So You Want To Be A Marketing Consultant: Here’s What To Know

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature.”

– Helen Keller

So you’ve discovered you want to be a marketing consultant. You’re looking forward to the good life: Jetting around the world giving keynote speaking sessions and being featured in Forbes Magazine about your rise to glory. Or maybe you’re just going to sit around and enjoy the $2,000 a month retainers from clients who you do conference calls with biweekly and enjoy a fun, easy life.

Now let me pour the cold, cruel water of reality on you like we’re partaking in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Okay, that’s a little strong, but the point stands. Marketing consulting is a very idealized field when you’re used to seeing images of the top dogs in the field living the high life. Or maybe you’ve been wooed by the endless $100 e-courses promising you that you can make a hundred billion dollars a year working part time from home.

What you don’t see is the incredibly long, hard road to get there and the realities of working as a marketing consultant in terms of what’s expected of you.

So before you prepare to enjoy working for five hours a week remotely from a beach in Hawaii let’s talk a little about this career. I spent my burgeoning career years as a marketing consultant before I transitioned to what I do now, so this is going to be anecdotal as much as matter of fact. It’s not necessarily going to be a detailed learner’s guide either.

It’s also a lengthy blog post, so grab a coffee, put on some background music and have a sit down.

Why Do You Want To Get Into Marketing Consulting?

In an age where anyone with a working computer and someone with moderate showmanship is a consultant or runs a “firm” it’s important to ask yourself this question: Why?

I’m going to be very blunt: Marketing is one of those industries that people default to because they have nowhere else to go or no idea what else to do. It’s part of why marketing consultants and people starting new marketing agencies almost never last more than two years. Before anyone starts to think I’m acting like a guru, I was in the same situation when I first graduated; my saving grace was a background in marketing and copywriting along with some excellent mentors. Plus I stuck with it until transitioning to web development where I took what I’d learned and applied it to my new, far more sustainable model.

In the years that I’ve met many self-identified marketers there are pretty common patterns to look for in most of them. Recent college graduates will get into marketing because they don’t have other tangible skill sets to work with (those marketing gen ed courses don’t count). People in the middle of their careers will do it because they got burnt out or are unhappy with their current jobs. Everyone will have a go at it after they’ve been fired and need to keep bringing money in, or they might think being fired means it’s the right “time” to start a marketing firm. Maybe some of these people will have also seen how the top tier marketing consultants jet around the world giving keynote presentations and landing lucrative book deals and decide they want a piece of that pie (the odds of reaching this level of success are astronomical but more on that later).

It’s also a very popular myth that you can “start a business” if you’re feeling unsatisfied at work. This is a terrible line of thinking.

Except none of these will motivate you to deliver real value for your clients. No matter how much you brag about having a passion for marketing on your LinkedIn.

The difference between working as a marketing consultant versus working in house for a company or at a marketing agency is that recruiters and interviewers can generally sniff out the would-be marketers. Actual interest in marketing is difficult to fake beyond a superficial level that involves liking every social media marketing on Facebook that you can. Marketing consultants, however inexperienced, don’t have that problem so there’s no quality control.

Consider this piece from Bryony Thomas, writing about her road to marketing consultancy:

Before setting up my consultancy business…I had worked in agencies putting together marketing campaigns for companies such as Microsoft and Dell, then client-side as marketing director for a fast-growing technology company, and as divisional director of marketing for a FTSE 100. Having seen both sides of the agency/client relationship and worked with budgets from a shoestring to multi-million pounds, I’m well placed to help people get the most from every penny they have. And, that’s what I now do. I help ambitious growing businesses to make their marketing pay.

Thomas’ history demonstrates a long track record of demonstrated interest in marketing rather than simply stating it. Even if you’ve never formally worked in marketing before, consider your own interests. Do you enjoy the process of following and tracking money? Getting granular with numbers and analytics? Using a limited budget to generate measurable sales? More to the point, do you like making money? These are all great signs when valuing how much  you’ll like marketing as a profession rather than something you’ll like when you went to that keynote presentation by that charming speaker.

In short, is this a placeholder career for you, or is it something you really want to do? Did you suddenly “discover” your passion for marketing after being conveniently laid off or burning out? Believe me, most people you pitch will be able to tell the difference.

Your Competition Will Be Everywhere

I mentioned earlier that anyone with a working computer and some decent sales skills is a marketing consultant. This means your competition will be prolific.

