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How to Start a Boutique Agency

by Al Stewart

Boutique agencies are usually started by people in advertising or public relations who have grown weary of working for someone else. With a few key clients and a shoestring budget, they launch their own small-business venture, often working from home or in a modest yet stylish office space. As they go about the all-important task of attracting new business, they assure clients that they can deliver top-quality work and provide a superior product at highly competitive prices. They also tell prospective clients that the fledgling business is on par with larger, more established agencies.

Create a business plan that outlines the key elements of the boutique agency and establishes a compelling rationale for the venture. Answer the questions "Why should a client do business with us?" and "How will our agency maintain long-term profitability?" Develop a realistic budget and identify investors and other sources of finance. Anticipate that expenses will far exceed revenues during the boutique's initial phase of operation.

Assemble a portfolio of work performed by the agency's personnel. For an ad agency, this will likely be a reel of commercials and samples for print campaigns. A public relations agency should highlight past campaigns and specific objectives achieved. The portfolio should showcase creative abilities and demonstrate business savvy. If your new agency is pursuing a specific niche, include samples that reflect that focus.

Build alliances with potential clients, partners and creative talent. You can launch a boutique agency with only one key client. You'll also need access to experienced professionals, including freelancers. When the agency's in the planning stages, reach out to contacts you've developed throughout the course of your career. Make informal inquires to gauge their interest in the new venture. Keep careful records of contact information. Follow up with those who've expressed interest.

Find a suitable location that balances the need to save money with the need to establish a professional presence. Look for office space you can expand as needed. While a home office may be financially attractive, ask if this will compromise your new agency's competitive position. Make interior design selections that will communicate creativity and a unique sense of style.

Launch a marketing initiative that includes a public relations campaign, a professionally designed website and a social media effort. Create a brochure and incorporate it in a direct-mail effort that raises the agency's profile. Build word-of-mouth advertising through the professional network you've developed. Communicate the specific advantages of your boutique agency and offer free consultations to prospective clients.

Tips

  • Create a mission statement that summarizes your objectives and capabilities. Include a slogan and a unique logo.
  • Contact business reporters and other members of the media and communicate your availability to be interviewed for stories related to your area of expertise.
  • Consider applying for a 7(a) loan backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Under this program, the SBA doesn't actually lend money; it guarantees loans made to small businesses by commercial lending institutions, offering the potential for larger sums and longer payback terms.

Warnings

  • Don't burn bridges. While principals of a boutique agency commonly pursue clients they've worked with in the past, do so by touting your strengths rather than criticizing your former employer.
  • Don't open for business until all the pieces are in place. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

About the Author

Al Stewart's 30-year background as a writer/editor includes staff positions at "Adweek," "Billboard," "Chain Drug Review," "Cable World," "DNR" (men's fashion), "National Floor Trends," and "Variety." A native New Yorker, he is now a writer/editor living in Los Angeles. He has a BA in political science from Wagner College.

Photo Credits

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