Episode 82: How to start your own marketing agency

Episode 82: How to start your own marketing agency

Help your team and clients flourish

This podcast will: 

  • Reveal the key tips to get your agency dream off the ground
  • Identity the challenges associated with launching a marketing business
  • Explore the link between happy employees and happy clients
Podcast transcript

Sophie Peterson  00:03

Welcome to the CIM Marketing Podcast. The contents and views expressed by individuals in the CIM Marketing Podcast are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of the companies they work for. We hope you enjoy the episode.

Ben Walker  00:17

Hello everybody and welcome to the first CIM Marketing Podcast of the new season. It's season five of the show. We are now into the 80s in terms of episodes, it's great to have you back with us. We've missed you over the long summer break but we are now back for la rentree and kicking off with a whole bunch of new episodes this season. And what better way to start it than to bring with us the chair of Scotland's CIM board. Miss Ellie Murphy, who is director of Flourish Marketing. The first thing you'll notice about Ellie is that she doesn't sound particularly Scottish. So how's that happened, Ellie?

Ellie Murphy  00:56

Hi, Ben. It's great to be here. And you're well spotted. I'm a Londoner who moved to Scotland some 25 years ago, but I still haven't picked up the accent but rest assured my kids have broad Glaswegian accents.

Ben Walker  01:11

It's amazing isn't it after 25 years, you continue to hold on to the accent from born, my wife's a Geordie. She lived in London for 20 years. And she's still sounds like she is from the banks of the Tyne. Interesting background interesting story for you as well. You moved to Scotland and you actually started your own agency in the shape of Flourish, which is the dream of many marketers. How did you get into marketing and what took you to actually go out alone?

Ellie Murphy  01:42

Initially, I had I did a degree in geography, which have turned out to be absolutely no use whatsoever to do with marketing. But it did get me on to the graduate training programme for an organisation called Associated British Ports. And I did a year working in cargo sheds driving forklift trucks out on pilot ships. And eventually they placed me at the port of Southampton where I joined the commercial team and it's a gorgeous, gorgeous place to work lovely neck of the woods. And I worked at the port of Southampton and became eventually their PR manager. But working within the port there, I realised I really enjoyed the commercial side of things. And so I asked to get put through some qualifications that were a little bit more relevant to what I was now doing. And I did the Cam foundation qualification back in the day. So, yeah, I worked there till about 1998. And every summer we used to see this paddle steamer coming into Southampton called the Waverly and she also sails up the Thames. She sails all over the south coast. And I thought, Oh, I know, the Waverly I saw this job advertised to run all the marketing and commercial work and I thought I know the Waverly really I'll apply for that job. And it was only when I came for an interview in a very, very cold and drizzly Glasgow that I realised I probably should have done a little bit more research as to where the job was based. But my dad was from Edinburgh and he moved down to London. So it felt quite natural to kind of you know, redress the balance and actually have a have a branch of the family back up in Scotland. So that's why I originally moved up to Glasgow was for, for for a job with the Waverly paddle steamer which is quite an iconic kind of symbol in in Glasgow that everybody knows, then shifted across to buses and worked with First groups. So you're already sensing a theme then in terms of transport marketing, and then I moved to trains and worked with Scott Rail for quite a few years. So it was it was really probably I think about 15 or 16 years ago that I left Scott Rail and set up Flourish.

Ben Walker  04:03

What made you leave? What was it that made you wanted to strike out on your own?

Ellie Murphy  04:08

Well, it's I know that sounds daft. But I never actually realised I was going to be setting up an agency. I had worked as Head of Marketing at ScotRail for probably five or six years. And I went back full time when I had my son who is now 17 and I realised that actually I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to just keep trying to deliver the way I had been delivering before. And when I realised I was pregnant with my daughter who's now 15 I just took time to take stock and think that this isn't working. There's something has to change here. I was just with hindsight looking back probably not doing my own wellbeing terribly much good and not feeling like I was properly succeeding. At any area of life, whether that was, you know, being a good mom to my kids or being there for my team at work or delivering to the standard and at the level I wanted to. And so I took a decision that actually, I would leave kind of big PLC corporate land behind after, you know, a lot of years working in that space. Um, but initially, I had thought I would look for a part time role. And it was only when it pretty quickly became clear that there wasn't really anything part time available at the level I wanted to work at that I thought, right, hang on a minute, I might need to look at this differently.

