How 3 Marketers Discuss Going Solo | Marketing News

This article by Hal Conick, staff writer for AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters, was published September 12, 2016. I’m thrilled to be included!

How can marketers take advantage of the freelance and entrepreneurial economy? Three solo marketers discuss their roads to success in independence.

by Hal Conick

Marketing News | September 12, 2016 | American Marketing Association

If you’re fed up with working for someone else, you aren’t alone. There were 15.5 million self-employed workers as of May 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up 1 million from 2014.

While there’s no known statistic of marketers who have gone solo, there are plenty of marketing professionals who have struck out on their own within that 15.5 million. This may mean freelance, or starting a consultancy or business of their own.

Aaron Zwas, director of emerging technologies at Digital Marketing Works, founder of Zwas Group and author of the book Transition to Independence, says the marketer’s knack for branding may make the transition easier. After all, they have an ability to self-market. However, marketers aren’t immune to difficulty when the product they’re selling is themselves. This exists among other common complaints.

“The most common issues that stop people from going independent include the need for financial security, insufficient potential business, and no desire to ‘take it all on,’” he says. “Each of these issues are significant and valid, but none of them should be show-stoppers. Instead, they should be used as opportunities for careful planning and preparation for transition.”

Marketers, or any other professional transitioning to independence, must ensure they have a long-lasting business model and a service that won’t go out of style. They also need the ability to adapt to changing times. This means not focusing too much on the brand, Zwas says; just enough to get recognized.

“The best independents are very clear on their particular expertise,” Zwas says. “The other defining quality is that they have relatively good communication skills, which help them to interact with their clients and therefore improve client retention rates.”

The most common areas of failure are insufficient planning and prep, as well as lack of planning for how the non-work side of life will be affected by one striking off on their own.

Zwas says independent-minded marketers should know they will have a leg-up on others, but they need to establish their area of expertise early and set proper rates competing on value instead of price.

To highlight the path to independence, Marketing News spoke with three entrepreneurial marketers about their journeys to independence.

Susan Silver, president of Argentum Strategy Group, started in June 2006

Q: How was starting your own business at the beginning? How long did it take to get the hang of it?

A: It was scary but exciting at the same time at the beginning. I had run large businesses at Kraft Foods for 10 years (the largest had a $300 million P&L), so I applied what I had learned there about building a plan and positioning my own business. And while applying my marketing knowledge to much smaller businesses was new territory for me, the fundamental skills and processes were the same at their core. It was a question of learning how to adapt them and teach the concepts to people unfamiliar with marketing.

I was starting up, I also talked with a lot of people who were already independent consultants. I asked for their perspective and advice. I also asked everyone I spoke with how they were continuing to learn. This was a big concern of mine, as I didn’t want my marketing expertise to stagnate. The people I spoke with said that it typically takes about four to six years before you really feel like you’re in the groove. At about the four year mark, I really felt like things began to hum.

Q: What’s the biggest advantage of running your own business?

A: My clients typically hire me because they do not have internal marketing strategy expertise. That means they value what I contribute to their team and their business. It’s wonderful to be appreciated that way. I love being able to flex my time if I need to, but I generally work the same hours as my friends who are not self-employed.

At my five-year anniversary, one of my friends congratulated me for not having had a boss for five years. I laughed and told him I’d had 40 bosses since I started.

Q: Do you have any advice for marketers looking to go independent?

A: Know that not all of your working hours will be billable. Rule of thumb is roughly 50% billable, 40% business development and 10% administrative. Paying for my own health care is the single scariest thing about being an entrepreneur.

I run my business like a business. I track a 12-month rolling average of leads in and maintain detailed records of every single lead that comes in. I also track a rolling 12-month average of invoices, close rate, percent of referrals, etc. Always make time for business development.

Rob Frankel, branding expert, founded Frankel and Anderson in 1986

Q: Why did you start your own business?

A: After working in a bunch of ad agencies (fired by two, hired away by six) I had so much freelance work that I decided working to make myself rich was preferable to making the senior agency dopes rich.

Q: How was it? Did you get the hang of it quickly?

A: I was always a business-type guy, and I’d been running a nice freelance operation, so the adjustment didn’t take very long for me. While I was working at other agencies, I took the time to learn about their business and operations. What worked, what didn’t. As a result, when I started F&A as an ad agency, we were–and remained–highly profitable.

Q: What’s the advantage to running an independent business?

A: No politics. More efficiency. No arguments or discussions with people who don’t share the same visions. Everything moves faster, smoother and usually more successfully.

Q: What’s your advice for other marketers looking to make the transition? 

A: Adapt. Nothing is more important. Since its founding, Frankel & Anderson has morphed from an ad agency to a branding consultancy to a holding company for all my ventures, including my new book. I bought out my original partner very early in the game. He wasn’t a businessman. He was a very talented one-trick pony: all he could do is create ads. Probably still does to this day. I realized that the ad business was changing into a media-intensive business, and media was never my specialty: strategy was. So I adapted into a brand strategist, which is why I wrote.

Mary van de Wiel, creative brand strategist, founder of Zing Your Brand in 2007

Q: What was it like starting your company?

A: In full disclosure, it was almost effortless getting my own company up and running. That’s why I’ve always felt very lucky and very grateful, needless to say. Everything seemed to just fall into place.

Q: What are the advantages you’ve found in independence?

A: The best advantage? You get to pick and choose the kind of creative talent and energy you want to see every day. And look forward to seeing them every day. I’d say that’s quite a privilege.

The ability to resonate with people, understand their values/experiences/stories and know they’re keen to bring more meaningful thinking to the table is a hugely exhilarating and rewarding experience. What’s more, if you find people with a high passion quotient, a keen sense of curiosity and the willingness to learn (and fail quickly)—then, it’s 100% win-win. You can’t teach those innate skills easily. What could be better than working in such good company?

Example: Looking for a new designer? I’d choose the person (with talent, certainly) who had a spring in their step and that twinkle in their eye. You can spot that kind of energy the minute they walk through the door. Although I always had a small team, they were brilliant and highly eclectic individuals. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Q: What advice do you have for other marketers looking to strike out on their own?

A: Make sure you’re mad/crazy about what you do. And make sure you’re good. Very good. If not, you’re wasting your time. And everyone else’s. Master your own inner environment; know yourself (inside and out.) It’s not an option. What’s more, understanding what makes you tick is the game changer. Your mindset is the killer app here. So being empathetic, understanding how to listen to people and hear what’s really going on between the silent gaps is critical.

Differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack. Be 100% clear about what makes you so different from your competitors. Of course, being a brander, I’m going to suggest that if you don’t build a brand that stands out like you mean it, you’re toast. Remember, your brand is really just a feeling people have about you. Make it easy for them to understand who you are, what you do, why you do what you do— and why they should give a damn.

Being in partnership can make a big difference. (I’m sorry I never found the right biz partner.) But I’ve certainly watched biz partners dancing in sync, and it’s like magic. If you’ve got the inspiring, creative brain, make sure your partner knows about logistics. P.S. Business partnerships are like a marriage. Don’t fall into a biz relationship unless you know exactly who you’re dealing with. Trust helps.

Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.

Comments are closed.