In terms of direct competitors the marketing consulting field is more saturated than everyone trying to make a go of making YouTube videos for a living and it’s arguably as cutthroat. Even if you’re in a smaller community, I can guarantee other people have had the idea to hang up a shingle prior to you. That’s hardly your only competition for marketing dollars; consider that you’ll be going up against:

-Established marketing agencies with in house terms that are going to have far more resources than you, even if they’ll likely work with different clienteles.
-Large conglomerate companies that have “digital marketing” agency arms like Hibu.
-In-house marketing employees of your own would-be clients. Why hire you when it’s a problem they could solve themselves?

Don’t take my word for it; type in “marketing consultant (insert your town here)” on Google. You’ll likely see a slew of direct, indirect and peripheral competitors in your area alone. Even if you don’t consider them direct competitors, between the various flavors and subflavors of marketing consulting there’s likely to be a lot of overlap between what you do and what they do.

They’re also as active as you are, if not more. Ask any small business; they get pitched by Google and Hibu a dozen times a day.

You Need To Stand Out – To Get Customers and For Your Own Sake

I’m not talking catchy, witty or otherwise attention grabbing advertising (though that definitely helps it would warrant a separate blog post). Instead, I’m talking about standing out in terms of your service offerings.

Remember that businesses usually get pitched a dozen times a day, usually from large conglomerates. So if you’re a standalone marketing consultant you have an edge, because you’re the business proprietor and not account manager #27, but you also need to demonstrate something unique that you bring to the table. Otherwise you’re just yet another pitch.

Here’s the mistake I made when I was starting out and I see even successful marketing consultants make: They structure their services based on what they want to sell and not what the business wants.

This is why some of my clients balk at $500 a month for Yelp ads they’re pitched on. $500 a month is a fortune to some of the tiny Main Street merchants I work with. It’s not designed for them but they’re being sold it anyway.

Here’s an example. I’m visible enough to be pitched semifrequently by software providers. I usually politely pass, but the ones I remember are the ones that say some variation of:

“I’ve done some research on you, and going by your tweets you market heavily to local businesses. Our software specifically does this…”

In short, they tailored their pitch to match who I work for. That’s exactly what you need to do. When you sit down with prospective customers, ask how you can help them or what they need – don’t sell to them.

You can also do this by being super niche in terms of your focus. Jon Loomer, for example, does great work with advanced Facebook marketing and makes it work. In order to make this sustainable you also have to be on a viable platform; those Pokemon Go cottage marketing industries died in a matter of months.

So it’s easy enough to charge hourly for your time for “marketing”, but you need to think bigger.

You also need to think beyond billing hourly in the long term for marketing consulting work. The hourly business structure ties your time to your money, which is a terrible business model for a simple reason: Time is a finite resource that you never get back. It also caps your earning potential and necessitates that you put in 12 hour workdays in order to both maintain a livable income and keep a massive pipeline of business flowing.

Yes, if you can get to a level where you’re a rockstar consultant charging $250 and are constantly sought after you’ll be set, but if you have a bad year you’re done.

Time to do some math. Let’s be very generous and assume you command rates of $75 per hour as a rookie marketing consultant (your actual rates will likely be below $50). Let’s also be incredibly generous and assume you work a full 40-hour work based solely on consulting. That’s $3,000 for a week of work. If you manage to keep this going that would amount to $12,000 for a month of work. On paper, it sounds pretty lucrative.

In practice, it’s incredibly rare for all but the most seasoned and in-demand marketing professionals to bill 40 hours per week, every week, month after month, year after year. I’ve seen consultants go from earning $11,000 in a month to earning nothing the very next month.

You also don’t factor in travel time, which you definitely won’t be able to bill for. Not to mention basic human needs like eating and sleeping that take work hours away. So you’ll often see marketing consultants abandon the hourly billing model altogether or branch out with paid E-books, sponsored content, subscription based services, or other methods of not putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Know Your Expectations

Every single business from mom and pop to Fortune 100 will have the following expectations from marketing services, especially from external consultants. Even if they don’t articulate it in this specific way – hell, even if they tell you these aren’t what they want, every business demand can boil down to three things:

  1. Can you make us money?
  2. Can you save us money?
  3. Can you improve or streamline a marketing process?

If you in your capacity of what you’re pitching can’t answer at least one of those questions off the top of your head, that’s a very bad sign.

