every 3 to 4 days or so. Give them the option to opt out.
- If they reply positively, get them on a call within 2 to 5 business days.
- If they reply negatively, ask why they’re not interested with pointed questions.
- If they don’t reply, that’s also a signal of either “not relevant” or “not now.”
- During the first call, let them speak. Ask what their brand efforts are currently like, without trying to shoehorn your service early on in the discussion. Add the service in context to what they say.
- Send your offer via email, and the link with draft agreement terms. If they like them, send a final message with all the necessary to sign the contract and start the assignment.
This process will change if you work with large companies.
(Usually takes 7 to 12 touches).
And it’ll also be slightly different if you have a productized agency with pricing that’s open to the public. But the gist remains the same: keep it simple, keep it contextual.
6. Stay lean with your costs as you look for the first opportunities
I’ve made this mistake so many times it hurts.
Spending on things you don’t need too early in the startup process.
Let me tell you straight:
- You don’t need the most powerful CRM out there.
- You don’t need process automation to get the first customers.
- You don’t need to spend on expensive marketing consultants or agencies.
What you need is a bit of elbow grease and some patience.
The more you spend early on, the narrower your time window for success becomes. You do not want that stress when you already have the uncertainty of figuring out whether your services will sell.
Find the first customers without big marketing spends
There are 4 exact things you need to find the first customers for your service:
- A professional landing page (try Carrd)
- An email prospecting tool (Apollo!)
- A social media platform
- A spreadsheet
Literally all 4 can be done for free in 2024.
With these, you can get your creative agency to acquire the first 5 to 10 customers. From there onwards, I recommend you use a client portal like ManyRequests for a more streamlined experience.
Big marketing spends are your enemy when you’re starting out.
They eat into your profits and force you to keep spending over and over again.
Spend according to your customer acquisition cost (CAC)
I won’t go in depth into this, there are plenty of CAC resources out there. But in short, you need to figure out how much it costs in marketing and sales expenses for you to acquire a customer.
It’s a simple formula:
Total marketing and sales costs / Number of new customers
Do that for a specific period of time, like a quarter for example.
Your CAC helps you understand how sustainable your marketing efforts are through a comparison with your LTV, or Customer Lifetime Value, which is the average value of a customer contract.
Use ads as lead gen accelerators — not primary channels
A lot of marketers tout ads as the end-all be-all of customer acquisition.
So let’s talk about them.
First things first:
» Ads work.
There’s no doubt about that, we’re all influenced by them.
But for your creative agency to remain sustainable in the long-term, you need to find organic avenues of customer acquisition, meaning channels you don’t have to continuously pay for.
That’s partnerships, reviews and word of mouth, content marketing, social media, interviews, …
Partnerships and reviews in particular are my favorite way of kickstarting a new agency into full business operations mode.
That’s because agencies usually rely on various platforms to do their work.
Think tools like Figma, Webflow, WordPress…
If you appear in directories for “Webflow experts,” chances are people will contact you. But you need to be smart about it, focus on one topic and platform at a time.
Then get your early customers to write reviews and highlight your expertise in that particular topic. Update your website with that new wave of social proof, get more customers, and repeat all over again.
That’s healthy growth!
7. Get team members involved early on and start building a culture
I’ll close this (hopefully useful) list on an inspirational note.
Agencies have a bit of a bad rep in the creative industry, mostly because of disorganization, 24/7 “putting out fires” mode, not so great pay, etc.
But that doesn’t have to be the norm.
Creative agencies are extremely important to digital economies.
They are the backbone of a lot of what we see and consume online.
And they can be well-organized, well-cultured, and respectful of contributors.
But to get there, you need to want that to be the case.
Being intentional with your decisions to invest in the foundations before you jump straight into work, giving all contributors a voice (use public channels in tools like Slack!), valuing long-term education…
These are all things that will make team members stick.
It’s called “building a culture,” and it’s not just a buzzword.
Agencies (and businesses in general) with strong cultures perform better, are more innovative, they close bigger contracts, are seen as leaders in their fields, and are more confident about their expertise.
Foster this environment and your creative team will rarely underperform.
Bonus step: Have fun with your creative agency and experiment!
When you’re starting an agency, there are things you can’t overlook:
- Proper bookkeeping
- Time management
- Quality control
But when you have a sound foundation, the world truly becomes your oyster.
The steps I’ve outlined come from my own experience starting a small creative agency. What matters are the steps you will take to achieve success.
There is no cookie cutter process to it.
My hope is that you’ll have gained some foundational knowledge on how to both start and keep your agency profitable over many years in this article.
The rest is for you to draw inspiration from.
And if you need a complete solution to start, grow, and manage your creative agency—platforms like ManyRequests are a real boon to the entire process.
Sayonara my friend!