Why the SMMA model is fundamentally broken

This year, I have gotten more messages about one specific subject than anything else by far.

On Reddit (where I engage regularly in PPC & agency related topics) I’ve gotten 41 messages this month alone…and of those, 37 of them were asking about SMMA.

To be honest, even though we published Building A Successful Micro-Agency earlier this year, I hadn’t heard this specific term. So I did some in-depth research. SMMA (social media marketing agency, also called “agency in a box”) is a term invented by a few gurus. The term isn’t used in normal marketing circles. It was recently invented to sell courses, which purportedly teach you how to make millions without having any specific skills or domain expertise.

This SMMA model is fundamentally broken, and the more I look into this scam the more misleading the whole thing is. But before I get into the exact details of why, I need to explain how this model is promoted…and why I decided to spend time writing this post.

First: there is nothing new under the sun. The gurus who are selling SMMA courses today are of the same ilk that sold dropshipping courses in 2018, and affiliate marketing courses in 2014.

Second: these gurus are taking advantage of ambitious, hard-working young people who want to work for themselves. There are better, legitimate ways to make money and find independence.

Third: you can learn marketing yourself, without paying anybody for anything. Actually, you can even get paid to learn digital marketing…which is better than spending thousands on some hustler’s course.

You can make good money in agencies…

Anya and I have been fortunate enough to meet folks in marketing (mostly in the Google Ads/paid search world that we live in) who have done very well for themselves.

Most of the micro-agency owners I’m friends with make well into the mid six figure range. Larger agency owners have high overhead, but they can still pull in a quarter million. And more than a few PPC agency owners have sold their agencies for seven or eight figures. Even freelancers can easily break six figures with a few decent accounts.

But these guys did not follow the SMMA model. They followed the old-school model of getting good at one specific skill, and then growing it, and making smart cash flow decisions.

How the “SMMA Model” is Promoted

The basic strategy that these courses promote is this: 1) sell your digital marketing services to local businesses, usually via some sort of cold calling or cold emailing model 2) charge them “high-ticket” prices usually in the $2000-$5000 range 3) find a freelancer from a cheap country to outsource the actual work 4) pay them $200-500 and 4) rinse & repeat.

The model is sold by good-looking twenty-somethings wearing Adidas joggers and rented Rolexes. SMMA is promoted visually. By that, I mean in the most garish way possible. Young guys posing in front of private jets, getting bottle service at fancy clubs, letting scantily clad girls sit on the hoods of Lamborghinis…and this visual rapper-esque presentation implies that if you want this same lifestyle, you can buy a $1500 course and you’ll become as profligately rich as they are!

If these visuals are setting off alarm bells in your head, you already understand why that raises red flags for me.

Because no one who actually earned a Lamborghini lets someone sit on the hood.

Heck. My G-wagen is twenty years old, and I wouldn’t even let Princess Grace of Monaco herself sit on the hood.

The SMMA model is broken

The SMMA model is fundamentally broken and it is not scalable, sustainable, or even economically feasible. 

Here’s why. For a profitable, stable, and sustainable business, you need the following:

  • You have to add value
  • You have to have major subject matter expertise
  • You just can’t outsource everything

If you are merely acting as a broker — connecting someone to another person — you simply can’t justify the sort of margin the SMMA folks say are possible. You aren’t adding much value. Platforms like UpWork and Fiverr exist to fill this need, and they’re making a 20% cut, not 500%.

You also have to actually know something about what you’re selling. How do you guarantee results, sell cold leads on your service, and offer any real insight without knowing anything? How do you know how to hire experts if you’ve never even done this work before?

And following on that, anyone who’s spent any time in marketing knows that outsourcing is way trickier than it sounds. It’s hard to find freelancers and consultants who actually know what they’re doing. It’s even harder to find cheap freelancers. Freelancers usually charge what they’re worth.

SMMA agencies don’t last

The SMMA/agency-in-a-box model suffers from fundamental problems that don’t allow them to last for long. They are truly quick-win, short-term projects at best…and a waste of money that sells courses from gurus at worst.

