Running an agency is tough.
In the early days you have to balance finding and winning clients with establishing and nurturing a team that can handle all of the varying tasks and issues that come with client work.
Most agency owners start out with energy, drive, and passion while they win their first few clients and start to put out work.
However, over time, new agency owners often struggle with what comes next: actually growing an agency.
Without a constant influx of clients, agencies struggle to grow and establish themselves in their niche and eventually have to take the tough decision to close shop.
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Why agency growth is difficult
For new agencies, projects can often be all-consuming.
If you start out as a small team, it can be easy to get stuck in the day-to-day and take your eye off the ball.
What’s more, as a new or less-experienced agency owner, chances are you won’t have a deep understanding of the number of leads you need per month or quarter to translate into increased projects and clients.
Failure to focus intently on lead generation, improved pitching and closing, and faster onboarding means stagnant growth and reduced success.
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For new agencies starting out, the focus is often on how to get clients fast, while the need for you to grow your agency is something that happens in the long-term.
Clients are the lifeblood of any agency and each agency needs a fail-proof strategy for attracting, wowing, onboarding, and retaining clients.
The information out there to do this is often confusing, conflicting, and not relevant to your industry.
The best practices for growing an agency can differ depending on the industry your agency operates in. Strategies that work for a design agency are often unlikely to work for a digital marketing agency or a consulting agency. Taking an industry-specific approach to growing your agency is the best route for success.
To help you grow your business, we’ve prepared a practical guide that explains how to get clients for an agency, how to grow your agency once you have clients, and how to sustain your lead generation for future success.
Common growth challenges agencies face
Agencies of all sorts face similar growth challenges that cross industries and affect businesses of all types and sizes.
While more established agencies are usually better at attracting and winning clients based on word-of-mouth or referrals, many long-time agency owners find they need to take a step back and reevaluate their lead generation techniques, pitching strategy, and onboarding and retention to help them level up and continue to grow.
These same problems are shared by smaller agencies just starting out.
Common problems for agencies are:
- Finding new clients
- Pitching processes taking too much time and demanding too many resources
- A slow onboarding process delaying the start of the project
- Client changes slowing projects down and reducing profitability
- Stretched teams leading to reduced project success and reduced client retention
- The lack of a lead generation strategy
- The lack of a repeat business strategy to re-engage existing clients and get them to commit to a new or extended project
- A lack of a referral process, preventing clients from recommending the agency
New agencies also face additional problems that come with all new ventures. Pricing, service packaging, and resourcing problems are well-known and can put a brake on agency growth.
For new agencies, it’s important to establish these foundations early and clearly. Waiting until late in the game only limits the growth you can achieve in a short period of time.
If you’re looking for an in-depth guide to the common problems faced by agencies, we’ve prepared a handy agency problem guide.
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Agency pricing models designed for growth
For new agencies, pricing their services correctly and attractively can cause a headache. With so many different agency pricing models, it can be difficult to work out which one is right for you, and which one leads to the best success.
Typical agency pricing models are:
- Hourly rate
- Value-based pricing
Each has its positives and negatives, and you may find that a combination of the two works to increase your revenue per project and further grow your agency.
For example: combining project-based pricing with an hourly rate for work done above the range of the scope can help your agency be fairly paid for work done while helping the client understand what their charges will be.
Hourly pricing allows you to be compensated for the inevitable extra work that you’ll be doing, and stops your agency from losing money by working on an enlarged client project.
Agency pricing downfalls to avoid
New agency owners typically find out very quickly that even though a client is paying for work, it doesn’t mean that a project will make money.
These agency owners often fall into the trap of charging a flat fee that covers the work they think will happen, but that fails to cover the work that actually happens.
In this case, using an agency time tracker that captures proof of work and records accurate hours for clients and projects can ensure your estimates are based on actuals from a previous project.
For more experienced agency owners, pricing and problems are old-hat.
Time running an agency helps most experienced owners establish their pricing model and fix some of the problems that are holding their agency back. After experiencing the inevitable project delays and the affect this can have on profitability, agency owners more often than not adapt their charing method.
However, no agency is problem-free.
Experienced agency owners know that the route to success is through constant improvement and iteration.
To help you achieve this, we’ve compiled a detailed breakdown of how to grow your agency and win new clients.
A step-by-step guide to getting new clients for every agency
Finding new clients is often the single-most pressing issue for agency owners.
New clients pay the bills, allow you to grow your team, and help you earn a living. These clients also give you a whole load of potential case studies, learning experiences, and opportunities for networking and referrals.
A failure to get new clients is the opposite of gaining a new client: stagnation, stress, mounting bills, stretched teams, and increased pressure.
Discovering how to get new clients is vital for every agency owner. It’s what makes your work possible and helps you survive. But, finding your way of growing your agency can be tough, confusing, full of roadblocks and false starts, and generally demoralizing.
Here are tips for any type of agency.