Ben Walker  05:41

This is really interesting, isn't it? Many, many marketers have a burning desire to be an entrepreneur, to be a businesswoman or a businessman and you know, run their own businesses, you didn't have that necessarily that fire in your belly. At that time, it was circumstance that put you into the world of leading an agency, as you say, it's a common refrain, isn't it that you once you get to the more senior levels of the industry, the part time jobs disappear, it's not possible to find a part time job. So in many ways, in many ways, the past sort of narrowed for you and you found the path was well, for this to work for me is a moment in my in my life, I'm going to have to do something on my own. But it sounds to me that you're very happy that those paths did narrow for you, because

Ellie Murphy  06:22

I love it. I absolutely love it. I mean, Flourish is now - how old's my daughter... So Flourish, it's 15 years old now. And I still love it just as much as I did at the beginning. It's a different beast from when I started, I guess the flip switch for me came when I was, you know, at home thinking about what am I going to do, I can't find this part time job that I had in my head would be in existence and, and in fairness, I'm sure it's a different situation. Now this is, you know, 15/16 years ago, this was happening. You know, my old boss, who by this point was working, running Scotland's airports, contacted me and said, You know, I know it's not really what you're looking for but whilst you're looking for that job that you're dreaming about, can you come and create a new marketing strategy for Scotland's airports, which I got stuck in about I loved working on that loved, you know, going in and getting under the bonnet of yet another transport related organisation. And, you know, to be honest, when you've sent out your first invoice, I thought, actually, I can do this. But initially, for quite a while it was me at the dining table with the kids at nursery. You know, just thinking, okay, what, how am I going to run this? What am I going to do from here?

Ben Walker  07:44

But herein lies an important tale it isn't it, you got that first client. And we're able to build from there, which presumably is, is sort of a piece of advice you'd perhaps give to somebody else that wanted to start their agency is get yourself a little bit of a start, a little bit of a start with a client before you go out and sort of start from nothing.

Ellie Murphy  08:05

Yeah, I mean, you definitely can't overstate the importance of having a good network and reaching out to them and not to be honest, not apologising. For to reaching out to them. You know, I think so often, and it's something I remind myself of regularly, we feel awkward about asking people for help, or saying, Hey, this is where I'm at, you know, is there anyone you know, who's got any work or anybody needs any projects. And I've been very, very fortunate. I've had a great network of people who I've worked with in the past, who I've done work for, and that has, you know, been referrals and recommendations has been pretty, you know, a mainstay of how Flourish wins its work. And then, you know, has grown from there. But absolutely, at the very beginning, it's thinking about where does that first piece of work come from?

Ben Walker  09:00

What sort of challenges did you face when you set up? I mean, it's good to have on that big that big client at the start that you could send a bill to? And you say, Yeah, it'd be plain sailing, is it for anybody?

Ellie Murphy  09:12

So there are a lot of challenges. And I was thinking about this quite recently, actually, as to, you know, what, what they were and actually then how they've changed over time as well. So I think the biggest challenge when I first started was this, in the early days that the balance between delivery, you're there doing the doing because you are the business and business development, where's the next piece of work coming from because you know what, you can't be off drumming up your next gig when you're head down delivering a campaign or developing a strategy for a client. Another thing I found quite illuminating I guess, early doors was that actually, the client doesn't care when in the day you are doing the work provided you're available to them, provided you're delivering it to the quality they want at the time you've agreed, and obviously the price you've agreed. So, you know, when you were juggling, nursery runs and the odd sleepless nights deal and things of that sort. If you're working curious hours, the client doesn't have visibility of that, provided that, you know, you're still delivering a quality output. So at a time for people when, you know, they perhaps need more flexibility in their working life that can be quite refreshing.

Ben Walker  10:35

On that point. Is it really interesting point, isn't it? The clients don't mind necessarily, when you're doing what do you actually send them work out of hours? Or do you do you try to maintain the sort of image of office hours, so you got, you might get a bit of piece of work completed it sort of 9pm or 10pm, but you sort of just just, I'll sit on that until nine o'clock tomorrow mornings, just so it doesn't look like...