They suffer from the following:

  • High churn
  • High cost for no strategy/value
  • Difficult sales, lots of promises

When you are trying to build an agency that can only survive on high-volume cold email/calling, no subject matter expertise, and a infomercial style sales process, you have to promise results that simply cannot realistically be provided. If you charge $5000 a month and don’t deliver any results, you will charge $5000 for exactly one month before a client realizes you have no idea what you’re talking about, ask for a refund, and leave you for greener pastures.

So why do people say SMMA works?

Gurus have been saying SMMA works because they are selling courses. But here’s the thing. I have yet to find a single guru who knows jack squat about digital marketing. They are just regurgitating the same basic information you can find for free on YouTube.

And it’s not like digital marketing can’t work. It’s pretty easy for anyone land a few clients and make a few grand…for a month or so. It is easy enough to see mediocre results, enough to sell a few more course add-ons or premium memberships. But that’s it. Without actual experience, you’ll run through all your leads, burn your bridges, and be left back at square one.

Gurus are slick. They promise things that everyone wants. The actual advice is super generic at best, ignorant on average, and misleading at worst.

Why is the SMMA model so attractive?

In the vast majority of cases, the SMMA model is attractive because there is no shortage of young folks out there who want to work for themselves. They’re ambitious, independent, and want to find out ways to live life on their own terms. Maybe they don’t really know what career path to follow, and it’s inspiring.

These are great reasons. I understand. That was why Anya and I started our agency in 2017…we weren’t fulfilled either personally or financially in our boring old 9-to-5s. So I totally get it.

But there is also a portion of the audience who, unfortunately, are just lazy. I hope it’s a minority, but there are definitely folks out there who can’t hold a job and are just looking for quick overnight riches.

How do you identify a scammer?

More than anything, they use jargon and catchphrases. They have entire course modules called “mindset” where they teach things called “Monk Mode” and “War Path”. They use phrases you never hear in the real world — like “high-ticket” or “appointment setters” or “personal manifestation”.

They choose flashy over expensive. The items they flaunt are gaudy. They will wear a massive golden Audemars Piguet. They will rent a neon Lamborghini. They will wear Balenciaga.

The story is always accompanied by a rags-to-riches story that takes place way too fast. “When I was 16, my deadbeat dad kicked me out…I couldn’t afford school…I had five bucks to my name…and now, three years later, I own an eight-figure agency and drive around in a Huracan.”

They say anyone can do it. But here’s the hard truth. Any reputable person will hedge their promises. Just like not everyone can become an astronaut, not everyone is suited to work in digital marketing. Not everyone will be great at it.

These gurus play fast and loose with numbers. Always be cautious when people use words like “I manage millions in Google Ads” or “I own a seven-figure agency” or “I did six figures this month.” First, some people outright lie. Second, vague numbers can seem high but aren’t necessarily anything impressive…probably every freelancer out there is managing millions in Google Ads, but that doesn’t mean they’re driving Lambos.

But they live such a nice lifestyle!

The truly wealthy are shockingly low-profile, and in many cases you can’t even find information when you Google them.

You have passed billionaires on the street in New York and not known.

You have sat next to hundred-millionaires in business class, not first class.

The percentage of people who flaunt it is very low, and likely didn’t earn it.

Don’t get fooled by the glamour.

Anyone can rent a Lamborghini, stay for a night in the Four Seasons, and hop on a private jet. All you need is a credit card and some fast cash. Usually the type you get by selling $1500 courses to how to get rich quick.

There are many, many multimillionaires (there’s something like 18 million of them in the US alone) but the vast majority of them don’t look like it. Many of them are driving an old Honda and living in a modest house in the suburbs.

So how do you actually make money in digital marketing?

Slow and steady wins the race.

It took Anya and I a half-year before our agency was making as much money as we’d been making in our 9-to-5s, and I consider that very lucky. Anya and I had both been freelancing & working in marketing for years before we started Discosloth.

Even now, six years after starting Discosloth, I learn new things every single day.

