Marketing Agency vs. Marketing Consultant: Common Misconceptions and Specific Use Cases for One or the Other
When we talk to B2B SaaS founders and marketers who are considering working with us, one of the decisions many of them wrestle with is whether to get outside marketing help from an agency like us, or from a solo consultant. Yes, we are an agency, but we don’t think that means that every company who needs outside marketing help is best served by an agency — it’s actually really use case dependent.
We wanted to have an honest discussion about these use cases in an article that we can share with future SaaS companies that are debating this same issue.
Here are the thoughts we typically hear from people leaning towards either option.
For those leaning towards hiring a solo consultant, their thought process is usually something like:
“We’d be able to do more with a consultant because they’d be cheaper. And they’d be more able to focus on our business because they’d be less distracted by other clients.” Or, “We just don’t need all the firepower of an agency.”
On the other side of the coin, those who are leaning towards hiring a digital agency are often thinking:
“We’ve worked with consultants in the past and they’ve been flaky. They’ve told us they were going to deliver something by a certain date and it was late. And I thought they were going to be able to do more than they actually did.”
We don’t think either of these lines of thinking is productive in making your decision. They are preconceived notions typically based on bad experiences with either, which may come from SaaS businesses being unclear on exactly why they chose one option or the other.
Instead, we think the key to making this decision is to better understand the role each option plays. If you know that, and know what your goals are, then you are more likely to pick the right option.
So to address this, in this article we’re going to:
- Debunk some of the myths about working with agencies and consultants
- Compare and contrast agencies and consultants to explain their key differences
- Lay out specific use cases where it makes sense to hire either a marketing consultant or an agency
Thinking about hiring an outside resource to boost your marketing efforts? Schedule a Free SaaS Scale Session to learn about how we can help you.
3 Misconceptions We’ve Seen in the Agency vs. Consultant Decision
The misconceptions we typically see around hiring outside marketing resources are typically related to the attention you’ll receive, who actually does the work you need done, and credentials.
1. “One Option Will Offer Us More Attention Than the Other”
There is often this idea that a consultant will be able to offer you more of their time because they have fewer clients. In some cases, it may be true, but while a consultant typically has fewer clients, they also are just one person. And one person with multiple clients won’t necessarily be able to offer you more of their attention. So in our minds, this is a wash. One option has a single person but handles fewer clients, the other has a team, but handles more.
The attention you’ll receive is really just a function of whether either is oversubscribed in clients relative to what they can handle and that’s hard to tell a priori. Talking to their previous clients is likely the best way to validate this.
2. “Who We Hire Will Be the Only One Doing the Work”
This misconception comes in two flavors. First, companies sometimes think that hiring a consultant means the expert you hire (the one that’s earned your trust) is the individual who will do all of the work that’s planned. That may be true in some cases, but from what we’ve seen consultants are not averse to working with other contractors on projects. Often the best consultants will work with other 3rd party contractors. So if you’re talking to a potential consultant, ask. Ask in detail who will be doing what work.
And companies make similar assumptions about agencies. They’ll think, because agencies have teams in-house, they also have the capacity to complete your entire project in-house. But the reality is that many agencies still outsource certain elements of client work. For example, if you hire an advertising agency to run your paid search and social ads, they might outsource the copywriting to a freelancer while they develop strategy, architect the actual campaigns, and execute on them.
There is nothing inherently wrong with your outside marketing resource working with contractors to get the work done, but it’s common for both agencies and consultants to do this and it’s worth bringing up in conversations with the options you consider hiring.
3. “Because They Worked at a Hot SaaS Company or They Reached Agency Level, They Must Be Capable of Delivering Results”
This is a more subtle but potentially dangerous misconception. SaaS companies sometimes assume that if a consultant has a track record of working for other high-profile companies, they’ll be highly capable of getting results for their company too.
But depending on what specifically you’re hiring them to do, their skill set may or may not be a match. To suss this out, it’s useful to ask them about what specifically they were doing at those companies while they worked there. For example, if you’re hiring them for their overall demand generation results, what did they do? Did they produce the content? Did they run the ads? Who made the creative? Who did keyword research? Who optimized the social demographic targeting? These details matter when hiring a consultant for marketing services.
This same misconception applies to agencies. Here, you’re typically safer with knowing what they did because agencies are clearer on what they do versus what clients or others do. But be careful to ask the same questions about exactly who did what piece. Dig into the details of campaigns, ask about every step. In addition to figuring out who did what, you’ll also be able to gauge their own ability to clearly articulate what they did and why. If you’re unhappy with that, it means you’ll likely be unhappy with their explanations behind their choices when you’re their client, too.
