When I first became a freelancer, I never took the time to share my experience as a marketing consultant. Now that I am writing again, I would like to take this opportunity to share it with you: what I do, what I learned from it, and some advice for those who have been thinking about going solo lately.
What is a marketing consultant?
To begin with, I think it might be good to explain what a marketing consultant is. If you are a stranger to the advertising world, it may be difficult for you to imagine what I do. Especially since there are as many kinds of marketing consultants as there are types of marketing. So, to put it simply: a marketing consultant is a professional with extensive experience in marketing, whose mission is to guide others to help them make better choices in his field of expertise. To put it even more simply, he is a broker of knowledge in marketing.
Where the value of a marketing consultant comes from
Being able to build relevant expertise requires a lot of time, knowledge, and practice. This is why you will rarely see someone becoming a consultant right after university. It also requires a certain amount of interpersonal skills as it puts you in relation with professionals from different backgrounds, with their own culture, values, and vision.
All that to provide knowledge that fits into the clients’ projects and deliver timely results. Because, as you have already guessed, the added value of a marketing consultant comes from the time he saves to the clients he helps.
Why I became a consultant, what motivates me today
When I started working in marketing, my beginnings coincided with those of social media. Long before it became a huge thing, I knew its codes relatively well. I was struck by the fact that companies either did not consider social media as communication channels or did not get the web 2.0 culture and produced marketing operations that fell flat. It did not take me long before I realized that I could do something about it. For a while, I offered my help to advertising agencies that were jumping on the bandwagon. And at some point, I started my own business to meet the demand in a way I felt was more appropriate.
As companies and organizations embraced social media communication, the question was no longer whether or not they were using it correctly but whether their uses were aligned with achieving their goals. As a result, my focus as a consultant progressively moved from communications to coordinating digital campaigns.
Closer from us, with the recent evolution of the internet, the new regulations around privacy, the growing concern among the population about environmental issues, marketing has now to turn to more sustainable approaches. The work of evangelization continues, and there is much to do in this area despite growing awareness.
Being a freelancer is a blessing and a curse
If freelancing is wooed by many project leaders, clients and agencies, as anything that can make work more flexible, the result for workers is mixed. Many people I have known have wanted to become freelancers without making the leap. And among those who have tried it, few are the ones who have brilliantly turned it into a reality.
At first, it really seems like a dream opportunity to work the way you want: managing your own schedule, days off, vacations, being able to choose your place of work and clients… And this is partly true. But then come new tasks and responsibilities that many of us are not familiar with, and that can overwhelm the actual work: accounting, business management, self-promotion, to name a few.
And I have it for a fact that just talking business, selling work as a commodity, and having to manage a business reputation turns some people off. Being a freelancer is a job in itself. The freedom you gain, you pay for with increased responsibilities.
After a few years, if you have met success as a full-time freelancer, you are more likely to start and run a company than go back to being an employee. That, because of the hard skills and soft skills you have acquired. But also because of the much more independent mindset, you have developed. You know it, and most employers know it too. With age and experience, even employees in advertising agencies become more independent. It is so true that to keep them after years of hard work, the most committed are offered to become business partners or encouraged to go into intrapreneurship.
Over time, I think the more you commit to freelancing, the more you close the door to a conventional career. Some people, myself included, would say that is for the best. This is the other side of the coin: once you are out of the job market, you rarely hesitate to go back, even if it means missing opportunities: working in an NGO that has a meaningful impact, a media that does a great job of informing people or a think tank that produces remarkable ideas, for example.
To the new ones: Do or do not. There is no try
For all the young padawans who want to become Jedi masters, I would give them this counterintuitive advice: take risks and go outside your comfort zone. I have seen some of my former students try freelancing as part-timers, taking gigs between their jobs and their free time. I have seen others who, while students, developed projects, and after university, went on their own, with more experience. Or people with a stable and comfortable job leave it all behind to dedicate themselves entirely to the growth of their new freelance activity. I will let you guess who succeeded and who dropped out.
In the jungle of freelance work, success is about turning skills and ethics into a great product
Having a marketing job is often a pretty comfortable situation. But as a freelancer, it is a whole different story. You have to define your offer, your rates, set your goals. It is almost a requirement to look at what the competition does, study the marketing services they propose to the people you want to reach. If only to compare with what exists, to confirm or not the scope of your future offer.
For that, there are different approaches. Those who go head-on, pretending to be clients to get information. And those who study the competition from a distance, relying on the information they find on marketplaces and corporate websites. Without mentioning the traditional market research carried out with potential clients.
Freelance rates tell more the client about freelancers than about the market
Now, one thing that is most often approached in the wrong way. During my freelancing journey, I have noticed more than once that the rate at which a freelancer sells out is a psychological turning point. This often leads new freelancers, more often juniors than professionals with some fair amount of experience, to underprice their services. Which can send wrong signals to interested clients.
The problem with low rates is that they reflect a poor understanding of the market, a short-sighted vision of doing business, and a profound lack of confidence in sales strategy. In the outsourcing jungle, economies of expertise and amateurism coexist. If you ever submitted or viewed RFPs on a self-service marketplace, you probably know what I am talking about: a task worker economy rather than a contract worker economy.
Freelancing is for those who aim for the long run
Everyone probably heard that before: knowledge is power. It could not be more true for a consultant. Never stop learning and experiencing new things is fundamental to grow expertise. The best consultants I know regularly discover new things, even after years of practice, while other peers have a learning curve that flattened out a long time ago.
Knowledge, of course, is not everything. A large part of success comes from listening sincerely to clients, having the instinct for anticipating their needs, and having a talent for providing the right solution at the right level of understanding for each person. It is this communication skill that makes the difference between a great technician and a great consultant.
There is one last thing, but not the least, that can influence the empowerment of freelancers. I mean, of course, the professional network. At 25 years old, it is not very big, even if you are part of the alumni of a prestigious university. At 30, a bit more. And so on. If you come from a family of business owners and entrepreneurs, you are probably already familiar with the usefulness of networking processes. And you probably give the same credit about letting your friends and close professional contacts know about your business than about caring for your more distant circles of relationships.
A successful experience keeps bringing new things
Being a marketing consultant in freelance has been undoubtedly a most rewarding experience. The way I see freelancing is simple: It is both a choice for a particular approach to being a worker and an empowering adventure, a stepping stone to much bigger things.
Setting up my own business has brought me unsuspected benefits. As a marketer, it gave me greater autonomy and expanded my professional horizon. As an independent contractor, it gave me a taste of what it’s like to run a small business and the confidence to tackle larger projects.
Finally, this experience, which is still ongoing to this day, allowed me to understand the place of freelancing in the current market economy. A lot of things to say about it that will surely be the subject of new essays soon.