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Sector spotlight: marketing agencies

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Marketing agencies come in many shapes and sizes, particularly as the digital age has increased the number of media outlets through which marketing can be carried out.

Creative agencies are charged with producing the Big Idea. They devise a communications strategy in three stages: identifying who the customer is, what to say to them and how to say it.

Media agencies coordinate the last stage - the 'how' - identifying the best, most cost-effective media for transmitting the message to the customer, whether through TV or radio advertisements, printed advertorial, sponsorship, events, the internet, email or SMS text messaging.

Digital agencies can be creative, media or a mixture of both. Characterised by an emphasis on digital technologies, they use internet marketing, interactive TV and mobile and email marketing, among other media.

Some agencies concentrate on direct marketing, the effectiveness of which can be tracked easily as the customer is asked to ring a freephone number, email, visit a website, return an order form, complete a survey, etcetera.

Former M&C Saatchi employee Tim Clyde decided he wanted his company to be a jack of all marketing trades.

"We provide a one-stop shop, which is why it's called the Minimart," explains Clyde. "We do anything from the web through to the production of TV commercials.

"If the client wants web design we have in-house programmers. We don't even outsource directors and photographers and so on - we actually make all the ads in-house."

As an agency of all the talents, says Clyde, the Minimart is best suited to small businesses, which get an integrated service and a consistent message.

A business partner must be able to contribute, such as by bringing a wealth of client contacts through another industry, or bringing another dimension to the business

Tim Clyde, co-founder of The Minimart

"With the traditional model you have an advertising agency, a media agency, a PR agency, a digital agency and an online agency all working together.

"But of course they don't really work together; they're all separate companies bidding for as much of the cake as possible. For a smaller client, we can facilitate all those bits of thinking and help cut the cake accordingly."

Wealth of contacts

You might think about setting up your agency with someone else, as this gives you an 'objective other' to bounce ideas off - invaluable in creative industries.

Clyde, who set up the Minimart with one-time Saatchi & Saatchi employee Ed Chilcott, says: "A business partner must be able to contribute, such as by bringing a wealth of client contacts through another industry, or bringing another dimension to the business. If they knew all about plumbing, then you could be the best marketing agency for plumbing companies in the world."

Advertising and marketing is all about creating and disseminating positive images, so it stands to reason that agencies are sometimes preoccupied with their own. But it's important to think before you follow the crowd.

"We had no need for an expensive, lavish office in Soho," says Clyde, a reference to the opulence of the M&C Saatchi headquarters. "Instead we just set ourselves up in a house in Battersea."

First impressions count, but delivering a good service is the bottom line, and you can do that best if you spend more on hiring the best staff and less on the postcode of your office. But, of course, to attract talented staff you'll need to provide a pleasant, comfortable working environment, so a balance needs to be struck.


Getting the first few clients in is a whole lot easier if you've been in the game a while.

"In some ways I possibly started out too early, as I was only 30 or 31," says Clyde. "We suffered a few hard months to begin with.

"Some of the guys who set up agencies in their early 50s have such great contacts that they immediately start with a massive client. We're going to have to slowly climb the ladder before we're big enough to take on British Gas.

"You get to the point where your clients are your friends, where they will be loyal to you. If you can achieve that in five years then off you go on your own. If it takes 30 years, do it then."

Many agencies wisely write clauses into employees' contracts prohibiting them from taking clients to a new business for a certain period. But whether you can work with them immediately or not, ex-clients can still be useful.

"We found we had a lot of friendly contacts who we could turn to and bounce ideas off," explains the Minimart co-founder Ed Chilcott.

"Buying the people"

To reverse a well-known saying, it's not just who you know, it's what you know - and what your employees know. With a marketing agency, expertise and creativity are everything, and you need to bear this in mind if you buy a company.

"Usually when you buy a business there is a multiplier of the annual profit to determine the value of the company," explains Clyde. "In our industry it's lower than a lot of others because you're buying the people."

If you are thinking of buying a company (perhaps the one you work for already), then Clyde has some words of advice.

"If you're going to pay the partners off, then you're going to have to tie them in to work for you for at least three years, otherwise clients will just walk with them. It's a massive client-relationship business."

As long as you have sufficient expertise and contacts, there are few barriers to entering the marketing business.

"Overheads are fairly low because you're only paying for your people," says Clyde. "There are no manufacturing costs. However, on the media side there are barriers to entry, because you have to have certain contracts in place and deals with TV companies before you can buy any airtime."

Mixed blessing

As with all other industries, technological advances have made every aspect of running a marketing agency quicker, easier and slicker. And yet, cutting edge technology has been a mixed blessing.

"In the good old days before we had computers, we'd have timing plans where you'd expect an agency to take a month or two months to create some concepts," recalls Clyde. "Now the expectation is that you can reply to an email within the hour, because if you're not in the office then you can be on your BlackBerry, so the demand from clients is much higher."

Running a marketing agency you'll have to oversee and coordinate all of its many functions, including design, print, consultancy, PR, copywriting, photography, project management, database development, web design and even event management. You'll also have to prioritise projects, apportioning budgets accordingly and ensuring clients' expectations are managed and met.

You'll have to deal with everyday business details without losing the zest and imagination to keep grabbing people's attention in an age saturated with marketing. It's a fast-changing business and you need to keep up - or set the pace yourself.

Working in marketing puts you on the cutting edge of technology - you can't afford not to be - and is also incredibly creative. Working for someone else sometimes places constraints on this creativity, because you do not have complete sovereignty over who your clients are or what you're going to deliver for them.

Of course, it's not easy running your own agency - but then again the most enjoyable challenges in life very rarely are.

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