1. Evaluate your brand
Take a step back and conduct a short brand audit for your agency.
Try to evaluate yourself just as you would a potential client. Come up with your faults, your successes, where you fall short of the mark. Gather your team and run through your findings.
During this process it’s important to be completely transparent and tear apart your agency brand if you need to. Doing so will only help you build it stronger and prepare something more attractive, more interesting, and more worthy of client attention.
Once you’ve run through your findings, put together an action plan broken into the most urgent points to address down to the least urgent.
Then, start to make changes to your agency brand to strengthen it and remove any of the negative attributes you and your team identified.
2. Fix your agency website
Agency websites are the biggest turnoff for prospective clients.
An outdated, slow, cumbersome website isn’t going to impress anybody. Especially if you’re a digital or development agency.
Invest the maximum amount of time and/or money you can in getting your website fixed and looking good.
Potential clients want to see something great when they come looking for an agency to work with. If your website is slow, doesn’t work on mobile, is clearly a template, or fails to show off recent work, clients will bounce right back to their search and carry on finding another agency.
If you aren’t a design or digital agency and need help with your website, there are a range of sites like Toptal, Hubstaff Talent, and Dribbble where you can find people to design or build a fantastic agency website.
3. Stand out on social media
Most agencies have no presence whatsoever on social media. Sometimes even the agencies that are active and posting frequently are terrible at it.
Striking the balance between self-promotion and helpfulness is a hard one and agencies need to use social media to gain a voice, establish themselves as thought-leaders, and improve their visibility within their niche.
When posting on social media don’t be boastful. Share your work, show how it helped your clients, and try to have some authenticity and originality.
Prospective clients want to see examples of your work, so make sure they’re there. Just skip the self-aggrandizing and leave that to other agencies.
Adopt a motto of ‘show, don’t tell’ in all the social media work you do.
To improve your profile on social media, first start by highlighting the platform that would work best for your agency. A design agency focusing their social media talents on LinkedIn is less likely to see success than one that posts regularly on Instagram or Dribbble.
Agency-Platform matches tend to be:
- Design agencies
- Consulting agencies
- Branding agencies
- Creative agencies
For inspiration, look at these agency social media accounts to discover a range of great ideas and techniques.
- AKQA – for great Instagram story inspiration
- Blue Fountain Media – for tasteful and effective self-promotion
- 360i – for a great example of making things a little more human
- Skirt PR – for careful curation inspiration
- R/GA – for clever tweets and a unique point-of-view
4. Implement a client referral scheme
Client referrals are powerful things. Being recommended by a current or past client carries a significant amount of weight that other discovery methods don’t.
Having a client who has spent money with you and worked closely with you on a project recommending you means that they give you a seal of approval almost impossible to obtain otherwise.
In the B2C world, customers referred by someone who has experience with a brand have a lifetime value that’s 25% higher on average than another customer.
This value is matched in the B2B agency world where clients gained through referrals are easier to work with, higher paying, and more likely to drive a project to success.
To kickstart client referrals, implement the following strategy:
- Ask your current clients for referrals
- If you don’t ask, you don’t get. This advice goes for client referrals.
- Speak to your best performing clients. Ask the ones you’ve provided the most value to if they know of anyone in their network who needs the services you offer.
- Ask them to reach out and create an introduction.
- Ask them if they would provide a helpful testimonial to accompany their introduction.
- Add a line to your signature explaining the value of referrals
- Providing a small nudge to suggest your clients refer you to others in their network can work to help provide referrals in a less pushy and more appropriate way.
- Implement a client referral program
- Incentivize your clients to refer you.
- Reward your existing clients with discounts or additional services if they refer you or provide you with new clients.
5. Build relationships
All good agencies are built on relationships. Relationships help increase the chance of you gaining direct inquiries and referrals, and help raise your profile within the industry.
To build relationships, look to join local business groups in your area, seek out relevant conferences, meetups, and event sessions.
Reach out to other agency owners and those in your niche, and attempt to establish regular catch-up and networking sessions.
As your network of relationships grows, so will your client list.
6. Get creative with your marketing
Agency marketing is almost always dull. Don’t be dull. After all, this is your area of expertise.
To win and attract new clients, get creative with your marketing.
Coming up with interesting, exciting, and new ways of marketing your agency can help draw significant attention and inbound enquiries.
Create exciting, interesting content that captivates and surprises.
Way back in 2011, Toronto-based John St. created a satirical video showing off their newly created Catvertising studio.
Combining relevant messaging that spoke to their target audience along with hilarious execution, Catvertising reached far and wide and introduced their agency to millions around the world.
With a total of 2.45 million views, Catvertising is a prime example of a highly creative marketing campaign perfect for helping you grow your agency.
If your budget is a little more limited, think smaller and come up with exciting, playful, and relevant advertising for your agency. Think social media with all you do and make sure to keep it authentic.
