Jaron Soh is Co-founder and COO at Traktion, the platform that makes hiring for growth simpler, agile, and more profitable for businesses.
According to a recent survey by The Digital Project Manager, the two biggest project management challenges of 2020 can be neatly summarised as people problems and project problems.
If that sounds a little vague, let’s get specific. 27% of those surveyed experienced challenges with their project stakeholders (i.e. people), while 24% encountered challenges with budgets and deadlines (you guessed it, project).
Thinking about this within the context of a marketing project, it’s easy to get distracted by those project-related concerns, wondering: “How do I deliver this on time and on budget?”
Well, here’s the thing… In my experience, you’re asking yourself the wrong question.
When it comes to marketing, don’t focus solely on the “how”; make sure you look at the “who”, too.
There’s a people problem to overcome. Ask who you should use to help deliver your marketing project on time and on budget; a solo marketing consultant, or a full-blown marketing agency? To answer that, you need to understand how they differ from one another, and the scenarios in which to use them.
In this Process Street post, we help you do just that. Here we explore:
- Agency vs. consultant: Spot the difference (pros & cons)
- Marketing agency vs. marketing consultant: When to use one or the other?
- Which is better for project managers?
Agency vs. consultant: Spot the difference (pros & cons)
While it’s true that there’s some overlap between marketing agencies and solo marketing consultants, you can broadly distinguish them in the following way:
The best consultants are usually T-shaped. That is, they’re a marketing generalist with a deep focus on a particular area of expertise, such as branding, SEO, PPC, social media, etc.
- The pros of working with a consultant are that they’re flexible, up-to-speed with trends, have good brand awareness, and excel in devising effective high-level strategies.
- The cons are that they’re not always able (or willing) to execute strategy, while it can be difficult to vet experience and expertise.
An agency, on the other hand, is a company of marketing experts able to work to scale across a range of channels.
- Working with an agency gives you access to a broader set of skills and technical expertise, underpinned by KPI-driven workflows and processes.
- However, agencies can be more expensive than consultants; they aren’t always focused on strategy, and they aren’t as agile.
The major differences, therefore, are:
- Budget 💵: Agencies have more billable hours, and are typically more expensive.
- Time 🕒: Consultants only have so much of it, while agencies can delegate more easily.
- Expertise 👨💻: Specialist for consultants, but tends to be broader for agencies.
- Reliability 👍: Agencies have the processes to absorb staff absences, but a consultant is a single point of failure.
In some cases, the line between consultant and agency is blurred – and this has become more common as freelance and remote work emerges as the norm and teams get more agile.
One such content marketing specialist in my network, Matt Goolding from KYO, actually takes a hybrid approach in this consultant versus agency dichotomy.
“I try to give clients the best of both worlds,” Matt says. “As the main point of contact, I offer consultancy and strategy, but I also have a team in the background that can deliver agency-type services. For example, scaling up content production quicker than if I was alone working with the in-house team.”
According to Matt, this is a challenge because it’s two distinct modes of thought, and you have to balance very different sets of processes:
“Project managers do like having someone on hand, rather than going through an account manager. But, naturally, this means you need to wear many hats at the same time – the creative one, the strategic one, the operational one, and the commercial one.”
What businesses think about agencies vs. consultants
It’s easy to pontificate about whether agencies are better than consultants, or vice versa – but it’s better to gather real qualitative insights from businesses who have worked with both providers and can attest to the pros and cons.
With this in mind, I spoke to four experienced professionals who have managed marketing projects to see what they think about the agency vs. consultant question.
⭐ 1. Michael Lorenzos ⭐
Michael Lorenzos is Paid Acquisition Manager at Bleach London. He’s had experience in partnering with consultants and agencies as an in-house manager – but also worked within an agency himself.
According to Michael:
“There are clear benefits and drawbacks to each option, and it very much depends what type of business you are, and what type of marketing project is in play.”
And he says, “generally, the benefits of working with a consultant are that you pay for less overheads, you’re dealing directly with that person, and they’re not delegating tasks to juniors. They tend to be quite nimble and adaptable – it’s like having an extra team member on hand.”
That said, according to Michael, agencies also add value in terms of processes, structure, playbooks, and their knowledge extracted from other large-budget clients. He says:
“But sometimes they’re rigid in structure and set on doing things their way, so you don’t have as much visibility as with a consultant.”
⭐ 2. Marcus Franck ⭐
Marcus Franck, co-founder at Vallon reflects a similar view. As a serial entrepreneur, he often relies on agencies and consultants to support his internal team in specialist areas such as PPC, SEO, and content marketing. As a person with ambitious growth targets, Marcus needs to have full confidence that an outsourced supplier will handle a job with quality, timeliness, and budget in mind at all times.
“Messaging is more important than people think, especially when marketing campaigns are competing with such a high volume of noise,” he says. “Consultants tend to be more interactive, meaning they get the tone and build deeper knowledge about your niche that agencies simply don’t have the time to do.”
And Marcus sees the nimbleness of consultants as a benefit, just like Michael does:
“If you work with a consultant instead of an agency, you reduce the number of complex third parties involved, and you can go straight to market rather than waiting for the processes of an agency to get into gear,” he says.