Ellie Murphy  11:00

Things are things are very different now, you know, there's now not just me, so there's more resources in the team. And we very much try and have a balance of working hours where, you know, which are pretty much the norm, although the guys work hours that suit them, all of them. But I think, I mean, I regularly still do a power hour in the morning before, because that's a quiet time to just clear your head, get a few things done, because you know, your day can get a bit meeting tastic from time to time. But we I certainly will, you know, if I'm if I've done a load of emails that I'm going to send, I'll just save them and then send them during business hours because I feel I don't want to be disrupting other people's inboxes and disturbing them at a time that's not appropriate for them.

Sophie Peterson  11:51

CIM Membership will help support and inspire you at every stage of your marketing career. Sign up now for a range of exclusive benefits, including access to our monthly webinars, find out more at cim.co.uk/membership

Ben Walker  12:06

That's interesting. That's a really good tip. I mean, do you have any other tips could be but as I said, I'll go back to my original point, which is that lots of marketers have a fire burning in the belly that they would love to follow in your footsteps. I know you it almost happened to some degree, by circumstance for you. But I think lots of people will see your stories inspiring, you've struck out on your own, you built this brand Flourish is now flourishing. What other tips do you have for marketers who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Ellie Murphy  12:34

Firstly, you have to be really clear about what type of work you want to do. You know, what are your skills? What are you good at? What is the niche that you want to carve out for yourself? I mean, certainly in the early days, you know, I needed to keep the lights on. So there was, I was mostly, you know, saying yes to all sorts of different things and pieces of work. And actually, I found that really interesting, because that challenged me sometimes out of areas, which I might have traditionally focused on. Remembering to reach out to your network with is really, really key. And that's something that people should definitely be thinking about. But also just making sure you're aware of all the nuts and bolts of running a business, the stuff that really has nothing to do with marketing that can come up and, and bite you. And And certainly, as you know, we've grown over time, for me has become a more in important area of what I do rather than perhaps the hands on delivery. So lots of functional stuff that you need to be aware of, you know, like having an accountant thinking about cash flow, IT, health and safety, you know, legal requirements, bank accounts, all of the stuff that really has nothing to do with the fun reason you started in the first place being marketing.

Ben Walker  14:03

That can be quite daunting to people can't it. You talked about your sort of metier you know, you come from a travel and transport background, you then were able to attract travel and transport clients, you build upon that into things that are sort of connected culture and food and drink and those sorts of things, which are, in some ways sort of connected to that sort of lifestyle, travel transport culture area, which is great advice. There's no point starting an agency and working in a space that you're not expert in. Well, but there'll be other people who are better at it than you. So that's a fantastic piece of advice is know your metier and lean into that. That meant to but the other bit of advice you gave was that be aware, you are a marketer, and you will then going to become a business woman. And when I say when you're a business woman, you will then become an employer. And these are whole new skill sets that you probably let's be honest about it, don't know much or anything about.

Ellie Murphy  15:02

Nothing no, I mean, on the team side, you know, I was fortunate enough that I had worked with a lot of teams in in previous roles. So I was I was pretty clued up on that. I was pretty clued up on budgeting, on project management, time management, all of those things where they would naturally form part of the skill sets of your role in marketing, but taxes, speaking accountancy speak, thinking about forward order book planning, all of these things that, you know, particularly when you start to take on a team, and you have a duty of care and responsibility for other people other than yourself, you have to bring more rigour and structure into what you're doing, as well as all the fun stuff about thinking about, you know, what is our brand? What are we here to do? How do we want to differentiate ourselves, which is obviously, for somebody from a marketing background, more more your comfort zone? So yeah, it is definitely needing to realise that there is this kind of broader piece that you need to get your head around.

Ben Walker  16:09

If you're a senior marketer in the corporate world, you're likely to have had a team. But it's different, isn't it, when you're an employer of a team, presumably, the skills are quite different. And the things you need to know are quite different. And the dynamics are a little bit different too.

