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Lessons from starting an influencer marketing agency

The founder of an influencer marketing agency offers advice on starting your own business.

4 min read

Marketing Strategy

Clever case studies


In the early days of influencer marketing — long before the industry even had a name — my co-founders and I recognized an opportunity: Brands wanted bloggers to talk about their products, but they had no idea of how to do it. We did.

Of course it was more complicated in practice. To unpack the power delivered by this fresh form of marketing, we had to question the very future of advertising. It was a risky move, but one we believed was worth taking because we saw a need in an emerging market that only our expertise could fill. We had unique ideas that positioned us as industry leaders, and we truly believed our work would define this new industry. In 2009 we launched CLEVER, an influencer marketing agency, and began demonstrating that the future of advertising isn’t advertising: It’s real people telling brand stories.

Exploring whether or not to pursue a business idea is exciting and confusing, and often winds up with you searching for validation. When this happened to us, we returned to three basic concepts that helped us re-energize and stay on course.

You have the answers.

A major element that propelled CLEVER’s launch was that we feel compelled to step in and fix mistakes polluting the industry. People kept turning to us with questions about how to work with bloggers, and at first we were just happy to know the answers. But after being asked the same questions time and time again, we realized our expertise had value. We formalized our process and interaction with clients, and sure enough people started to pay us. If you’re already being tapped for your knowledge and providing insight that only you possess, it is time to put your business idea into money-making motion.

You’re doing it differently. You’re setting trends. And, it works.

In any industry, especially a new one with lots of upside potential, you’ll have all kinds of competitors. There is often a lot of confusion in the marketplace until customers become educated about their choices and the ROI offering. But if you can establish yourself with a distinct solution, and demonstrate value to your customer, you can become the industry leader.

In our case, CLEVER’s approach was to make influencer marketing revolve around business relationships, rather than copying the model of treating influencers like reporters, sending “spray and pray” press releases, and hoping for coverage. We identified the value for brands and built a model that achieved their goals while treating influencers as their own entity. We knew that to unlock the power and value of influencer marketing, we had to shift from traditional PR methods to a hands-on approach that focused on relationships, authenticity, and organic consumer/brand relationships.

It truly matters to you and your business partners.

You’ll hear it again and again: Starting your own business is hard. To survive the highs and lows, you have to love putting your idea into motion so much that you’d do it even if you didn’t get paid. Because for a lot of the beginning, you won’t get paid. And you’ll probably wind up owing some money.

Don’t be the guy who reads about an industry trend and says, “Oooooh, this looks like a way I could get rich,” even though you don’t know or care about the industry. Here’s a good test: If you don’t know—and refer to—the titans of industry by their first names, and want them to know and respect your first name, you (and your business idea) don’t have the heart to survive.

Your team makes a difference.

Genuine goal loyalty and unwavering enthusiasm should be also be reflected in your business partners and employees. Facing the uncertainty and challenges of building (and maintaining!) a business with a strong support system is a crucial element in achieving success. Shared confidence and trust in your mission opens up room to ask for help, embraces collaboration, and reinstates why your goal is worth pursuing.

While there is no single business roadmap to follow that promises success, there are some steps you can take to give yourself a better chance of winning. Ultimately, success stems from the value you see in your idea and the effort, dedication, and risks you’re willing to encounter bring your goal to life.

Cat Lincoln is the founder and CEO of the award-winning influencer marketing agency CLEVER. Leveraging more than 20 years of Fortune 500 marketing experience, Cat’s specialty is crafting influencer marketing programs with data-driven goals that achieve business results.