Don’t chime in with comments about how it’s really about the ROI, the community building, the engagement, or the brand awareness, or however many buzzwords you can pull off of a Social Media Today article. The idea behind what you’re doing is to spend money in order to make money for your clients, or otherwise the lay the foundation for making money through generating sales leads.

Marketing, contrary to popular belief, isn’t an expense; it’s an investment. If you’re being paid a $500 month retainer for your marketing services, you need to show – every single month – that your actions are either directly or indirectly resulting in a net gain of $501 for your customer. Otherwise you are turning it into just an expense, one that’s likely to get the axe when there’s an economic downturn or an unfavorable season for business. That’s when business owners start deciding what they can cut and if you’re losing more money than you’re making, you’re out.

Sounds hard, doesn’t it? Probably because it is. Nobody said this was going to be easy. Marketing gets a lot of flak from business owners or executives who find it to be a waste of time and money, but it’s simply not as essential of a service as paying an electrician to keep your lights on. Part of what makes marketing consulting such an arduous career path is that you need to prove your worth more often than Kratos does in the God of War games and you won’t have the luxury of working at a marketing company where the sales are handled by other people. Unlike providers of electricity or accounting the value isn’t readily apparent, especially in an era where digital marketing is still considered a “new thing” by many owners and executives.

Your Results Need To Be Tangible

This article was a personally important read for me back in 2012 when I was a bright eyed rookie and the cynicism hadn’t set in. It tells the story of a small business owner turned HubSpot employee who sank $70,000 into a marketing agency and had nothing to show for it other than some Twitter followers and press releases. Which, by the way, are generally only read by other companies looking for people to pitch and the agency’s family members.

Three months later and a grand total of $70,000 poorer, it was time to say goodbye. The agency just never produced the results we cared about. And probably worse, they felt like they did but could never produce a report to prove it to us. 

This marketing agency fell into the classic trap: Thinking you’re delivering results when the client isn’t seeing them. If you’re a marketing consultant this will almost certainly happen to you at some point: Trying to convince a client that the results are happening rather than demonstrably showing the results you’re confident in. It puts you on the defensive and it forces you into trying to justify your value at a point where you may not even be convinced of it yourself at that point.

When you charge money for marketing consultations efforts without quantifiable analytics or deliverables you aren’t justifying your job. For all the client knows you could be making Facebook updates while alt tabbing out of Minecraft every so often.

The bottom line is that after every given month, quarter or year, you should be able to present hard facts. Consider the following questions:

How many new customers did you bring me this month?
How many sales dollars did they produce?
What did it cost me for you to bring them in?

For every single client you work with as a marketer you should be presenting a detailed list of answers to all of those questions. Or, if you’re hired for a specific purpose like a brand building campaign, you need to work closely with whoever else is on the team and directly tie your efforts to the above questions.

Don’t try and weasel out of this by presenting “soft” data like website hits or Facebook impressions, especially without tying them to the money. This may impress your clients for a while, but sooner or later they’re going to realize they’re not bringing in any money that they can tie to you. It’s easy to coast along by not holding yourself accountable for producing results when times are good; when those unfavorable business times set in you’re going to be on the chopping block.

Compare it to web design. It’s easy to see the tangible results of what you pay for because a website is something presented it to you. It may be a terrible design but at least you can visualize the work. Unless you’re working on site a majority of the time your clients have no idea what you’re doing; they’ll only see the results. Show them the money.

Your Road To Success Will Be Astronomical and No, You Probably Won’t Get Rich

Building any kind of business is hard, hard work. Any kind of solo-based consultancy (or even if you have enough capital to hire a few people immediately) runs into the usual problems entrepreneurs encounter:

-You’re starting from square one in a heavily saturated field full of qualified professionals, as mentioned earlier.
-You will almost always have to run your entire business on your own: Accounting, billing, marketing, sales, administration.
-You will almost always encounter growing pains as your business grows but not enough to truly erupt (see below).
-Expectations of customers will change and your business model will be disrupted, especially in an industry as nebulous as marketing.

Regardless of how you charge and what you sell, don’t expect businesses to beat down your door when you first start out. Not unless you begin your marketing consulting journey after an incredibly successful career at a larger company and prove yourself indispensable resource (and let’s face it, if you’re reading this you aren’t there yet).