Ellie Murphy  16:25

I guess they are and perhaps not so much, I've tried to maintain the same approach to dealing with the guys who work with me as I would have done through my whole career. But there's an element that in the background, you're obviously aware of, you know, making sure that you have enough work coming in to to make sure everybody's salaries can get paid. And that's, you know, a really clear distinction that people need to think about when they're taking on staff have they got sufficient cash flow in their business to allow for, you know, the the inevitable ups and downs that come with running an agency or running any business, there's a duty of care around people's health and wellbeing around their training and development around how you enable them to flourish, to use the company name, and you know, how they can evolve and become the professionals that, you know, they have every opportunity to do so and how you give them job satisfaction. So that can impact upon the types of clients that you choose to work with, you know, if we've got a member of the team who's particularly particularly interested in sport, for example, you know, we'll go out hunting for a sporting client to because we know they're hugely passionate and interested in that one of our team has come from a theatre and arts background, you know, and whilst we're quite strong in that space anyway, we look to see how can we play to people's strengths? And what will give them job satisfaction, as well as being great clients to work with, you know, and people who can add value to what they're doing?

Ben Walker  18:08

So do you shape the clients to the team or the team to the clients?

Ellie Murphy  18:13

It's a bit of both? A bit of both? Yeah. So traditionally, from my background, obviously, we've got a really strong background in transport. And once you're in the transport industry, or particularly the railway industry, you it gets under your skin, and you don't ever really shake that off, and nor do you want to, it's such a great family. So we've certainly done a lot of transport marketing since I've started Flourish. And that's been wonderful. But then also related to that, as you said, tourism, visitor attractions, and then expanding into food and drink, and retail. But if the team are particularly interested in a particular area, or in a particular marketing discipline, we're agile enough that we can adapt to look for that to try and you know, feed that interest for them. And I think that's part of the fun of running your own agency is that you do get the choice to run it how you like. And I've worked in a lot of different backgrounds over the years, and I've worked in very strict, hierarchical organisations, I've worked in very large organisations, and they've had some brilliant things going for them. And I think over time and all those experiences, you build your own reality of what you want your organisation to be like and your your business to be like, and you do have the freedom to run it how you like within those sort of legal boundaries of, you know, regulatory boundaries.

Ben Walker  19:44

There's a really interesting common scene here to what you're saying isn't that which is to go back to what you were saying at the start of the show, which is to know your metier and not just your own metier. Yes. It's like once you become an employer, know your metier and your passions of your team. And if you find out about them as people, what what drives them? What are their passions? What are their interests? What are their hobbies? What do they care about? If you can tap into their brains? A they're going to be more enthusiastic about working there B you're going to better chances of attracting those clients and new accounts.

Ellie Murphy  20:15

Exactly. Yeah. And that's what we tried to do. And it's, it also helps the time pretty I'll say curious, some would say nosy people person. So, you know, finding out what makes people tick, I think is, you know, and how to motivate them. And, quite frankly, just give them the lead to try things to explore things to pitch for things and give them that responsibility. And I've, you know, never failed to be amazed at how people rise to that opportunity.

Ben Walker  20:45

It's a cliche, isn't it, but people are interested in their work, they're not really working a day in their lives. And that's something you need to tap into as a boss of an agency, isn't it?

Ellie Murphy  20:53

Yes, it absolutely is. And I think that's something I learned very early on. And, you know, in fairness, before I started Flourish, is is that you really have to listen to what you can really get to know your team. And in fairness, we are often you know, we'll think and think together and think, right, where are the gaps are there, as you as you'll know, yourself, marketing is always evolving. And part of the challenge being in a small agency is how you stay on top of what's happening. So sometimes it's around as a team saying, We think we've got a gap in this skillset. And, you know, we want to plug that so which of the team or if somebody has a particular interest in saying, Well, I'd like to learn more about that, well, you know, we'll see how we can facilitate that in a in a cost effective way, so that it's great for that team member, it's great for Flourish, because you know, we're upskilling, and then it's an additional benefit for clients. And an additional thing that we can sell to clients.

Ben Walker  21:55

It's interesting, isn't it, the progression of flourish is that you started off very core sort of travelling, while transport not not travel, once a month transport, you then linked that transport to travel. So cultural attractions, and so on and so forth. That sphere then extended into things like food and drink and retail, which are connected to the travel transport section. So when you're building a brand, is it you're constantly trying to make sense of how you expand that blind without doing something that's way out of your sphere of influence?

