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When you’ve got a whole team working at your agency, you have to make sure that you have enough projects to keep them all busy. If you don’t, idle employees can hurt your bottom line and freelancers can go elsewhere. But some of the problems that go along with freelancing — particularly the feast and famine cycles — are present in agencies, only written bigger.
As a general rule, a freelancer shouldn’t even consider establishing an agency until she’s consistently overwhelmed with work of her own. That’s the easiest way to know that you’ll have enough work to at least start bringing another person on board. But you’re going to have to shift your client attraction strategies to bring in big work more often.
What Work Are You Looking For?
The basis of effective marketing is knowing exactly who you’re trying to reach. If you’ve done well as a freelancer, you probably have a good idea of what type of clients you want to work with, as well as what type of clients want to work with you.
In many cases, agencies have to look for clients with bigger budgets than freelancers need to, so that they can make sure that they’re bringing in enough to pay all of the members of the team.
You won’t have to entirely start over when running an agency, but you’ll come close. Even if you stick to similar projects, you’re going to need to focus on clients who will be interested in working with an agency over an individual freelancer. You’ll need to decide what that means in your particular niche.
You’ll also want to think about what type of money you’re going to need to bring in on projects and what that implies about the budgets of any new clients you’re going to work with. In many cases, agencies have to look for clients with bigger budgets than freelancers need to, so that they can make sure that they’re bringing in enough to pay all of the members of the team. That’s not universal — an agency that takes on several very similar small projects can offer a certain economy of scale to its clients — but it is something you need to consider before launching an agency of your own. You need to know what work is going to pay the necessary rates to maintain your agency and even make it a success.
There’s also a question of personal preference. As the head of an agency, you’re going to get to do less creative work than you did as a freelancer. It only makes sense to set things up so that you get exactly your favorite sections of projects to work on, even if that is just a small section of what you did in the past. Choosing the work your agency will focus on may very well be a question of identifying which projects have those fun bits.
What Are You Offering Your Clients?
At the end of the day, most clients are after results, rather than finished projects. They want to know how your agency is going to help them land more clients, make more money or do whatever it is that your clients do. That means you need to be able to tell them what you will do differently from the other agencies that they might consider.
You need to be able to show them the results you achieved in the past. You need to tell them why they absolutely need to hire you, even during the time when your agency is brand new and doesn’t have a lot of history to show.
Luckily, you’ll be able to draw on your portfolio as a freelancer. If you’ve got a freelancer or two in mind for potential team members, you may be able to draw on their portfolios as well. It may not quite fit exactly with what a prospective client will be looking for, but it can give you a good start until you start completing projects through your agency. You also already have the experience to work through this question fairly quickly. You know what’s worked for you in the past and you’re most likely just going to move into doing that on a grander scale.
But do some research just in case. Make sure the results you can offer are in line with what larger clients or a wide variety of clients are going to be interested in. Just as you may have needed to take a few clients at a lower rate when you were starting out as a freelancer, you may need to offer your agency’s services inexpensively to work out the bumps in exactly what you’re promising your clients.
Where Can You Find Your Clients?
The secret to marketing, on any level, is to find out where your clients are going to be and then be there too. That can mean showing up at the same networking events, writing for industry blogs and a variety of other marketing techniques. You may have mastered interacting with a small number of clients as a freelancer, but you’re going to have to start thinking more in bulk to keep an agency busy, as well as to help it grow.
You may have mastered interacting with a small number of clients as a freelancer, but you’re going to have to start thinking more in bulk to keep an agency busy, as well as to help it grow.
While you can (and should) do some very targeted marketing to the companies that you know you want to work with, you also need to make a point of being easy to find for companies who you aren’t already familiar with. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to employ traditional marketing methods, but it does mean that you need to think about where you can get your agency’s name in front of the most interested buyers at one time.
One of the classic options is to start speaking at the industry conferences your prospective clients attend (an added benefit is that once you start building a team, you can send them to conferences to speak about the topics they’re expert in).
You may need to go outside your geographical location to build up your clientele. If you’re working in a specific area and you just aren’t getting the necessary results, look further afield. Just how distant of clients you can land may depend more on your industry than anything else.
If an industry, as a whole, is comfortable working virtually with teams, it can be easier to convince specific clients that you’ll be easy to work with. But some companies greatly prefer to work either with local (to them) agencies or agencies based where their target markets are. Until you research the industry, it’s hard to tell which way a specific niche comes down.
Who is the Decision Maker?
One of the key differences that you’ll encounter in dealing with larger clients is that you’ll need to identify the decision maker. At a small business, it’s generally pretty obvious: the owner is going to decide who gets any creative project. A few other people might get a say, but there aren’t many.
The bigger the company you work with, the more likely there are to be many layers of stakeholders and a less clearly identifiable decision maker. Officially, many such decisions are made by committee, but there’s often a manager who at least narrows the options down dramatically.
That means that you’ll need to network differently, as well as modify other parts of your standard marketing approach. You’re going to need multiple connections at any big organization you want to work with, including at least one person who you’re close enough with to get the inside scoop on who actually chooses creative agencies. It’s not impossible to figure out this information from organizational charts, but not all decision makers are clearly titled as such. Focused networking meetings (like those that are industry-specific) and social networking sites devoted to business will be your friends in this endeavor.
You’ll also have to think more about what marketing materials are going to appeal to the decision makers you’re dealing with. A small business owner knows all the different metrics of success for her company and her industry because she has to deal with every element. When you’re dealing with more specialized managers, you’re going to need to focus on the type of results they worry about. A marketing manager wants to see the company’s bottom line go up, for instance, but he may care just as much about how many visitors are landing on the company’s website — that’s the metric his bosses will ask him about, after all.
How Much Work Do You Actually Need?
Before you jump in the deep end, make sure you’ve got an idea of how much work your team can actually handle in a given period of time. If you get the gears of your marketing machine running correctly, you can overwhelm your agency with work.
It’s a good problem to have, but considering how long it can take to add a new team member to the mix, you want to be very careful about taking on too much. You don’t, after all, want the quality of your work to suffer.