The Key Differences Between Agencies and Consultants
We see three core buckets of needs that SaaS business owners and CMO’s look to fill when they’re hiring an agency or consultant:
- Strategy: What should we do?
- Planning: Who does what and when?
- Execution: Getting the actual work done.
The key high-level difference to understand between agencies and consultants is that typically an agency can facilitate all three needs while a consultant will specialize in one or two. Most good consultants would tell you that they do a few things really well but they don’t do everything.
If you do hire a consultant for all three needs, that’s when they have to begin acting like an agency without an agency’s resources — organizing a team (often one they’re not used to working with) to get the job done. Alternatively, if an agency is at full capacity or they have a knowledge gap, they’d organize a team of consultants or contractors.
Otherwise, the job will typically get done by in-house agency employees who are used to working with each other. Don’t discount the efficiency of the team having worked together before. This typically means fewer communication breakdowns and slowdowns.
Out of the 3 core needs, consultants and agencies probably overlap the most on strategy and planning. There are consultants out there whose services are execution rather than strategy, but sometimes we might think of these individuals more as implementers rather than strategists.
The bottom line is if you’re in a situation where you need one or two of the core needs, consultants can often be a great way to go. If you’re looking for everything from strategy through to execution, an agency will likely be best.
Let’s look at some specific scenarios to explain this further.
In What Specific Cases Should You Choose an Agency or a Consultant?
When You’re Early Stage Trying to Figure Out Product-Market Fit or Target Audiences
For early-stage companies, especially if you’re not funded and trying to figure out product-market fit, working with consultants is a fine choice because your needs aren’t about execution yet. You’re just trying to figure out the basis for your digital marketing strategy.
Consultants are great for helping you think through who your target audience is, how to get in front of them, and how to position yourself in the market. People like April Dunford, Jason Quey, Joel Klettke, Kamil Rextin, and Mike Sonders are friends of ours and are very good at what they do.
When You Have a Well Aligned Strategy and Plan, But Need Execution
If you have a CMO or marketing manager with strategic expertise that has developed your digital strategy and plan, but don’t yet have a team of individual contributor marketers to execute the work that needs doing, there are two directions you can go.
- Option 1: You can hire a few execution-focused consultants who specialize in the various channels you’ve decided to market through. For example, if you’ve decided to focus on SEO and paid media, you could hire a couple of individuals to do the work for each of those channels. But remember, they’re each only one person and only have so much bandwidth. Both SEO and paid media at scale can take a team to execute well.
- Option 2: You can look to a single agency who offers services in both channels and has teams built for execution.
When You Have an In-House Marketing Team Ready to Do the Heavy Lifting, But Need Guidance on Strategy
If you’re a CEO that has chosen to hire one or two execution-only marketers (rather than hiring a CMO or experienced marketer) while you oversee marketing operations, eventually you’ll reach a point where you need someone whose expertise is centered in driving marketing strategy.
These are cases in which either a consultant or an agency can be a good fit. A key part of your decision should be based simply on who you think has more strategic expertise. If the primary thing you are looking for is strategic expertise, do not compromise in finding it. Be 100% comfortable that the agency or consultant you are hiring is the one you felt could articulate strategy choices the best and had the best mastery of that marketing channel.
Now, in addition, if the strategy developed involves the need for skills that aren’t a match with your initial marketing hires, a consultant combined with your team may only be able to do a portion of the execution. In that case, an agency could be a really good option because you’ll need them for execution where your in-house team has knowledge or skill gaps.
When You Know You’re Looking for Long Term Execution
The longer the time frame is when you’re looking specifically for execution, the more likely it is that an agency will be able to support you. Even if agency staff changes, the core systems, processes, and talent pipeline will be there to make sure that execution continues smoothly.
While there are plenty of consultants who work with clients for years, the nature of working with an individual is that there is a single point of failure. If they ever are unavailable, go on vacation, get sick, or experience anything that is completely unrelated to their capability, things can come to a dead stop. That’s the risk of relying on one person.
Considering the Agency Route? Schedule a Free SaaS Scale Session
If you’re a B2B SaaS company in a position where you need someone to help move you from a tactical to a strategic approach in online marketing, turn that strategy into a roadmap and a plan, and allocate resources to actually get the work done, an agency is likely the best resource to help you reach your business goals.
We specialize in paid media (including channels such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and more) and SEO services. If you want to get in touch to learn more about how we can help you increase demos and trial signups, feel free to schedule a Free SaaS Scale Session.