Ellie Murphy  22:30

Yes, it is, although you'd be amazed at the variety of sectors that we work in now. Because ultimately, the skills that you have as a marketer, and I mean, I'm a generalist, a lot of the guys in my team are specialists in a specific discipline. So they're really strong on social media, or they've trained in SEO, or PPC, or they're very, very strong in PR, whereas I split as the generalist jack of all trades amongst the team. So yes, that is important to focus on the sectors that you have experience in, because that means you're speaking a common language with your clients. And they immediately feel reassured to see, oh, they've already worked with X, Y, and Zed. Yeah, they they know our business. And that can short circuit a lot of that kind of getting to know you process and that understanding of what their challenges are and how we can help, which is ultimately what it's about. But a lot of the time, those skills that you have, are equally as applicable, whatever sector you're talking to. So you know, a lot of our work now is in professional services. You know, we work with lawyers, Chartered Accountants, insurance companies, there's a big chunk of our work there. Another area, which we love working in is an organisation in Scotland called Business Gateway. I don't think there is particularly an equivalent elsewhere in the UK, but effectively, it's enterprise organisations funded by the government that help SMEs and we have the fun of being helicoptered in, perhaps to do five days work six days work helping us a business with a specific problem. And we love doing that. Because, you know, one week it might be that you're helping a lady who's running a beauticians company and the next week, you're helping some people who are running a cybersecurity company and then the next week you're helping a company who you know are setting up a Scotland wide kennel business. So for people who are curious and nosy. It's it's lovely to get the opportunity and to see what people are doing in their businesses because we always learn something from that as well. But ultimately, the skills and tools that we use to help them plan their marketing strategy or be more effective with their marketing to the budget and resources they have available. The skills are the same, no matter what sector so over time we've, we've built and started from this kind of knowledge base of Transport and Tourism. But actually, I'd say probably now at the moment, the only sectors we're not working in our energy and banking at the minute, but just about everywhere else who work in the charity sector. So those skills are equally applicable. And I'm sure that's a really good lesson for marketers starting out is that actually, you're learning these skills, and they will stay with you through your whole career, no matter what area of marketing you go into.

Ben Walker  25:34

You develop some sort of universal skills base can be applicable across industries, once you start with your metier, you connect other bits to it that are related. Once you built your brand, you can spread your wings.

Ellie Murphy  25:47

Exactly, exactly. Yeah. And I think one of the fun things and challenging things about working in the way we work is that you have to have the ability to pick up quickly, what is going on in your clients industry? And what their challenges are and who their competitors are, and what are the big picture issues facing them in order to help them build effective strategies.

Ben Walker  26:15

When you're relating with clients and try to map link, as we spoke about earlier clients with the team, do you think the two tend to reflect each other and what I mean by that is if your team is happy and enthusiastic, your clients tend to be happy and enthusiastic. Do you genuinely know the connection between the two,

Ellie Murphy  26:33

There is definitely a connection between the two. And I think it's very apparent to our clients, that the team at Flourish love what they do. And they no matter what the client's area of specialty have made, you know, in terms of sector, we love the challenge of how to make things better for them how to improve their marketing, how to deliver an effective and a campaign that gets them the leads that they need, or generates the new enquiries that they're looking for, or brings in the donations that that they're looking for. And I think the bit that we feel quite privileged about is that many organisations work with us in a way where we now sort of bolt in as their marketing functions. So we're very integrated into their businesses. For some, we're working with an in house marketing person who's there all the time, but they just need more capacity, more support, or more specialist skills that they don't have in house. For others, we actually are their marketing function and and you you bolt in. So we're fortunate enough that a lot of our clients have been with us a long time now. And you really do feel part of their team, and they, you know, they feel part of ours. So, you know, there's definitely a bit of banter within professional limits, but you know, we get to know them very well. And I think that breeds an openness and a transparency that is really healthy.


Ben Walker  28:06

Does mutual happiness come naturally, then when teams happy, the clients happy, or there's all that skill challenges that you have to deal with pressure points, you have to deal with? difficulties when you're starting a new account?

