Learn how to take your freelance career to the next level by leveling up into a content marketing agency.
Agencies come in all sizes, from the boutique shops where the owner knows all the clients’ names (like ours) to supersized teams that number in the hundreds or thousands. If you’re a successful freelance writer, you’ve probably worked for several agencies in addition to partnering directly with clients. In some cases, it can be a smooth relationship, while others create a rocky road.
If you’re a strong writer who finds yourself turning down assignments because you’re getting more requests than you can handle, you might start thinking about whether it makes sense to scale up and start an agency of your own.
If you want to ever take a relaxing, fully-off-the-grid vacation? I’d probably think again.
But if you’re comfortable with taking on the stress of juggling a few dozen projects a day for the benefits of building a business on your own terms, here’s my cheat sheet with 11 tips (one for every year we’ve been in business):
When you run an agency, process is crucial, and clients expect you to know what you’re doing (after all, you’ve done this before—right?). Make sure that you’re comfortable with a specific set of tools and a workflow process that you can replicate from one project to the next. Of course, there are going to be times when you need to make an exception for a client, but by creating a default method of moving projects from point A to point B, you’ll take a lot of the stress out of day-to-day decision-making while working on a new client project.
Have a friend you want to go into business with? Tread carefully. Once the agency’s up and running, it’s very difficult to measure who’s paying their dues on a day to day basis, and resentment can breed quickly.
My husband Jeff and I decided early on to operate as business partners, which simplifies things in a lot of ways—there’s no drama about who should take home more, since it all goes in the same collective pot. We avoid conflict by focusing on our core areas: I oversee business development and content strategy for Eucalypt Media, while he handles tech initiatives and is building a new line of business focused around marketing automation. We can provide a sounding board to one another at any time (though the kids get a little bored when it becomes dinner table discussion).
Make sure, if you’re partnering up with a friend or colleague, that you’re crystal-clear on the terms of the engagement, who’s responsible for what, and how you plan to share profits and decide on business expenses. Forbes offers some good suggestions on questions to ask before going into business with a friend.
At some agencies, the principals are merely figureheads who can present a slick Slideshare, but don’t have the relevant background to do the work themselves.
If you’re a successful freelance writer, you’re already a step ahead of the game—but make sure that, for any core service offering, you or one of your partners has the background to oversee the service, and ideally even perform it if necessary. (You never know when an employee’s going to call in sick, or a freelancer will have a family emergency, and you’ll have to dive in.)
My partner Jeff has a background in web development as well as marketing, so, while we rarely offer web development as a client service these days, he’s able to maintain and develop our websites and other technical initiatives easily, saving us tons of money on tech support. Since my background’s in writing and marketing strategy, his serves as an ideal complement. You can go it alone, but make sure that, if you partner up, that you’re both bringing something valuable to the table.
Before you sign a client to your new agency, make sure that you’ve elected a business entity, determined your partnership structure, and developed contracts for your clients, employees, and contractor relationships. You can often find templates online, but it’s often worth sitting down with a good lawyer for an hour or two just to make sure you have all your ducks in a row. A thousand dollars now could save you 10 times that on the other side. This article includes some good terms to make sure that you include in a legal contract for clients.
When you’re an agency, you’re often working with bigger dollar numbers—instead of projects worth a few hundred dollars, you’re working on campaigns worth tens of thousands. That means when something goes wrong, there’s a lot more at stake.
Make sure to get strong insurance policies to protect your business and any employees or contractors you work with. In our case, we purchased a general business liability policy and an errors & omissions policy, which is intended to protect us from legal drama in the event of any unintentional copy errors that are damaging to a client. (No issues there so far, but a good safeguard to have.)
That’s great if you’re a strong generalist—but it doesn’t help you stand out in the crowd as an agency. Find a strong niche where you know you have an edge, whether that’s content for nonprofits, healthcare organizations, educational institutions, or another specialized field. You want clients to seek you out, so make it clear why they should, even if you’re limiting your pool of prospects in the process.
Similarly, make sure you understand when a client’s not a good fit. Maybe it’s not the right industry or the right budget, or maybe your Spidey Sense just starts tingling when you get a way-too-Alpha tone from a prospect on a discovery call. Whatever the case may be, you’ll only get your agency where you want it to be by focusing on the clients you want, not just the ones who want you. Narrow your focus and stick to it.
As a freelancer, you’re probably used to doing whatever it takes to make a client happy. As an agency owner, it’s your job to understand what parts of the job actually need your unique skills and experience to perform, and delegating those that either someone more junior could do, or those that require specialized skills that someone else on your team has.
While it’s important to remain involved with your clients and understand their goals, you should aim to free up as much as your time as possible to focus on your agency’s overall business strategy, and not get stuck spending your days putting out fires.
As you grow a team—whether it’s made up of employees, contractors, or a hybrid—it will take work to keep them happy. Be clear in expectations about how much work you can provide them, what the feedback process will be like, and what the payment schedule will be like. If you hire employees, consider whether a remote work environment might make sense for your team, or consider what other benefits or perks you can provide to make their days more enjoyable. You’re the leader of a team now, so make sure you’re building a culture that will keep them feeling good about contributing.
As a freelancer, you probably already spent a fair bit of time and money on your business development—hiring someone to build you a website, signing up for freelance writing leads forums, and spending unpaid time sending out pitches and LOIs. As an agency owner, you’ll need to take that to the next level: Consider investing in attending (or even speaking at) marketing and industry-focused conferences that align with your business. Invest in a website redesign with a business logo. Invest your time into developing blog posts that share a little bit of your story and vision for your business. Pay for technology tools that make it easier to provide next-level service. And when it comes to talent, invest in getting the best people you can to work with you—strong talent makes all the difference.
Finally, the least sexy tip, but probably the most important of all of them: Make sure you know where your money is at all times.
Follow up on client payment when it’s overdue, and ensure that you’re paying your employees and contractors on schedule. In order to keep a great team in place, you need to pay them not just well, but on time—don’t think you can just wait for the end client to pay you before you pay your freelancers. (A lot of agencies do this, actually, but in my opinion, it’s a crappy business practice that should stop.)
Make sure you have enough in your savings to pay your vendors and business expenses while riding out the slower times—I recommend having at least $10,000 available in a business bank account before officially opening the door, and don’t commit to fixed expenses like employee salaries until you know you have some solid long-term contracts in place. Bad bookkeeping has killed even the best of businesses, so make sure you carefully manage your finances right from the start so there are no surprises.
If you decide to take your business to the next level, best of luck! It’s not for the faint of heart, but when things go well, it can be incredibly rewarding. Navigating your business into a known brand enables you to create something larger than yourself. It can sustain not only yourself and your family, but your employees and contractors as well. It can become a trusted company that your clients will rely on and continue to refer for years to come—maybe it will even become a business that you can pass on to the next generation. (My daughter’s eagerly awaiting her chance to wield the red pen.)
If this article scared you off the idea of starting an agency, freelance work can be fantastic too, as long as you’ve got the right clients. Check out our tips for freelancers on working with agencies, and sign up for our newsletter for more content marketing advice.
Kathryn Hawkins is principal and chief content strategist of Eucalypt Media. She has worked as a freelance journalist for media publications and managed inbound marketing and content strategy for corporate and nonprofit clients for more than 16 years.
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