If you really want to “get rich,” (however you define that) you need to keep working at this full time until you’re a seasoned and well known marketer with a stable roster of clients in addition to having regular business coming in constantly. That doesn’t happen in five years; it may not even happen in ten.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about marketing consulting, along with most other business ventures that business leaders’ books will almost never tell you: They got lucky. Even Ezra Callahan, an early Facebook employee called it the “dumbest luck” despite likely having worked extremely hard at the company.

So yes, you can work hard and follow your dreams all you want, but especially in an industry as rapidly changing and evolving as marketing consulting, you need to be lucky enough to meet the right people, be in the right industry and have a variety of factors come together to make you a success. You may build it but you don’t do it on your own.

Hitting the Ceiling: Break Or Walk?

There’s a bigger risk than simply failing when it comes to being a marketing consultant. Depending on your lifestyle and living expenses “failing” can actually be harder to do if you have clients on retainer or are managing a large project.

The real risk is not going bankrupt but rather falling into a holding pattern and spending years in a hamster wheel making little progress even though you’re staying afloat. Yes, you could completely fail, but your life isn’t over; this happens all the time and everyone bounces back.

Instead, what tends to happen after a certain point is that every burgeoning marketing consultant hits a roof that’s very difficult to break through.

The roof can be built from a variety of factors: A changing marketing landscape that could make your specific services less relevant. Referrals drying up. A fixed amount of work stretching you to your limits. General lack of enthusiasm for work. A demanding client that makes you rethink whether or not this is actually what you want to do.

It happened to me about three years in. In addition to being tasked to capacity I had signed a large technology company – easily my biggest retainer to date and several times the money I was making with my other clients. This particular client on its own was exhausting despite the money, but the landscape was also changing in a way that was making my specific services less appealing to the target audience I was most familiar with at the time.

I spent far too much time essentially stuck in a holding pattern, unable to figure out how to draw in additional business as my referrals dried up from the lack of new business; essentially it was a horrible feedback loop. This isn’t uncommon, especially among younger aspiring marketing consultants who aren’t as familiar with the process.

In a weird way I both quit and broke through the ceiling. I ended up divesting most of my clients and taking a break only to return with my web hosting model, which prompted most of my first generation customers to rehire me.

If may different for you, but this will happen; at the time you won’t realize it but it will be a pivotal moment whether you decide to push forward or turn back.

What If You Wash Out?

Let’s assume the worst: What if  you throw in the towel after two years (or more) after failing to break through the ceiling?

The good news is you have a lot of options by this point. Assuming you’ve been in the game for a few years you’ll have acquired a lot of transferrable skills. Even if you defied my warning and hung a shingle as a marketing consultant with no prior experience you’ll have learned plenty, albeit as a trial by fire. Freelancers and consultants are popular to recruiters and headhunters scouring for candidate placements tend to like consultants, as it implies a degree of entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to think outside the box.

Exit opportunities in general are pretty solid for marketing consultants who want out. You could go to work for a larger company, or you could market yourself based on the copywriting or public relations experience. You may even wind up relaunching as a more specialized consultant with what you’ve learned; like I said, people bounce back all the time.

If you’re like me, you may have even learned enough to get into another field altogether like web development. There’s no silver bullet answer.

I Broke the Ceiling! What Next?

Congratulations; you’ve done it. Your business has hit critical mass and you’ve become a successful marketing consultant against all odds. What now?

Hey, don’t look at me. I’m just here to report on the path to get here. There are an infinite number of roads you can take; the rest is up to you.

SparkNotes Version

Okay, that was a lengthy read (to the tune of nearly 4,000 words). Just to recap the major points if you want the abridged version:

  1. Think about why you’re really getting into marketing consulting. Is it because you really want to, or because you’ve “discovered” it after getting burnt out, fired, hate your job or aren’t satisfied with your life?
  2. In an age of granular analytics and tracking you’re going to be expected to constantly demonstrate your results. Otherwise you’re going to get pink slips when your clients realize they can’t tie any success to you.
  3. If you want to reach Peter Shankman-levels of consulting success it requires work, sacrifice, risk and persistence. This doesn’t happen in a few years – it happens by spending 10-20 years going above and beyond. There’s no magic bullet.
  4. Getting into marketing consulting to “get rich” is a horrible idea.
  5. Your biggest risk will be falling into a holding pattern where you’re staying above water but not making any progress.

From here on out, the choice is yours.