A knack for design. Visionary leader. Out-of-the-box thinker. The truth is, launching a creative agency involves much more than these brilliant qualities. To sign on big clients then keep them coming back for more, you’ll need to learn how to run an organized, structured machine. You must have the competence to not only meet client expectations, but also manage creative talent and freelancers as well. Getting them paid on time can make or break business.
Another thing to know before starting your own agency is whether you have enough street cred. Most of the best boutique agencies owe their greatness to the fact that its founders likely put several years into a larger, more established firm. The big agencies are where they develop expertise, build key relationships, and the reputation and competence needed to serve corporate clients.
Before cofounding GO Creative (a digital advertising and branding agency) in 2017, Margaret Muhlfelder did “the big agency thing” for a decade. She worked with brands like Procter & Gamble and created campaigns for Kohl’s as the retailer launched private labels with Vera Wang, Lauren Conrad and Bobby Flay. It was an advertising professional’s dream job but soon, she’d have larger aspirations.
“After 10 years, I was totally spent and wanted to start a family but had no working mom role models in the corporate culture,” says Muhlfelder. “I felt stuck and scared.”
Then one day, a recruiter called and introduced her to Marc Klatzko who was seeking a partner for a new venture backed by investors. She joined his boutique entertainment agency and together they ran and grew that business for six years. At this venture backed agency, their client list included MTV, Fox, Miramax, Unilever/St. Ives, Food Network and more. While small agency life provided a better environment for family life, she and Klatzko would eventually set out on their own. Starting over gave Muhlfelder a true crash course in how to really build an agency from scratch.
What made you want to launch GO?
Before launching GO, my co-founder Marc and I had co-managed another agency, but a larger agency and a private equity firm supported that business. We were doing well but losing the ability to make decisions that felt right for our business. We couldn’t take on the pro-bono work our hearts wanted and were working on some clients whose ethics did not align with ours. That’s when we realized that life was too short to not be happy at work. We agreed that when the time was right, we would build a new agency all over again, on our own terms.
What’s a common misconception that people have when it comes to running an agency?
Dreaming up the next big campaign is only half the job. My partner and I had run an agency before, but with the backing of a larger organization’s finance department. Seeing the intricacies of managing a P&L and cash flow statement is one thing, but being fully responsible for it as the owner is a different level of stress that I take on every day.
How do you and your co-founder complement each other when it comes to running GO?
We are a yin/yang partnership and that’s our special sauce. Marc is a brilliant creative with groundbreaking ideas. I manage the operations. I make sure that Marc’s ideas are on strategy for clients and that they are executed on time and on budget. We handle new business outreach and strategy together and our collective brainpower makes us stronger than we are individually.
You have to onboard and manage various independent workers. What’s the key to successfully managing many freelancers?
Make them feel like they’re not freelancers. We see them as our team partners and we expose them to the good, the bad, and the ugly. The more people understand the context of the assignment, the more they put in best effort. And we treat them well—we pay fairly. We couldn’t do what we do without our trusted network.
At what stage did your company start using QuickBooks?
I signed up for QuickBooks the day we founded our company, with much trepidation because I had no idea what I was doing. I was so scared of messing up our financials.
But QuickBooks turned out to be a lifesaver. I did an online tutorial and I quickly learned how to invoice clients, track accounts receivable, run reports, and code all expenses.
As an operations expert, where did you need support most when it came to managing the day-to-day of your agency?
Tracking expenses. The QuickBooks banking function allows me to code what expense belongs where so we can track which expenses can be written off or billed to a client. It connects to our bank accounts and credit cards so I can manage everything in one place. I couldn’t manage the business without it.
I also use QuickBooks to communicate with my accountant. She goes into the system monthly, double checks my work and makes sure everything adds up.
Does running your own business allow for more time with family–or less?
It’s not about more or less; it’s about the quality. I work the same amount, sometimes more. Now that I’m a business owner, I’m never, ever, (ever!) “off.” But I have more flexibility to choose my work hours. This allows me to do school pick-ups or volunteer for a field trip and then log back on. Being present for some of the smaller moments has made a world of difference in my relationship with my kids and lessens the mom-guilt for when I do have to travel.
3 pearls of wisdom
It’s not about more or less; it’s about the quality.
Go for it! I’ve never felt as inspired creatively or as able to make s**t happen as I have since becoming a mother. It’s amazing how much working moms can get done in a day, while still nurturing our kids, relationships and our businesses.
It's ok not to know everything, and then hire people and companies who are experts in what you need. Thank goodness for our lawyer and accountant - we would not be standing without them!!
This article is sponsored by Intuit QuickBooks, the leading accounting software platform for small businesses around the world. With more than 5.6M customers worldwide, QuickBooks helps self-employed individuals and small businesses easily track income and expenses, send invoices, run reports and more all from one place. That’s why 98% of customers agree that QuickBooks is the simpler way to manage their business.
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