Competing as a Consultant in a World of Digital Goliaths

Digital Consultancy, Freelancing Comments (2)

Recently I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David And Goliath, a book drawing on parables one of which I take to be about entrepreneurs changing the rules and disrupting the status quo. This book got me thinking about my position competing against a world full of digital marketing Goliath’s. How did I get to this point? Who are my competition? And what are the advantages of being a consultant in this industry?

How Did I Get Here?

I had been working in agencies and in-house roles for 6 years doing things the way others wanted (to a degree) for those picked by others. During that time “SEO” had become a word on a contract that came with a perceived guarantee of ranking increases. No one, whatever their background or relationship with Matt Cutts, can guarantee results controlled by a third party. I had also become too familiar with agency bad habits such as:

  • Taking on clients for their immediate bucks rather than their ROI potential.
  • Doing things because someone else saw success with it 6 months previously.
  • Over emphasis on packaging of reporting analytics and not on insight.
  • Fast paced progression being dramatically slowed by corporate banality.

The idea of being able to offer my own brand of digital marketing experience to my own clients, really appealed to me. Being able to work on a client’s business as if it was my own is a key value. No factory production line processes or corporate hour counting. I wanted to build a business that’s offering was based on logic, insights, planning and analysis. Not a business where I sit worrying that my clients may notice the small print and results disclaimers in my water tight service contract. All this meant starting something that I could fully control and take ownership of. Naturally the best way to take ownership of something is to actually own it. So I left the security of full time employment for the flexible world of a digital consultant and my own business was born. 

The Competition

There are many one-man business challenges I could list from funding, to resources and time management. But for me one of the biggest challenges has to be competition. Manchester has to be the third largest hot bed for digital marketing in the UK after London and (closely behind) Brighton. Throw a stone out the window of my 3rd floor Manchester office and you are likely to hit someone who classes themselves as, or is employed by a digital marketer.

manchester map

Manchester map listing “digital marketing” businesses

For a potential client the options are endless and not limited to geographic areas. There are:

  • Digital marketing consultants,
  • Digital marketing agencies,
  • Media buying agencies with a digital department,
  • Advertising agencies with a digital team,
  • PR agencies with staff trained in digital marketing,
  • Design agencies that outsource to digital consultants,
  • Web Development agencies that outsource to digital agencies,
  • Guys who went to a free lecture about digital marketing and want a bash,
  • Foreigner specialists offering suspiciously cheap package deals
  • In-house marketers sharing online responsibilities,
  • And the list goes on (Well it doesn’t. It stops here but you get what I mean).

So as a business owner and digital consultant I have to figure out how to stand out in this tightly packed crowd and help clients understand the advantages I offer.

The Advantages

So what are the advantages which help me as a consultant (and the entrepreneurial underdog) compete in such a heavily populated industry?


I know a lot of large corporates love to throw this term around like it somehow makes them agile by saying it. But I believe that by being in full control of my offering I can very quickly adapt to the swift change found in the digital industry. The very same thing that appears to make a small company so formidable can serve as stumbling block for large agencies when they’re forced to respond to a situation where the rules are changing.


When you get a pitch from an agency you are often meeting the faces of the businesses. Although very able to answer basic account and sales questions these are not those doing the actual work. I believe its really important to have a face to face collaborative relationship with a client. Being the person they meet, call and receive work by/from is a critical to building trust and long term relationships.


An agency can lose a handful of clients and still function. A consultant relies on every piece of business or projects they receive. You will therefore find that they put their all into everything because their lifestyle, finances and pride rely on it. A good consultant doesn’t have hundreds of clients so should be truly interested in your business and seeing it succeed.


An agency pitch can often be stretched over months. Once chosen there are further due diligence, contracts, HR and negotiating. By the time they have started work on your account it could be 3 months since the initial meeting. Consultants can bring immediate and often high level of blue chip experience of which one would never usually have access. It is always important that a client understands whether they want the consultants brainpower or their implementation abilities as we all have very different approaches.


If you go too cheap or with tight agency remits, you’re likely to get a business who are very keen to maintain your fee. A consultant, on the other hand, is able to work in-house to get to know your business, visit you at sporadic times and generally change the remit of their role with very little notice.


You will often find that agencies want to keep in a clients good books. A consultant can come in and address the white elephant in the room objectively without risking harm to the relationships. A good consultant comes in to listen, without agenda and almost becomes a partner in the project. We should deliver the ability to question long-standing company traditions and assumptions without repercussions.


It’s fair to say that the above is a healthy mix of thoughts and theory which, at this early stage of my business, could be proven wrong. In 6 months time I hope to write a follow-up that draws on my learnings and reports if these advantages were the driving force for new clients. If not I will let you know what they really were.


If you have any thoughts or comments I would love to see them in-putted into the box below. 

» Digital Consultancy, Freelancing » Competing as a Consultant in...
On March 14, 2014