Ellie Murphy  28:18

There are always pressures and difficulties. And I think it would be naive to think that everybody's happy all the time. But I think there's a respect in how we deal with those challenges when they come up. And I think ultimately, our clients, yes, they want creativity and they want insight. And yes, they want, you know, ideas about how they could do things more effectively. And they want us to be skilled at what we do. But ultimately, they want us to do what we'll say we'll do when we say we'll do it to the right standard. And at the price we agreed, just getting down to the basics of making sure you deliver. And a client should never have to wonder, have they done that? Are they coming back to me, it's all about communication, and making sure that we're always on the front foot and our client knows if there's a problem if we've not been able to, you know, do a piece of filming when, when we were scheduled to or somebody's off sick, and there'll be a slight delay with something else, you know, and it invariably people are very understanding providing they know what's going on. And so that I think is how we have fostered quite long standing client relationships. And I think that works best for the for our team as well because you know, they're there, they feel they're empowered, they feel they have that respect with the client and you know, they could they can have those what might otherwise be difficult conversations which crop up from time to time.

Ben Walker  30:01

If they've got a good relationship with clients broadly, happily a theme, they're doing good work, they themselves are enthused and they themselves and team are happier. So it doesn't go both ways. And it's a story. I mean, there's some great tips there Ellie. And first of all, if you're starting out your own agency, then just focus on the early days on your metier a What's you're experiencing, you can spread your wings later, as you gain new team members and bring with them their own passions and interests, be unapologetic about reaching out to your network, if you're launching an agency, they don't sort of feel guilty to go and ask people you've worked with in the past, whether they would like to work with you again, in your new capacity, a bit of a difficult one, but it's something we've all got to face, you know, if you're going into business, you're going to have to learn stuff that you don't know anything about, which is about being a businesswoman or a businessman or been subsequently being an employer and tax and accountancy and stuff like that, which perhaps is something that's top of everyone's list of things to do. Something we've all got to learn about.

Ellie Murphy  30:57

It's still not at the top of my list of things I enjoy doing Ben.

Ben Walker  31:02

A necessary evil, we could perhaps a necessary evil, but be aware of it. And when you're in it, be responsive, communicative. Let clients know why you're doing something and when you're doing it, and stick to it, and have open up a good dialogue with them. And then they'll be happy and your team will be happy. And maybe you can do something as good as Ellie as in a Flourish and flourish as well. Well, it's been absolutely fantastic talking to you. I just want one question before you go. Is that Is there anything you look back on wistfully? Or do you look back at that sort of fork in the road? And think, oh, goodness, me, I'm glad I walked down it.

Ellie Murphy  31:42

I can honestly say there isn't anything I look back on wistfully. Would the perks sometimes be slightly better possibly? Do I occasionally miss wearing a corporate suit? Only now and again. But I think the freedom to run things as you want, and have that flexibility has, you know, outweighs any of those things. And I think what's also interesting is, you know, we've always worked in a hybrid model, always for 15 years. And so this big change that came for people through the pandemic, and you know, suddenly this new way of working hasn't affected us at all. So, you know, I don't even miss having to go into Glasgow and do some clothes, shopping and ruin my bank account on a lunchtime because we never did that anyway.

Ben Walker  32:37

Right? So I see what you can always do from time to time, once again, splurge once in a while for yourself, and not necessarily for your work. But that is fantastic. Thanks for your amazing insights into the world of agency life and starting your own agency. I find it hugely compelling and surely our audience well, I've got one more question before you guys. Will you come back on the CIM Podcast soon because you've been a fantastic guest.

Ellie Murphy  33:01

You're very welcome. Yeah, I'd be delighted to come back. Thank you for your time.

Ben Walker  33:05

Greatest news I've had all week. Ellie Murphy. Thank you very much indeed. And great to have you.

Sophie Peterson  33:12

If you've enjoyed this episode, be sure to subscribe to the CIM Marketing Podcast on your platform of choice. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, please leave us a rating and review. We'd love to hear your feedback, CIM Marketing Podcast.

Ben Walker Host CIM Marketing Podcast
Ellie Murphy Founder Flourish Marketing
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