How Getting Laid Off Empowered This Entrepreneur to Start Her Own Award-Winning Marketing Agency

Katie Witkin co-founded AGW Group after working in traditional marketing roles -- and identifying opportunities that were being overlooked.

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By Stephanie Schomer

Griffin Lipson

In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality -- and the first steps they took to make it happen. This MFM subject is AGW Group co-founder and COO Katie Witkin.

In 2009, Witkin was a new college graduate, full of ideas and enthusiasm for the fast-growing world of social media marketing. She landed some entry-level gigs, but quickly learned that her low spot on the totem pole meant her ideas might be heard, but rarely acknowledged -- let alone executed.

Witkin also observed her employers ignoring a massive cultural shift: Social media meant brands could no longer talk to consumers exclusively about their product; they had to connect with them on a deeper cultural level. So, in 2013 Witkin ditched the agency life and partnered with a trusted collaborator to launch AGW Group. What started as two friends in a coffee shop has grown into an award-winning cultural marketing and communications agency with 15 employees and big-name clients including HBO, Red Bull and Condé Nast. Here's the advice Witkin offered us as to how she broke out to build her own success.

1. Get fed up.

While studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Witkin worked as a Sony Music rep, promoting Sony artists on campus. It was at this time that Witkin got her first taste of social media and its potential, and she knew that these online platforms would become a massive, industry-changing resource.

After graduating in 2009, she landed an internship at a small music marketing agency -- one that didn't even have a social media department. So that became her main focus and she quickly developed expertise in leveraging these emerging platforms, and transitioned to a new role working with larger brands.

Still, she struggled to make her voice heard. "I was kind of the expert in the room, but that works for and against you when you're trying to make your own path, especially as a young woman," Witkin said. "I was coming up with ideas that weren't being actualized. It was definitely a boys club, and the culture was not what I or most women -- or any employee -- needs to develop and grow."

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2. Feed your passion.

Witkin met Adam Gorode, a freelancer working on a number of projects for her employer, and the pair started collaborating outside of the office. "I'd always done small projects on the side to keep myself stimulated, but I think Adam saw a lot of potential in my curiosity and how I thought," Witkin recalled.

The duo started focusing on helping brands understand how to connect with their audiences on digital platforms, and discovered a valuable partnership. "Adam is wild, and he has serious issues with authority," Witkin said, laughing. "Together, I'm type A, he's type B, and we really had the foresight to create an environment and product that challenged agency norms."

3. Commit.

While the two were building their side hustle, Witkin was laid off from her 9-5 job. "I got nervous, and I started interviewing for full-time jobs elsewhere," she said. "But at one interview, I kept thinking, 'I have a partner, an idea, and I want to create this. Why am I taking this interview?'" She decided to go all-in with Gorode, and the young agency was born. "We landed our first client when we didn't even have a name," she said. "It was just the perfect storm of events that empowered me to focus on this full-time."

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4. Set yourself apart.

Once the newly minted AGW Group was up and running, the duo built the business out of their apartments and coffee shops, hustling to leverage their existing professional relationships. They wanted to focus primarily on social media, but quickly realized that brands needed help managing all things digital, as traditional agencies were still operating in the past.

"They were using a one-size-fits-all model," Witkin said of those traditional agencies. It was like, 'You're my client, we do things this one way, and this is the output.' That just wasn't our vibe. We did things differently, to adapt to the changing market and to really do work that made sense for each individual brand. We understand the value of a brand's message beyond their product: what they stand for. Those are nuanced messages."

5. Learn from the past.

As clients arrived -- MTV and New York Foundling were among the earliest -- AGW's founders were increasingly able to demonstrate that their unique approach worked. "We had really good case studies and great clients," Witkin said, "but very quickly we needed to grow." As they hired staff, both Witkin and Gorode focused on avoiding the kind of culture they had experienced at traditional agencies. "We wanted to work in a place where the best idea wins," she said. "It's not about the food chain."

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6. Keep evolving.

As the client list and their team grew, Witkin struggled to relinquish responsibilities. "Managing is the most unnatural thing for so many people, even though they won't admit it," she said. "I'd been in such control of the company that, once we started scaling, I really had to hold a mirror up to my face and say, "You're a control freak and a micromanager, and you have to let go." The development and success of her team, she said, depended on it.

So she got introspective, and asked others for help. "Both Adam and I asked our team for feedback, and let them know that there would never be repercussions if they wanted to say something about my behavior," she said. "Having people evaluate you and working with them to workshop or even do mock situations so you can hear how you handle things, that's how you can improve."

Stephanie Schomer

Entrepreneur Staff

Deputy Editor

Stephanie Schomer is Entrepreneur magazine's deputy editor. She previously worked at Entertainment WeeklyArchitectural Digest and Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter @stephschomer.

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