The difference between an agency and a consultant
As a marketing consultant (I could add Newcastle and North East based for SEO purposes, but I won’t), I would like to think that I practice what I preach in terms of understanding my place in the market.
As someone who advises companies on how to plan and manage their marketing, I, of course, have to deal with agencies – both incumbent and those of my choosing. I’ve definitely seen the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’ in this area.
There are times when you’ll need one or the other and times when you need both. Here are my thoughts on how a consultant differs from an agency.
Firstly there is the purpose. A consultant is clearly there to provide expertise and guidance. In my case, it’s about working with business owners and managers to develop a marketing strategy and then help them implement and manage it.
An agency will, of course, bring expertise, but usually in relation to a specific and pre-determined task. This might be widely defined, e.g. improving the marketing function of a business, in which case it overlaps with a consulting role.
Clearly, a consultant can’t do everything, but neither can an agency. Letting any company write their own brief can be dangerous.
A consultant should have an overview of what is going on across the whole range of relevant activities. In the case of marketing, this is a wide field – ranging from product selection to service development, aftersales and customer relationships.
An agency should be responding to a brief, but they should, of course, be inputting a lot in terms of ideas and options.
Whilst a marketer these days might well be expected to know their way around a MAC and an Adobe programme, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should do everything. Leading and managing the activities in a coordinated way is more important. So, other specialists are always going to be required.
The same goes for an agency though in terms of needing to put together a multi-disciplinary team. It’s important to ensure that your agency has the right people doing the right parts of the job. Who is making the decisions? Who is writing the copy? Who is ensuring that the technical standards are being met? You should know the background of these individuals if you are spending money with them. And if it’s the same individual, I’d suggest you have cause for concern.
So a marketing team needs to be multi-disciplinary; regardless of whether it’s under one roof or several.
Method of delivery
I have on occasions been asked by a client ‘You don’ do websites do you?’ Well, actually, I can help you with this, but not in terms of design and development (others do that) and not if the project is about this only. You see, I can’t possibly communicate what makes your business special without working with you to define this. If you think your business is the same as others in your industry, then you have a fundamental problem to fix, right there.
What I can do is make sure that the brief is better, the content is better, the right decisions are made, and you are not just standing out, but standing out for the right reasons.
Marketing is about judgement. So, whose do you trust the most?
The number of skills required in modern marketing can be broken down into the following categories:
- Creative – including design
- Content – which is a mix of both strategic and creative
- Technical – including web development (coding) and software development
For me, it’s very difficult to imagine any individual possessing real expertise across all of these areas, regardless of who they work for.
Whatever you do, you should get your strategy right in the first instance. There is no reason that this should be part of a project around specific marketing activity or around marketing campaigns. It comes before this.
The reason strategy should not be tied in with specific marketing campaigns is that this is the equivalent of asking someone to write their own brief.
Things that should cause red flags in relation to the old ‘square peg in round hole’ include:
- Lack of clarity about who does what.
- Vagueness in details of individual backgrounds.
- Any suggestion that there is a single solution in marketing (there is a fine line between best practice and ‘this is the only way we know’.
- Any suggestion that you should do what your competitors are doing.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to micro-manage your agency, however. Such activity can hugely hamper both strategic and creative aspects.