The One and Only Secret to Creating a Fantastic Marketing Agency

If you run a marketing agency or you work in one you know that there is really only one secret to running a fantastic agency. In fact, like the meth operation masquerading as a laundry service in Breaking Bad, it’s the kind of secret that hides in plain sight. The secret is this: if you want to have a great agency, you need to pick great clients.

But you already knew that, didn’t you? The quality of your clients is directly proportional to the happiness of your employees. If your employees love your clients and their businesses they will continually give more than is asked of them. If your employees love your clients, they will brag to their friends about the work they do. They will share the outcomes of your work on social media. If your employees love your clients, they will sustain all kinds of pressure, demands, and difficult conditions. If your employees love your clients your employees will love your agency.

The way I came to this fairly obvious conclusion was twofold: first, when I launched my own agency at the ripe old age of 33, I kind of already knew I didn’t want to spend time working for businesses or causes I didn’t believe in or for people who wouldn’t appreciate my work. Creating an agency was an opportunity to have my toes in many different projects and find continual stimulation through the challenge of finding new ways to connect brands and audiences. Marketing in its essence is creative communications, and the cross-fertilisation that came from dealing with a diverse clientele was enriching and motivating: I go to bed at night thinking about new strategies and tactics for clients; in the mornings I’m often rushing myself to shower and get dressed not because I have an early meeting, but because I am eager to get back to helping drive my clients’ goals. I reckoned and reckon that if I am going to go out on a limb and risk my savings on a business, I don’t want to dedicate hours to people and projects I don’t believe in. Now, if I fail, at least the fall will be broken by the knowledge that I was true to myself in the process.

Once the agency got up and running and I started recruiting top talent I saw the way my star employees reacted to individuals who treated us as service providers and not invested partners. The difference is palatable: when in client meetings with partners we love my team is animated and energetic. They can hardly contain their eagerness to share results, discuss ideas, and explore problems. When in client meetings with partners we don’t like my team sometimes goes silent. Many keep their heads down, nodding on queue and speaking only when spoken to. Energy levels drop to zero.

Putting 2+2 together, I started scouting clients whose business models would delight my team and interviewing prospects with the same voracity with which they interview me. Seeking validation, I spoke to a friend and the founder of the very admirable @istrategylabs Peter Corbett ✈ and his words were as comforting as a feather pillow after a long jail sentence: “I say No far more than I say Yes.” If you’re going to build a great agency, you need to say no more than you say yes.

The juggling act, of course, is that I have business partners and I have financial goals. As a result, I have to dig deeper to find good prospects and spend more time with people I think we can work with. Nonetheless, by ensuring that our clients are people my team and I can actually get passionate about I feel more confident in my ability to attract and retain top talent. I feel more confident that we will continually push ourselves farther in achieving the quality of work we feel proud of, and I know my team will come to work everyday knowing that, even when we’re stretched to achieve results we are unified in knowing exactly why we are doing what we are doing. The payback will be enormous: after hiring a creative director and giving him his first project he said to me, “I have been working in marketing for 10 years, and for 10 years I have been waiting for a project like this to work on.” Booyakasha.

En fin, if you’re building an agency in order to have a platform to make art and express yourself creatively, you owe it to yourself and the people you recruit to find clients you love working for. Let’s let the jackasses work with shitty agencies that seek profit above all else, and instead focus on those people whose products, services and causes deserve the sweat and dedication we are willing to give. If you do otherwise entrepreneurship just becomes a high-risk shitty job, and the market has a lot of better-paying low-risk shitty jobs, if that’s what you’re into. If you work or run an agency, remember that we could all be in those blissful years before cancer strikes. Let’s make them count. Let’s make things that are beautiful for people who are beautiful. Do it for them. Do it for yourself.

Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is the CEO of Céntrico Digital, a boutique digital agency focused on Latin America and based in Quito, Ecuador.

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