Intelligence Gathering Is A Core Marketing Skill — And Other Lessons About Marketing Consulting From A Brand Strategist

Some pointers about the art and science of delivering value to clients as a marketing consultant

Marketing consultants and spooks: there’s room for some overlap. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Recently, I popped down the road (in Jerusalem) to hang out with a friend who also works in marketing ().

The stated reason for my visit was checking out the coworking space that Guy is working out of. But — besides robbing some of his salt and vinegar crisps (we’re both Irish-born expats living in Israel) — I wanted to pick Guy’s brain on some professional subjects.

At some point over the past year, I began the process of revising the service offering that I bring to clients. And I knew that Guy would have valuable input to share.

After leaving a job managing marketing communications at a technology company, I decided to go out on my own offering writing services to clients. My business will soon celebrate its third anniversary. Which — in addition to a few more years of side-hustling — is how long I’ve been working for myself.

While I started out with the crop of clients that enabled me to transition out of a full-time job, since starting out, I’ve slowly begun refining my service offering to focus on the specific areas within marketing where I know that I can make the biggest impact for clients. Specifically, that tends to be creating and executing thought leadership marketing campaigns. And more specifically, doing so for technology clients.

During the course of creating and refining a service offering that could keep me fully occupied, I’ve also tried to toe the line between being sufficiently specialized — isn’t niching down still the default advice for marketers? — while keeping things varied enough to make the work engaging for me.

After about two years, I began to sense that I’d gone too far with the whole specialization thing — by whittling everything I could do down to only writing I’d pigeon-holed myself from getting involved in the other activities that make a marketing campaign tick.

Slowly at first, and then with more fervor, I began integrating the type of strategy advice that I’d developed in house into the work that I do for my clients. And — as a seasoned branding strategist — I knew that Guy would have some good advice on what processes worked for him.

Some of the insights and thoughts that Guy shared with me are below.

Don’t Assume That Just Because A Client Has Already Bought Advice That It’s Necessarily The Right Advice

During the course of the past few months, when becoming acquainted with new clients, I’ve had several moments that I’ve begun to think of as the ‘elephant in the room’ moments.

Some would call them ‘eureka’ moments. From a marketing standpoint, they’re those little instants when I realize that the client is doing something horribly wrong or otherwise shooting themselves in the foot. Typically in some way that is frustratingly unapparent to them.

These are the small epiphanies that come to mind when you realize — for instance — that the client has never actually cogently communicated what’s unique about their business. And that the website they’re obviously very proud of is actually doing their business more harm than good by misrepresenting their brand. There are times when you feel like no website would be better than what’s online.

Or when you spend a few minutes Googling the publication a client has secured a contributed content slot it only to discover that what the client thinks is wrong with the document really isn’t the problem — or at least it isn’t the primary one. The glaring flaw, rather, is that it’s written at a level, and in a tone of voice, that’s totally inappropriate for the target audience. And until that’s fixed it’s going to be totally ineffective at achieving its goals.

Sometimes, as a consultant, you’re not the first external stakeholder to have taken an objective and critical look at aspects of a business. Often, there’s an almost instinctive desire not to point out things that were suggested by another consultant to whom you know the client has paid a significant sum of money.

Guy’s advice: stick to your guns and keep on pointing out those elephants even when it’s uncomfortable to do so. There are definitely some dubious operators out there.

My addition: there also doesn’t have to be a strict dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ advice. Every professional being paid to offer advice brings their experience and thinking to bear upon the client’s problem. Being afraid to share it because it contradicts with that of another professional really makes no sense.

You’re Looking For Nuggets Of Gold Amidst A Sea Of Sameness

Over the course of the past 5 years, I’ve worked with more than 40 startups (at least that’s what my accounting system says).

Some have stuck around for the long haul. Others have burned brightly only to drift away and never to be heard from again. And I have a third category of clients who pop in and pop out as their needs evolve.

Add that number to the prospective clients I’ve talked to that never made it all the way to actually hiring me and I’ve heard from quite a number of companies and founders about their businesses.

Sometimes discovery conversations are conducted in a somewhat routine manner. The client might be assessing your credibility while you gauge whether you can help them out. At this first touchpoint, you might be getting a conservative overview of the business that sounds loosely like what’s on the company’s homepage.

At other moments, however, founders or whoever else you’re speaking to let what sound like startling snippets of information into the conversation. Those snippets might sound something like:

“That’s what our website says, but it’s not what we really do.”

“I chatted with Tony [main customer] last week and he said that the real reason they’re using us is because the support is so good. It actually has nothing to do with price!”

Just as it takes a little bit of confidence to point out what you know to be elephants in the room, it takes some experience and self-assurance to know when information that’s being passed over as trivial is in fact extremely significant to the business and your job.

When described how he goes about putting the initial parts of a branding strategy in place for clients, and included some anecdotes for illustration, it sounded a lot like the kind of marketing I was familiar with and more like the kind of work that I imagine intelligence operatives engage in.

Guy described casting a wide net in his search for the crucial nuggets of information he could leverage to build an effective brand strategy around — a strategy that would help convey what the businesses he served actually stand for and which (because they spoke to authentic truths) could successfully differentiate them from the competition and therefore cut through the noise.

Guy described how conversations might be held over lunch. Or dinner. How he would interview both companies’ founding teams as well as both their biggest cheerleaders and those who were on good terms with the business but had decided that their solution wasn’t a good fit for their needs.

Guy would keep chasing — and listening–until he really grasped what made the businesses he was consulting for unique. And only then would he put pen to paper and craft a strategy that could totally revise their image.

Effective marketing involves plenty of doing — I’ve spent a lot of my career thus far in the trenches making things happen. But in order for that action to be effective, it needs to be backed by robust strategy and thinking.

Marketing consultants need to engage the full breadth of their faculties of critical thinking in order to really bring the value to clients that they’re capable of injecting.

This often means pointing out unacknowledged elephants lurking in conspicuous places — like PR boilerplates that miss the main message or websites filled with case studies in which clients chose to play it safe and successfully hid the true value they saw from their interviewer.

It means not withholding an opinion simply because it may be perceived as a criticism upon the work of another marketer — whether a full time staff member of the company or another consultant.

And it means being curious, a dogged questioner, and keeping your ears open for when those nuggets of gold that could change the whole picture crop up during your meetings.

Daytime: tech-focused MarCom. Night-time: somewhat regular musings here. Or the other way round. Likes: Linux, tech, beer.