The only way to start is to start. Freelance. Take a few courses (the affordable, technical type). Read a couple books (the affordable ones). Get a job adjacent to marketing. Network. Find something you’re interested in. Learn more about it. Do pro bono work for local nonprofits. Start offering gigs on platforms like Fiverr or UpWork just to get experience in various niches. Slowly increase your prices. Become an expert. Build your own personal brand. Land bigger clients. Then…eventually…you will either be able to land a lucrative in-house position, a great job at an agency, or even start your own.

I personally think the micro-agency model (a specialized, high-margin, low-overhead boutique) is the best approach.

But it will take years, not weeks.

But if you stick with it, it will happen.

(A couple years ago, I published a book called Building A Successful Micro-Agency: A Guide to Starting Profitable & Sustainable Digital Marketing Agencies which is expressly meant to help people build a business the right way. Slow and steady wins the race!)

If you like what you've read, follow me on Twitter!

19 thoughts on “Why the SMMA model is fundamentally broken”

  1. Wow, at some point, I was like, you just called out these so-called gurus out and I wish every young and ambitious star see this post. I am surely sharing these.

    1. I am the co-founder of an agency, to be sure. But we do not follow the SMMA model. There is no way we could have been successful if we’d followed a flawed business model.

    2. Did you read the text fully? What he’s saying is, that the SMMA Business Model, created buy those rich kid Gurus, is not sustainable. The text also says why and gives a good alternative, like the Micro Agency Model.

  2. If SMMA model is truly broken why does Iman Gadzhi have so many successful students and why are there other youtubers who started their agencies and learnt from his model who are also successful
    Even if he were a scamm
    Check the testimonials on his websites, interview/investigate people who have worked for him in the past

    Check the following youtubers below before you start making noise , killing the dreams of YOUNG hopefuls
    [links removed]




    1. I think your unhinged comment has proved my point. If you read my blog post carefully, you will see that I spend a lot of time helping folks start out in marketing. I would love nothing more for some young folks to run laps around me. There is plenty of work in the world for all of us!

    2. Naive is my only word for you, the more you experience in this youtube online business, hustling culture space you will understand that things are not always what it’s look like. And believe me every bit of this blog post is reality whether you like it or not, my one advice for you is if you really want to get somewhere you should consider accept and follow this blog advice. (I used to be like you young and ambitious desprately hungry for win, glad that I’ve shifted myself from those no-future SMMA owner to actually learning a skill UI/UX design which now put me in a much better place)

  3. Hi, I’ll be blunt here, I’m in AUS and I’m still in high school (year 11, senior year), I have a genuine interest in sales and business, cliché as that might sound, I do honestly want create value for people that would be clients of mine and perfectly fine with this venture taking years for it to be successful, however I don’t want purse school any further due to my apathy for uni and, mainly bullying, and the depression that comes with that, I find that their is no hope in my situation, I have a good backup plan, but I’m unsure because of the reputational aspects, is there any advice you can give me, I really need it.

    1. I think it’s commendable that you’re being proactive about this. My best suggestion would be: start freelancing at something you enjoy/find interest in. You gotta start small. And I’d say this: there is always hope in every situation, you just have to exercise some control over your situation! Best of luck.

    2. Oh my God, no piece of writing has ever resonated with me like this, thank you for penning this down Gil! Been seeing these flashy -unrealistic- get rich quick schemes for years now and have not come across one of them who provides proof in the pudding, like how you or other agency owner would showcase an actual client/business that found success and are operating in the real world, selling real products/services, they just don’t have any substance to them. The impressionable get lured to their lifestyle and viola game on!

      Literally every other reel or TikTok today talks about 5/7 or 10 hacks to start your side hustle today, and its usually something along the lines of Content creation, social media mgmt, dropshipping or e-comm that too with just using Ai tools. I’ve spent a good decade in brand marketing, content, ppc and e-commerce, I cant help but chuckle a bit when they term it ‘Side hustle’, little do they know e-commerce is a huge beast itself and so is providing other marketing services that demands more than your typical 40 hours a week, I have been there done that. Success demands consistency and hard work in the long term, you gotta keep your head down and be at it for years and years till you master it, there is not shortcut to success and who ever tells you otherwise is a SCAM!!

