Running your own creative business is a dream for some—or at least, running a profitable creative business. Increasingly, we’re seeing individuals pulling together the many pieces of business building to launch, grow and sustain their own way of working. Enter: the one-person creative agency.
Before diving into the specifics of this new solo breed, let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a creative agency? What do they do? What defines them?
To give a rough overview, we can start with some of the things that a creative agency does for its clients:
While these are only a few examples, it’s clear that the scope of a creative agency can be quite... broad. So how did we get here? And where did it get its name?
Let’s start with creative.
In marketing lingo, ‘creative’ is the common term used to refer to assets that have been created for marketing or advertising purposes. An instagram post is a piece of ‘creative’. An ad; a whitepaper; a blog post, even.
Creative agencies therefore are expected to take charge on the ‘creative’ side of a client’s business. Suppose a small financial consulting business walks in the (digital) doors of your creative agency. No doubt, they have expertise in financial modelling, spreadsheets, powerpoint even... but they may need some help presenting themselves to potential clients in the digital (and physical) world through design, copywriting, and ‘creative’ assets.
So, creative: check.
Agencies have been around since the Madmen days (and likely well before). As a business model, it describes an organization that agrees to represent or collaborate with a client, typically on a limited contract basis. That is—when you hire an agency, they don’t become ‘employees’, they are engaged to complete a project, campaign or solve a specific problem, then move on.
The creative agency, as an entity, has thrived in the digital economy. With the growing importance of a business’ ‘online presence’, through social media, SEO, PPC advertising and more, the role of the creative has been elevated to new status.
Goodie for us.
This is a big topic. Realistically, we’re not going to be able to cover everything in this one post.
But to keep us on track, let’s make a list of steps that will need to be completed (and followed-up on in your own time, dear reader) to get you from ‘here’ to ‘fully-functioning one-person creative agency’:
Sounds easy, right?
The theory is always easy. In practice, this is typically... messy.
Are you an artist wrapped up in designer tools? A writer extraordinaire that brings stories to life? A marketer that has a knack for finding growth in all corners of the web?
Understanding your skillset may sound simple at first, but dive deeper than what you might have initially been ‘trained’ in. Suppose you went to university to study graphic design. Okay, chances are you have your chops pretty well set for graphic design and some branding projects—but are there others skill you bring to the table?
Think about what it is that you’re good at which you enjoy most—the beauty of the freelancer’s journey is that you almost certainly don’t need a degree. You just need to prove over time that you can deliver results.
So, you know your way around Adobe products. Big deal.
What can you actually make from it?
Which problems can you solve when you put your skillset to work?
For now, we’re going to sideline the ‘who for’ (we’ll return to that in the next step). We’re simply going to focus on some tangible results you can produce with your given skillset and go from there.
For example, with a graphic design skillset, you might feel confident:
Get yourself a list of key ‘outcomes’ you’re confident producing. Then take a look through that list and think about which you wouldn’t mind spending your days creating. (For example, if you know you can design business cards, but the thought of designing business cards all day bores you to death, you may want to steer clear...)
As a bonus exercise, now might be a time to start considering your personal ‘mission’ for this journey you’re about to undertake. This is of course an exercise that will be returned to many times over the years, but you can get started with our Brand Mission, Vision and Story exercise, here.
Knowing what you’d like to build is one thing.
Finding out who is going to be into it is quite another.
In fact, you might argue those two things, put together, just about describe the whole game. If you’ve ever heard the words ‘Product-Market Fit’ (PMF), that’s precisely what we’re talking about. Taking the services or products you offer and finding a ‘market’ for them... easier said than done.
Another excellent framework to work with as a solo or freelance business is Seth Godin’s Minimum Viable Audience. Not to throw too many acronyms at you at once, but the MVA helps us narrow down our focus to the smallest, recognisable group of people that we want to speak to with our business.
Because narrow is focused.
Because narrow means there’s less competition.
Because narrow means we have a clear offering—we have some that people can ‘get’.
Think about it: if you sell yourself as a ‘creative agency’, you’re one tiny tiny fish in a very large sea.
Then again, if in the process of honing in on your key offerings (step 2) and your target MVA, you could say something like: ‘I offer custom digital illustrated websites for blockchain-tech startups’... suddenly you have my attention.
Choosing your ‘niche’ shouldn’t be an arbitrary process though. Some pointers to help you get started:
Some words of advice: don’t skimp on the ‘who’ question. Spend time thinking, researching, talking. If you have any friends or contacts in one of your target segments—reach out to them and ask a few questions. Not soliciting work, just trying to understand more about life in their shoes, and if they’d be interested in the types of services you have in mind for the agency.
Once you have a shortlist of target segment, you’re ready to start creating some User Personas. Don’t want to do it from scratch? You’re in luck: here’s a handy template to get you started.
When you’re just getting started, this can be one of the more daunting tasks... what if you don’t have a strong portfolio?
What if your past projects don’t reflect this exciting new direction you want to go in?
What if your past clients look nothing at all like your newly defined, lovely user personas?
Well, hope is not lost—but you have some work ahead of you.
Any portfolio (or referred projects that tag along with a project proposal) should be relevant to your prospect. You’re about to take a leap and reach out to some prospects in your target area—but odds are your portfolio doesn’t perfectly match their needs.
Here are some key actions you can take to make your portfolio more relevant:
Repurposing past projects for your portfolio to better meet your new targets means reframing the work done to fit new offerings. Take our old logo design project, write a paragraph focusing on the conversations and thought that went into forming that brand identity, then extend that to the core features that then could be derived and shown across assets like a website.
Takeaway #1: Repurposing old projects to be more relevant for your new portfolio is possible, but takes work.
Every client wants clearer messaging, better conversion rates, higher brand recognition. You may not have clear metrics from past clients to back it up, but at the very least you’ll want to emphasise in your portfolio that these were the objectives of the project, and circle back to mention that according to the client, the project was a success.
Takeaway #2: Focus on past project outcomes and make client needs as similar to new client needs as possible.
Instead, find a couple of short and sharp projects in your niche that can be delivered on rapidly—preferably in one week or less each.
Takeaway #3: when it comes to repositioning your portfolio, focus on speed and relevance over ‘client size or credibility’. You want relevance, and you don’t want to spend forever on achieving it.
If you do happen to be a web designer, then this will be your bread and butter.
But if the one person in your 1-person happens to be more of a marketing / copywriting creative, then the website problem might feel more overwhelming than it needs to.
Some options for the non-design natives:
I’ve listed WordPress mostly because I probably have to. Personally, not a fan and would not recommend it to anyone in real life—if you live in real life, choose one of the other options. WP defenders, find me in the comments...
I was going to add a 3rd option of ‘don’t build a website’, but despite the click-bait articles saying ‘why you don’t need a website anymore’, the truth is that having your own site as an agency:
More on this to come, but in the meanwhile, you can simply get started with our free Notion CRM template here.
This article is still under construction. Stay tuned for steps 7-12. And if you just want to dive right into creating your own creative agency today, you can save yourself 50+ hours of setup with our Clarity OS: Business model. Check it out.