7. Prepare a perfect portfolio
Agency portfolios are a major tool in the sales arsenal, but so many agencies have portfolios that aren’t optimized, difficult to read, and a little boring for prospective clients.
Investing in your portfolio is one of the best ways to attract new clients and convert existing leads.
Portfolios allow you to present your very best work in a captivating, interesting, and powerful way that drives intent and increases conversions.
To improve your portfolio, look to invest in design services to transform your case studies, content overviews, and awards into an eye-catching, effective, and powerful document.
Here are examples of great agency portfolios to inspire your next portfolio design review:
- Stupid Studio – translating a great agency name into an effective portfolio
- Noformat – a concise and effective portfolio website
- TenTwenty – a straightforward results- and brand-driven approach
Creative portfolios hosted on your website allow you to track performance and see how engaging your content is.
Using analytics, retargeting pixels, and on-site behavior tracking, your agency can evaluate and iterate your digital portfolio to become more successful and effective.
8. Grow your agency by going remote
Cast off all ties, open your horizons to the entire world, and go remote.
Making your agency work remotely has significant benefits that can help you grow dramatically. Not limiting your hiring pool to your geographic location means being able to tap into the world’s top-tier talent and candidates perfect for your projects.
Boundary-free hiring allows you to take your current financial resources and expand your team. A remote team means a lack of a physical location and the high cost of rents associated with office locations.
Not to mention what you’ll save by not having to buy an agency ping pong table, kegerator, or artist-drawn mural.
With remote work you can strategically approach clients across the world and hire freelancers in their location to help with on-site requirements.
Becoming a remote agency opens your agency up to far larger possibilities than confining yourself to one geographic location.
In addition to these general tips, there are steps you can take depending on the type of agency you run.
How to grow an advertising agency
In addition to the steps above, advertising agencies can take extra steps to separate themselves from the crowd and attract clients.
To show off your skills and attract clients through your work itself, dedicate some of your resources each month to creating short or concept campaigns to pitch to clients prospectively.
This extra step shows your willingness, dedication, and creativity.
While this practice isn’t uncommon for advertising agencies, few actually take the time to prospectively pitch potential clients with fully fleshed concepts or campaigns.
Doing so sets you out as an agency that goes above and beyond.
Start social advertising
If you’re an agency with social advertising speciality, turn your skills around to yourself. Take campaigns you’ve created, mash up your showreel, and turn them into targeted social ads.
With microtargeting, you can be hyper-specific with your location, interest, and behavior targeting. Target the streets and offices in and around your target client’s locations and run a series of ads targeted to drive interest and brand awareness.
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How to grow a consulting agency
Give your advice for free
This may sound incredibly counterintuitive but giving your advice away for free is often a great way of showcasing your expertise and getting clients.
Blogging and guest blogging is a fantastic way of showcasing your skills, knowledge, and experience to a large audience looking for your expertise.
While writing out your strategies for the world to see may seem like giving away trade secrets, you’ll find that very few people who read your words will carry out your strategies.
Instead, prospective clients will see you and your agency as a go-to industry insider with in-depth knowledge and an ability to execute.
Look for blogs in consulting, like Econsultancy, that specialize in your area and pitch them with ideas for articles, guides, and more.
How to grow a design agency
Showcase, showcase, showcase
Design is visual and it needs to be shared. To get your work out there, target key visual platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Dribbble and share your designs frequently.
Each time you complete a project, share your work on your website and these platforms to establish brand awareness within your niche.
Sharing your design work is a great way to attract new inquiries and encourage new clients.
Festive and seasonal occasions are a great time to share exciting, original, and creative designs.
Create a calendar of relevant events where you can add an interesting design flair with motion graphics, animations, unique website designs, flyers, and more.
Then, take the time to create original and creative work that’s relevant to the season and share it on Instagram, Pinterest, Dribbble, and Twitter, Make sure to use the right tags to help increase your exposure.
How to grow a digital marketing agency
Respond to PR requests
Journalists are like all of us, they appreciate it when others make their life easier.
Many journalists tweet asking for interviews, responses, and help with articles they’re writing that are in the digital marketing or advertising niche.
Seek out these requests by monitoring #JournoRequest on Twitter and find helpful and insightful ways to respond while at the same time promoting your agency.
Time is often of the essence, so make sure to respond quickly and always ask what the deadline is.
Doing so can help place you in top publications and help drive potential clients to your door.
Start growing your agency today
The steps above can help drive targeted interest in your agency, help create buzz and awareness, and drive targeted high-quality clients to your door.
Each step works in isolation but the best agencies find ways to combine them to create highly effective client acquisition campaigns that elevate the brand.
When it comes to building out your website, running targeted ad campaigns, or leveraging skills your agency doesn’t have in-house, look to sites like Hubstaff Talent to source high-quality freelancers who can help implement campaigns for you quickly and effectively.
For bonus information, check out our podcast with Jason Swenk to discover more systems to implement to grow your agency.