      1. Yup, I had to learn that the hard way. I spent almost a year in Tate’s real world affiliate program and came out with useless skills, they taught me how to make TikTok’s and promised me it was the new way to make money and that every business would need TikTok affiliate videos, I was brainwashed. But I’m glad I learned my lesson that nothing good comes easy or fast in life.

    3. I am overwhelmed by a fundamental wave of harmonious agreement with every word you just placed in this text. I am certain others share “our” opinion. However, I have never witnessed the thoughts so exactly worded as they are in my head. The get rich quick generation really makes it difficult to genuinely connect with like minded individuals who share similar interests and professional and/or creative journeys.
      {*pause*} sorry I had to step away from this tab to purchase your books.
      Glad I stumbled upon this page today.

    4. Hi, let me express my opinion about this topic, I sand somewhere in the middle between saying that all internet gurus are frauds, and that they are litheraly gods that save young entrepreneurs lifes.
      You can agree or disagree, but please be repectful and maybe write your thoughts about my comment below.

      So I agree with statement that most internet gurus are just salesman who wants you to but their product, but in my opinion it doesnt neserly mean that this product doesn’t have any actiual value. Let me tell you an example. I see a youtube add, “FREE webinar about creating habits!”. I actiualy wanted to start this whole “self-improvement” think, and got a free hour or two (i would probably waste is on tiktok or youtube), so why not try. Funny think this is only time I clicked on youtube add. I lesten to webinar, sounds good, at the end there is promotion of whole course with discount, as allways. But this whole think reasonated with me so well, that I decidet to invest in myself. It was one on the best decisions of my life. In short course helps you build not exacly habits, but ability to build any habit you want in the future. Its based on real studies that they constantly reffer in course, and there is a 50 day money back guarantee if someone is not happy with how it work. In my opinion, perfect course.

      And now to the main topic, yes I bought recendly Iman course about SMMA agency. Yes, I got convinced with all this salesman talking. And I probably did it beacouse I already had good memories with online courses, but its also not like I bought it under an impulse, I thought, meditate calm myself and pray (Im a religous person). After watching this course for quite some time, I realized couple thinks. This whole think isn’t like – buy me I will make you rich, but many people assume that. It’s more like guidance and help in archieving succes with agency, im not saying SMMA on purpose beaocuse course doesn’t requre you to chose exactly this type of busines model, but it proposes you some variations, at least thats how I see it. Inside it what you are promised, it that you will get your client in worst case scenario in 24 months, and after that its only easier, seams reasonable if this client is a succes and he is happy with your services. What I find good there, is the fact that this whole think is like leading you be the hand, and not only tells you general advice on what to do, but also how and why. Biggest wrong think in this whole course, in my opinion, is convincing people that running an agency is for everyone, and with exacly THIS course everone can archieve greatness, even in by the end of 2024, while thats ofcourse not the case.
      I think I need to end it here beacouse I wrote quite an essey, but I will continue going through the course, and either I will actiualy build somethink that works, or not and I will just learn a valuable life lesson.
      Remember, this is all based on my expirience, opinion and beliefs, everyone have different, just answer what you think about it, and why, thanks.
      Have a good day everyone, 🙂 (Ps. sorry if I made and errors)

      1. Hey there, appreciate your comment. I feel like you should try to get as much out of the course as possible. I hope it does end up helping you. However, I still believe that these guys are some of the “shadier” people in the business (to say the least) so I hope the money spent was worth it. If I may ask, how much did it end up costing?

        1. Appreciate your reply. If it was worth it, idk😅, we will see in maybe a year. $997 for flagship course + 2 other couses, that I didnt check out yet, beacouse they are about specific skills, not running and agency in general, so I wont talk about them, but they seems more like a bonus, defenetly nos a big as main think, and originally it cost 1500$ (each one of the 3 thinks). What is promising is that its life time membership, so I will see live how other people are doing, if thera acually are people archieving succeses or everyone is having problems😂, and that this whole think is constantly improving, and every new change or feature is included. Btw your book “Building A Successful Micro-Agency” seems intresting, maybe will check it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *