Jeremy Jackson, Founder of SKY Marketing Consultants.
It’s an age-old adage, particularly for marketers, that you can’t be everything to everybody. Yet I’ve met hundreds of marketing agency professionals over the last decade, and I can count on one hand how many of those professionals had a niche they served.
I can think of dozens of agency owners, however, who started out with a business plan targeting a niche — microbreweries, outdoor brands, health care, etc. — but when their ambitious startup sales goals didn’t quite meet expectations, they resorted to a strategy that amounts to “I’ll do your laundry and wash your car, as well as manage your digital marketing needs.”
I know three marketing agency owners who closed their doors in the last 12 months, all of whom I witnessed expand their offerings more and more over a steady decline before closing their doors. All three of these folks reached out to me for advice on how to grow and sustain their businesses, and all three received the same recommendation: Hone in on your specialty rather than expand away from it. All three ignored that advice, mainly out of fear or desperation.
I’m not a perfect agency owner, and I can relate to the fear and consternation these former owners felt. Starting and maintaining a marketing agency is an enormously difficult endeavor with countless obstacles, and I have my own list of challenges, missteps and outright foolish moves. I believe, however, that the discipline with which we’ve addressed this particular “niche” challenge has smoothed away a lot of other challenges we’ve faced over the years. It takes a ton of patience and discipline, but it works.
I know firsthand how appealing it is to offer any and all services to a potential client when bills need to be paid and your startup’s outlook is murky. But I always go back to the mantra that played repeatedly in my head when I decided to quit my promising corporate career (and paycheck) to start a small, boutique marketing agency: I’d rather fail on my own terms than allow someone else to set my terms for me.
Like many agency owners, I knew the time had arrived to start my business when I felt wholeheartedly that if my business failed (and my personal finances along with it), I’d still be 100% happy I tried. The same feeling enters my brain every time a potential client outside my niche dangles a large engagement in front of me, or an existing client requests an expanded service that I can’t say truthfully, “Yes, we can do this because we are the absolute best at it.”
The rule at my agency is simple: Don’t take on any work unless we feel we are the best at it. We’ve turned down six-figure engagements when we desperately needed the revenue. We stuck to our principles, even if it meant passing on projects that were large but outside of our scope. Over and over again, we’ve chosen to remain true to our specialty and remain in our niche.
By no means am I implying that agencies should stop growing or expanding. Creative people love challenges and learning new things, as they should. In fact, the team at my agency has had to become experts in new areas because the industry we serve continues to evolve. But disciplined growth is always better than desperate growth. If the industry you serve is changing or you’re attracted to something new in marketing, make yourself and/or your team (through training or hiring) a master in that new discipline before pitching that service to prospects or clients. Clients hire agencies for their expertise, not their desire to expand their own revenue. And there’s nothing that spells death for an agency more than losing the confidence of a client who realizes you don’t know as much as you’ve claimed to know.
My advice to any agency owner — new, seasoned veteran or somewhere in between — is the same: Serve a niche and stick to the services you can confidently claim to be the best at. Ride that wave with optimism and confidence, and don’t let the stormy weather send you drifting miles away from where you started.
Be a specialist, not a generalist.