John Bertino is no stranger to breaking boundaries and starting something completely new.
After years working as a business development rep for marketing agencies, he launched The Agency Guy (TAG), which matches brands to specialized agency partners for services like SEO, content marketing, PR, digital media buying, and more.
We talked to John about how to start a consulting business that fills an unmet need, and how to educate prospects on the value of your services.
How did you get the idea for TAG?
I was working as a business development rep for several marketing agencies between 2007 and 2013 and was struck by how differently large agencies work and function compared to boutique agencies and how vastly different boutique agencies work compared to individual consultants.
Meanwhile, I saw agencies of all shapes and sizes struggling to differentiate themselves. As more and more agencies flood the marketplace, it waters down the messaging and value propositions of the teams that are actually really good at what they do.
I also noticed that brands were equally frustrated and bewildered by the crowded agency landscape. That’s how the idea for TAG was born.
How long did it take for you to get from idea to launch?
Before I launched TAG, I was selling a service to marketing agencies.
During this time, I got to know what agencies were good in which service areas, as well as who had good business practices and reputations. So you could say that I started building TAG’s initial agency roster at that time.
Once the initial roster was set, it was mostly a matter of creating a website and handling the preliminary formalities to launch. It was building a strong reputation, a system of referrals, and an optimized workflow that took all the time, effort, and energy.
What were some of the main challenges to starting (and growing) this particular business?
What we’re doing is truly groundbreaking yet also relatively unheard of. There’s a natural educational process and learning curve that needs to occur before brands are prepared to unlock the value that our system brings to them.
This educational process continues to this day, but we welcome the challenge and relish in the first-mover advantage.
The other challenge is that brands often want to compartmentalize our approach with those of the major online directories that simply aggregate agency reviews and algorithmically make partner recommendations.
Our service is personalized, customized, and white-glove; it’s dramatically different from choosing an agency from a directory that agencies pay to get into. Companies that recognize this and want human involvement and consulting are the ones that most value our approach.
How did you get your first clients?
TAG started in San Diego, and we made our initial inroads by getting entrenched in the local marketing community there.
We made a very concerted effort to position ourselves at the center of the community via thought leadership, events, speaking engagements, workshops and a trusted network of allies and referral partners — partners whose trust we built and nurtured slowly over time.
To this day, thought leadership and making relationships at a local level is still how we generate the lion’s share of our business. From there, it’s all about knowing how to ask the right questions to companies looking to hire for marketing services.
How does your pricing model work?
One of the unique and disruptive things about TAG’s model is that there’s no cost to the brand. All of the consulting and matching is free to them. We’re compensated by our agency partners — but only when a successful match is made!
It puts the onus on TAG to create successful matches between marketing agencies and consultants, and our model incentivizes us to build connections that last for a long time.
Three years in and TAG has five team members. How did you decide it was the time to bring on more people?
We have a saying at TAG that goes “no lead left behind.”
Early on, it became clear that my ability to provide value through consulting and to make amazing agency partnerships was limited to my own marketing experience.
It was obvious that the key to growth was to bring on new team members whose marketing backgrounds were different yet complementary to my own.
As a result, we now have a team with a diverse range of experience which allows us to consult intelligently on any marketing initiative.
What online tools do you use to run your business?
I strongly recommend every business development rep familiarize themselves with FollowUpThen. We love this tool for so many reasons — it allows you to seamlessly set reminders for yourself to follow up with people.
It doesn’t sound groundbreaking, but it’s the easiest tool I’ve used for this critical task. You simply bcc yourself a date and time that you want an email reminder (e.g. email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) and you’ll get this reminder at the chosen time. When you get the reminder, it comes in the form of an email and contains your entire message history.
As a result of this tool, my team and I never forget anything, and that’s huge for business development!
What advice do you have for others who want to start a marketing consulting business?
First, wait until you have real, significant experience before you start positioning yourself as an agency or consultant for hire. Yes, it can be easy to launch one of these businesses, but it’s surprisingly hard to land clients and to keep them.
Getting someone to sign a contract with you, regardless of your ability to deliver results consistently, is not a formula that helps anyone.
Next, choose a niche. The young agencies and consultants that we see succeeding are those with a concentration in a specific marketing channel and (ideally) a specific industry.
You’re going to get better at your craft and win a lot more business if you’re, for example, “the SEO expert for financial service companies” versus “the digital everything for everybody.”