5 lessons I’ve learnt from 5 years of running a content marketing agency

It seems like just yesterday that I set up Isoline Communications, a tech B2B content marketing agency. It’s been a wild, fun ride over these five years, with lessons aplenty along the way. If you’re a freelancer reading this, I hope that some of my experiences running a content marketing agency over the past 5 years will offer you guidance in working with clients.

1. Pick a niche

This is a tough one. If you’re like me, you probably think you can turn your hand to literally anything within your overall sector. As a marketer who has worked in advertising, web design, below-the-line and PR in five countries over the past 25 years, I sure thought I could. And this is a mistake many start-up agencies make – never being able to say, ‘we don’t do that’.  Most agencies just offer everything, but in my opinion, this approach comes from insecurity – I don’t want to turn away customers, and what if the work I’m turning down is going to lose me my biggest possible client?

My experience is that you should figure out what you want to offer – make sure your process is thorough, though – and stick with that niche. We decided on day one to offer content marketing for tech B2B companies – and that’s the only thing we do. This has allowed us to build a bank of expertise that’s unrivalled in the industry, and really create an offering that makes sense to clients.

2. Don’t be too proud to pivot

I’ve said a whole lot about picking a niche. The reality is that sometimes, you get this wrong. You’re targeting the wrong clients. You’re offering the wrong services. Your price point is wrong. Your premise itself is wrong. Here’s a little secret: loads of people starting companies get one or more of these things wrong, too. Yes, it makes sense to stick with your plan for a period of time, to stress-test it as it were. But if the signs are clear that you’re not making headway, don’t be afraid to pivot to a new model, approach or proposition. If you find yourself refusing to do so, consider your own motivations carefully. Is your conviction genuine, or are you just holding on out of a false sense of pride?

In my case, I did a whole lot of ideation and thinking on the basis of conversations with colleagues, clients and journalists who were watching the industry grow and evolve. As a service, it was relatively easy to set up the company, but the more challenging task was to define the scope of service and a business model.

My approach was very much trial and error: it took about nine months before I finally worked out the scope of service and the company as it is today was launched.

3. Think small – at first

Don’t start off by thinking huge thoughts like ‘I must prove myself’ or ‘This is make-or-break time’. That will just feed into self-doubt and uncertainty, sometimes preventing you from taking the plunge. Instead, tell yourself: ‘I am going to try this for five years and in five years if I can achieve xxxx, I will try it for another five.’ This takes the pressure off your decision. Once you’ve taken the plunge, trust me, you will often know instinctively what needs to be done today, and tomorrow, and the day after. And then you can start thinking bigger.

The same principle applies when you’re taking on client projects. We all want huge, definitive client accounts and campaigns that win awards. The reality is that nobody is going to entrust an upstart start-up with those kinds of funds. Do a great job on a pilot project, then expand.

4. Push for excellence

When you’re starting off, your reputation and the habits you establish become the norm for your company. So always, always strive to be the very best you can be at your business – whether you’re launching an app, or writing content, or bringing a physical product to market. Put in the hours, and don’t be afraid to push your employees, partners and suppliers to achieve the standards that you expect.

Gaining a reputation for excellence is also a good idea if you want to be able to occupy a premium proposition. But remember – if you’re expecting your employees to go above and beyond, you need to support and incentivise them accordingly. Here’s the downside to positioning in a niche that’s rare to find: it’s very difficult to create a team with the right skill set!

5. Ask for help

I started my own agency in a country half a world away from where I was born, and if you’re like me, or even different from me, you’re going to need help. Ask people for it! The one thing I have been constantly amazed at how many people are more than happy to give you their time, expertise and the benefit of their experience.

An hour with someone in my ‘support group’ is a rich source of inspiration, action points, ideas and more. And in return, practice being kind – even when you’re disappointed. To yourself and your team, if you haven’t achieved what you were hoping to, or lost that pitch you were really confident about. It all adds up to good karma in the long run, so practice it.


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Five lessons I’ve learnt from five years of running a content marketing agency About the Author

Anu Ramani, Managing Director and Founder, Isoline Communications