In 2024, the digital marketing landscape is brimming with opportunity, driven by over $660 billion in digital marketing and advertising spend. However, the last few years have been challenging for bigger marketing agencies, first due to the pandemic and then to the arrival of AI. Many of these companies were forced to gut their senior staff, along with many of their most experienced creatives and specialists.

That collective brainpower, skill, and experience is now floating around unemployed or self-employed as freelancers. And given the fees and expectations on platforms like Upwork, many are barely scraping by.

I believe the smart marketers who can see this dynamic within the industry and who want to take advantage of the opportunity it represents, should start a digital marketing consultancy -a marketing agency- and collaborate with other independent marketers to compete for bigger, juicier clients.

To that end, this guide will help you evaluate your readiness to start and operate a successful agency by exploring the essential skills required, ways to up-skill quickly to fill knowledge gaps, and strategies for launching your own digital marketing consultancy.

Freelancing vs Starting An Agency: Why Is An Agency Better?

Both paths offer unique advantages and challenges, but let’s compare freelancing to starting an agency to see why I’m such a believer in this approach.

Operating as a Freelancer

As a freelancer, you enjoy significant flexibility in choosing projects that align with your interests and can manage your schedule to fit your lifestyle, easily. No one but the client is relying on you for input and you can maintain just the number of clients you need to reach your income goals.

This independence, and simplicity, is appealing for those starting out, because it affords them independence without the added responsibilities of managing a team and driving enough business to pay everyone’s salaries.

What Freelancing Is Like:

  • Direct Client Relationships: You handle every aspect of client communications, project execution, and billing.
  • A Handful Clients Is Enough: A handful of clients and you’re (hopefully) making pretty good money.
  • Limited Resources and Reach: Your capacity to handle large-scale projects is limited by your individual capabilities and time.

Freelancing is ideally suited for digital marketers who prefer to work solo, specialize in a specific niche, or those who are still building their reputation and client base in the industry.

Running a Digital Marketing Agency

Transitioning from a freelancer to an agency owner represents a significant shift in your ability to scale your business. Operating as an agency allows you to leverage skills beyond your own, increasing the scope and number of projects you can manage simultaneously.

What’s Different About Running An Agency:

  • Expanded Capacity: With the option to collaborate with a variety of specialists, you can offer a wider range of services and tackle larger, more complex campaigns.
  • Increased Revenue Potential: Handling multiple clients and projects can significantly boost your earnings compared to working as a single freelancer.
  • Broader Skill Set and Creativity: A team brings diverse perspectives and skills, enhancing creativity and innovation in your service offerings.

However, running an agency involves greater responsibilities including team management, more sophisticated operational systems, and a higher volume of client interactions. The transition requires careful planning, consistency, and effective communication to ensure all the many needs of a growing client base are served effectively.

Stepping into Agency Ownership

If you are driven by the opportunity to create greater financial rewards and also by collaboration, and continuous growth, up-skilling from freelance marketer to marketing agency owner represents one your best hopes to turn a profit quickly, starting with your existing skill set.

If you’re ready to make this transition and to, not only be the boss, but earn like a boss, then the first order of your new dream business needs to be assessing your skills and your readiness to start the journey ahead.

Start by looking over these essential skills and rating yourself (no judgement here) on how you can perform professionally in this area today. Then we’ll discuss what you can do to fill any knowledge gaps very quickly.

