How to Start an Advertising Business

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An advertising agency is an enterprise that can be launched with relatively little capital. In its early stages, it can be run from a home office because most of the meetings with clients are conducted over lunch or at their places of business. It does, however, require excellent communication skills, an advanced degree in marketing, English or business administration, and the flexibility to be available for clients' needs well beyond a 9-5 weekday schedule. Here's what you should know to get started.

Things You'll Need

  • Website
  • Business Plan
  • Business License
  • Start-up Capital
  • Business Cards

Subscribe to American Writers and Artists Institute (http://www.awaionline.com). This is a free newsletter that is filled with industry expert advice on how to get copywriting and marketing jobs across the country. In addition to offering seminars to its members and a host of inexpensive publications on how to build a client base, AWAI is a great chance to network with PR pros and ask questions. While it's often helpful to talk to people locally who is doing the same kind of work you're interested in, they're also likely to view you as potential competition and not divulge any insider tips. Online forums--combined with interviewing PR pros who live in a distant city--will yield better results if you're testing the waters.

Take community service or college credit classes in copywriting, copyediting, photography, graphic design, web design, marketing principles and small -business development. As an advertising professional, you'll need to be a jack of all trades as well as have familiarity with all aspects of commercial media. The more classes you can take--and you can be doing this while you're still working in a different field--the more valuable you will be to your clients. Although a college degree isn't mandatory for starting your own advertising business, do keep in mind that the absence of one could keep you from getting prestigious clients.

Volunteer to write press releases, write speeches, design flyers and organize fundraising events for nonprofit organizations in your community. Not only is volunteerism coveted by groups that operate on shoestring budgets, but this will also give you invaluable exposure to what it's like to be in the trenches. In addition, you'll be collecting references that will look good on your resume. Always ask for letters of recommendation for your portfolio. As your expertise increases, start bookmarking sites such as InfoWriter (at copywriting.org) and other freelance writing forums that will give you access to available PR assignments.

Join Toastmasters. Advertising professionals do a lot of talking and there's no better place to start getting comfortable with making presentations to diverse groups of listeners.Use the feedback you receive to hone your persuasive speaking techniques.

Take an internship or a job with an advertising agency. Even if it's an entry-level clerical or accounting position, you'll get a taste of the frenetic pace of advertising campaigns. This will prepare you for the decision of going into business for yourself. Another good hands-on rehearsal is to work on local political campaigns. These have many of the same attributes of working for an ad agency in that the ultimate objective is to sell the candidate's image and influence public opinion at the polls.

Decide what kind of clients you want to have and what sort of activities not only energize you the most but are also the best match for your talents. If you're gregarious and love to organize events, for instance, working with corporations and nonprofits in conjunction with fundraising campaigns might be right up your alley. If you're a scintillating wordsmith or have expertise in graphic design, you might be happier helping companies that are rolling out new products on both a local and national level. These activities could also interface with businesses that are just getting off the ground and need your analytical assistance in product branding, focus groups and media placement.

Identify your competition. While a large city would seem to offer more opportunities for new PR kids on the block, you'll need to research what kind of services your competitors are providing and how your company can distinguish itself from the get-go by offering something that is fresh, different, faster and/or more economical. Based on the amount of opportunity and growth that you perceive is available, you'll also need to decide whether it justifies hiring a staff (which will likely call for opening a brick-and-mortar office) or is a manageable workload that you can do on your own.

Decide what your geographical territory is going to be. For instance, look at how much business can keep you busy within your own zip code or whether you have to branch out to nearby regions. If you have to travel to accommodate clients, these expenses will need to be factored into the fees you charge for your services. Keep in mind that once a relationship is established you may be doing more of your communicating via phone and email. At the start, however, clients want to know who they're hiring to help promote them and that will require your meeting with them in person.

Draft a detailed business plan that addresses the scope of your advertising services, the type of clientele you plan to court, the amount of time you can reasonably commit to your new enterprise, the volume of business you plan to do each year, the resources you have available to promote yourself in the community and a breakdown of fees you plan to charge for specific PR tasks. If you have never drafted a business plan before, the website of the Small Business Administration (see URL in Resources) is one of the best resources available. A solid business plan can often make the difference in whether a bank or other lending institution will assist you with the start-up capital necessary to get the business equipment you need, lease an office, hire staff and start marketing yourself.

Get a business license (the Small Business Administration walks you through the steps to do this) and decide on what your company's name will be. You will need to register your company name with the Secretary of State's Office in the state where you will be doing business. In addition, you will need to get a federal tax ID number from the Internal Revenue Service.

Design a professional website that introduces clients to what you have to offer, provides a short bio, explains your fee structure and maybe even includes a blog that you contribute to regularly so that they can get to know more about your services. As your clientele starts to build, the website will be a good place to include endorsements, too. The color scheme and graphics on your website should be carried over to your business cards, brochures and any other promotional items you will be using to generate a buzz.

Introduce yourself to the media (newspapers, radio, TV) and network with the movers and shakers in your community. Tell everyone you meet that you're starting a new PR company; word-of-mouth publicity is absolutely critical when you're a newcomer.

Subscribe to industry trade publications to stay on top of advertising and marketing trends and join professional PR organizations. (See Resources.)

Tips & Warnings

  • Join your local Chamber of Commerce and other civic organizations to get in contact with lots of business people. Pay attention to the local news; if a new shop or company is moving to town, you'll want to introduce yourself and see how you can make your PR services available to it. Always have a backup plan. In this particular business, anything that can possibly go wrong with an event or a media campaign usually will. Always maintain a positive relationship with the press.
  • If you go to work for an advertising agency to get hands-on experience before you launch your own company, it isn't going to take kindly to you stealing its clients when you leave. Most agencies, in fact, will have you sign an agreement at the time of hire that precludes you from doing this. Never talk about clients behind their backs, even in casual conversation to friends at a bar or over lunch. You never know when the competition might be eavesdropping. Always have an attorney review your contracts before you give them to your clients. It's the loopholes that will invariably trip you up, especially when it comes to payments.

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