Another issue that Marcus has noticed is that sometimes the scope of work can get lost between the initial sales or onboarding calls and the team who are executing on the account.
“A good agency will be alert to this danger, and makes sure everybody’s completely aligned,” he says. “But I’ve heard founders and managers in my network complain that they’ve been promised the world only to be let down later.”
⭐ 3. Rebecca Hughes ⭐
Rebecca Hughes, Content Manager at e-commerce platform Artisan & Fox, echoes similar concerns in working with agencies.
“We’ve worked with some agencies where the quality of work lapses quickly over time. This happens when people are reassigned and then things get lost in the mix,“ she says. “We finally settled on a good agency where the execution has been stable and professional, but that took us many months and numerous tries to find.”
⭐ 4. Alex Quail ⭐
Finally, I also spoke to Alex Quail, Group Digital Manager at NoteMachine. He has previously worked as a consultant and as a strategist at a digital agency, and during his time as in-house digital marketer he has managed projects in partnership with both types of provider. In his view, agencies offer a lot of benefits.
“Working with an agency invites a broader range of specialisms, perspectives, and insights that can have a range of benefits for marketing campaign activity,” Alex says. “And agencies often have access to suites of advanced tooling that may not be commercially viable otherwise.”
He also mentions that the larger agencies typically have direct relationships with advertising platforms and networks such as Google and Facebook, which allows their clients to benefit from the latest features and developments – as well as having a route to direct consultation.
When we look at these three distinct businesses, we see that the perception of agency versus consultant is similar across the board.
Consultants are agile, integrated into the team, and responsive. At the same time, agencies bring a wealth of knowledge and experience – and a crack team to execute projects. This is supported by access to tools and networks that would otherwise be out of reach for many businesses.
Marketing agency vs. marketing consultant: When to use one or the other?
What are the use cases for choosing a marketing consultant over a marketing agency (or vice versa)? Well, generally speaking, it comes down to your needs.
The need for an agency suggests that you don’t have the full internal capabilities to implement a marketing project. Meanwhile, the need for a consultant suggests that you may have some sort of marketing structure or system in place to execute, but you require the guidance of an expert on strategy and optimisation. Even then, depending on your circumstances, this can be incredibly nuanced.
Here are some examples of when you might choose one over the other:
1. Early stage startups finding their feet 🌱
For companies in the early stages of growth — not yet funded and still trying to pinpoint product-market fit — bringing a consultant on board can be a masterstroke. Your needs aren’t really focused on execution, because there’s less strategy to execute.
Therefore, a strategic consultant can help you determine how to position your brand, who your target audience is, and how to get your product/service in front of them.
2. Scale-ups with short-term marketing goals 📈
For growing companies (in the short-term) there may be a strategy in place, devised by the CMO or head of marketing. However, the marketing infrastructure could still be lacking, meaning that in order to execute the strategy, the business requires outside help.
Here, you can go one of two ways:
- Hire an agency to handle the implementation of the strategy in full, across all channels. This is an attractive option as agencies have teams and processes in place to scale alongside the needs of your business.
- Hire consultants with domain expertise. This is helpful as consultants can fine-tune your strategy during the implementation stage — but remember that there are only so many hours in a day. The demands of your business could quickly outpace the output of an individual.
3. Established businesses with long-term marketing goals 🌳
For larger businesses with an established internal marketing structure, bringing in an agency to support ongoing marketing activities makes a lot of sense. Effective execution relies on stability, and with processes, systems, and a conveyor belt of talent, an agency can provide this in abundance.
An agency is also a safer bet than a consultant for this type of work, as you’re minimizing the risk of putting so much responsibility onto the shoulders of a single person. The moment a consultant takes a vacation, or falls ill, everything can grind to a halt. See the bus factor for more on that!
(But wait!) Some common misconceptions worth noting
On the face of it, the stage at which the business is at should dictate whether or not you opt for a consultant or an agency, right?
Well, it’s not always so simple.
You might think a consultant will provide you with their undivided attention, but they can have multiple clients and projects all pulling them in several different directions at the same time.
And you might think that the only way to scale is with an agency. But not all agencies are created equal, and many consultants have their own network of trusted freelancers and experts to deliver results quickly and effectively.
The bottom line: Which is better for project managers?
In short, it depends.
And as a project manager, you’re probably all-too-familiar with that answer. After all, it’s your job to consider every conceivable outcome of a scenario and plan accordingly. We’re guessing you’ve uttered it more times than you care to admit.
“What happens if we do this?”
“Well, it depends.”
As with most projects, the choice of agency vs. consultant is contingent on the needs and circumstances of the task at hand: the growth stage of the business; the project scope, goals, and deadlines, and, crucially, the available budget.
When it’s your priority to deliver work on time and on budget, choosing to work with one over the other will vary on a case by case basis. It could even mean using both for the same project. Ultimately, it’s up to you to choose the right people (or person) to help you get your project over the line.
Who that is, well, it depends…
Do you have any tips for others choosing between a marketing agency or marketing consultant? Let us know in the comments below! 👇