Catalog of Essential Skills for Aspiring Consultants

  1. SEO and SEM Mastery
    • Self-Assessment: How do your rate your knowledge in optimizing websites and managing Google Adwords campaigns?
    • Importance: SEO / SEM are two of the largest drivers of website traffic, making these offerings crucial for any digital marketing business.
  2. Content Marketing Expertise
    • Self-Assessment: How competent are you at developing content that aligns with a brand’s goals and attracts a relevant and engaged audience?
    • Importance: Content is the fuel for digital marketing campaigns and is crucial for building trust and engaging with customers. Honing content marketing skills is essential because content is how brands exert influence at every step of the customer journey.
  3. Social Media Proficiency
    • Self-Assessment: Can you effectively manage a brand’s presence across various social media platforms and grow their followings?
    • Importance: With every platform prioritizing slightly different styles of content with their unique algorithms, the landscape of social media is anything but stable. It takes immersion in each of these platforms, and original creativity, to to succeed in social when so many fail.
  4. Email Marketing Skills
    • Self-Assessment: Are you capable of creating email campaigns that motivate readers to take action?
    • Importance: Email is the primary direct marketing channel in use today because of its typically high engagement rates but only emails that trigger emotional responses will be high-performers.
  5. Analytical Skills
    • Self-Assessment: Are you proficient with tools like Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, Databox, and other reporting platforms?
    • Importance: The ability to accurately track, measure, and interpret campaign data is essential for assessing and optimizing campaign results. Marketing is just guessing without data and data is meaningless without the skills to interpret it correctly.
  6. Project Management
    • Self-Assessment: Are you able to manage multiple projects, with lots of moving pieces, from start to finish while keeping them on track and within budget?
    • Importance: Effective project management is essential to ensure that campaigns are delivered efficiently and meet client expectations. This is what costs most agencies their profit margin.
  7. Communication and Negotiation
    • Self-Assessment: How effectively can you communicate your marketing ideas, negotiate contracts, and maintain client relationships?
    • Importance: Strong communication skills are vital for selling services, managing client relationships, networking, and representing your brand. Setting expectations and delivering on them consistently is a separate learned skill, not a result of your talents in doing the work.
  8. Adaptability and Lifelong Learning
    • Self-Assessment: Do you actively seek out new marketing trends and continuously update your skills?
    • Importance: The digital marketing field is dynamic, making adaptability and continuous learning essential for staying relevant. Without a hunger for knowledge and a passion for marketing it quickly becomes impossible to keep up.

Filling Your Knowledge Gaps

After reviewing this list, if you find gaps in your skills, don’t worry and don’t let it slow you down. With the resources for learning available online anyone who’s properly motivated can learn a new skill in weeks to months, instead of years.

You’ve got great options to choose from like online courses offered by platforms like Coursera and Udemy, watching YouTube tutorials, engaging with marketing experts on TikTok or Twitter, and utilizing tools like ChatGPT, to supply you with endless educational content.

The only question is how much can you absorb, retain, and apply effectively. Just watching videos and listening to podcasts isn’t going to actually develop the skills in you. You need to have some way to put what you’re learning into practice so that it sticks and becomes a natural part of the way you work.

The best way to do this is with real, actual work projects. Of course, you don’t want to sell yourself as an expert in something when you’re not so this works best when you’re experimenting with existing clients. You can either talk them into letting your try something for a discount on your time or just bonus them a little extra work (only when there’s no chance your experiment could harm their brand, of course).

Improve Your Sales EQ

The biggest difference between a freelancer and an agency is in the way that clients are sold and managed. As a freelancer you want to find a couple of big clients and ride them forever, only selling when you have to, because it takes away from your billable hours (how you make money).

Profitable agencies do exactly the opposite. They never stop selling because profit is made by the arbitrage of labor for output, on a margin. You aren’t necessarily doing the work yourself, your primary responsibility is selling and managing accounts.

You are selling results, not time, and revenue increases by the number of projects you deliver not by how much time you spend on the work.

This is a big difference (and one that comes with a lot of upside) and it requires a different set of skills and a very different way of looking at sales and business development. Freelancers hate selling because it takes away from their ability to earn. Agency owners LOVE selling because it scales their ability to earn.

So you want to get very good at sales and, especially if you come from a freelancing or corporate background, you want to get over any negative feelings you have about selling.

If you are halfway decent at marketing but good at sales, you will get rich. If you are excellent at marketing and hate to sell, you’re doomed to fail.

Embrace the expert seller within you. Genuine expertise makes selling easier and more pleasant -more like helping people and getting paid for it. Adopt this perspective to thrive as an agency owner.

Taking Your First Steps On The Path To Independence

Starting your own digital marketing consultancy offers more than just an escape from traditional employment; it opens up a very reliable path to personal fulfillment and financial independence.

It’s very likely that you will have to invest some time (and maybe a little money) into improving your skills. Important new hard skills and soft skills are required to succeed in this transition but you’ll find exercising these new muscles rounds out your experience as a business person in a way that is extremely beneficial, on the whole.

It’s a long journey that covers a lot of new territory but if you look at this as an adventure and an opportunity for growth, you will create a prosperous and enduring business. Remember, every skill you need can be learned, and every challenge can be overcome with persistence and the right strategy.

If you’re ready to take those first, daunting steps towards financial independence but you’d like a little extra support from someone whose been there before, don’t hesitate to reach out to me with your questions, and you can also subscribe to my newsletter for all kinds of tips and strategies to help you succeed.

“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” after all…

About the Author

Nathan Binford

Creator & Digital Marketer

“The Mindful Marketer” 🧘‍♂️ I help people achieve freedom through marketing and mindfulness. | Develop the skills and mindset for success. Join for free at NathanBinford.com/subscribe.

View All Articles