Digital Marketing: The Future is Not Pretty for Solo Consultants

Tony Ahn
Tony Ahn Chief Digital Architect, Tony Ahn & Co.

Posted on February 17th 2012

Digital Marketing: The Future is Not Pretty for Solo Consultants

Digital marketing professionals currently fall into three tiers: the solo consultant, the small digital firm, and the large PR or marketing communications agency. If you fall into the first tier, your days are numbered. You will face increasing competition from fellow consultants, as well as stiffer competition from better funded digital firms that have twenty people like you on staff.

Digital Marketing’s Evolution is Like Web Design’s Evolution

The field of digital marketing is evolving in a manner not dissimilar to how web design evolved around the turn of the millennium. In 1997, a friend called me and said “Hey, can you teach me HTML?” 18 months later he was making $70k a year as a web designer, with a firm that contracted with Microsoft. These are the days of wine and roses for digital marketing professionals. In the mid-to-late 90′s, there were few degrees specializing in web design. Supply of qualified professionals was scarce and demand was high. Today we digital marketing professionals find ourselves in the same situation. A knowledgeable social media professional can freelance as an independent consultant and do quite well. However, digital marketing programs are springing up and thousands of people are entering the field. As the supply of qualified professionals increases, solo professionals will have a harder time, especially as they compete with the digital firms that are starting to grab market share.

These digital firms have better resources, and can do more in-house. In the digital arena, it is common for a client to have wide and varied digital marketing needs, including content marketing (in all its various forms), SEO, reputation management, web design, social media marketing, and more. Many solo consultants specialize in a couple of those, and that’s all they do. The more established ones are able offer a wider menu and outsource the work they don’t do themselves. Their clients tend to be small to medium enterprises (SME’s). Digital firms, who can handle more and larger clients, tend to establish reputations that give them a better shot at landing large corporate clients, partly because they have marketing budgets.

Enter the 800 Pound Gorilla

However, a third type of entity is beginning to enter the digital market: forward-thinking full service PR agencies and marketing communications agencies . And these entities are going to one day dominate the landscape, as they pose a threat to both digital marketing consultants/firms as well as firms in their traditional industries. Local firms that service a single major city as well as large global international firms have access to large corporate clients. While most full service PR firms and marketing communications agencies outsource digital marketing to small firms that specialize in it, the ones that see the lay of the digital land are quietly buying small firms or hiring full departments of digital marketing professionals. They are beginning by selling digital marketing services to their current client rosters. As they learn how to integrate their new-found capabilities into their existing marketing services, they’ll innovate new approaches to digital marketing that integrate with non-digital initiatives. How do I know? Because I work for an agency that’s doing just that, and I’m not the only one, although there aren’t that many of us worldwide yet. But we’re coming, and we’re doing well because we’re early. We’re selling something nobody else has, although we won’t be for long, so we’re innovating as we go, in order to capitalize on a first-to-market advantage that won’t be an advantage forever.

The most business-savvy of the current independent digital marketing professionals will go on to start their own digital firms, while others will become heads of digital marketing departments in companies, working for marketing directors. The majority of the rest who stay in the field will eventually go to work for the ones I just mentioned. This is similar to what happened to late 90′s web designers. Digital marketing firms will face increasing competition from large full-service marketing communications agencies that know marketing to the core and have access to larger, better paying clients. If you’re Fortune 500, who do you want to work with? An ad agency, a PR firm, and a digital firm? Or one company that can do serve all those functions and make sure that each part works in concert with the other?

What are your thoughts?

Tony Ahn

Tony Ahn

Chief Digital Architect, Tony Ahn & Co.

Tony Ahn’s unique blend of education and experience makes him one of the most highly sought after social media evangelists in Asia.

Tony’s baccalaureate degree focused on ethnography, a branch of anthropology that studies and describes contemporary human cultures. Ethnographers capture and communicate “webs of meaning,” defining the interworking of cultures from an inside perspective. This equips Tony with a deep understanding of the culture of social media networks and communities.

Tony holds a master’s degree in counseling from Penn State University, giving him rich insights into human motivation and behavior. Simply put, Tony knows what consumers want and why. He has used this knowledge to reshape online customer service practices on two continents.

In 2009, Tony reunited with his baccalaureate discipline when he was hired as CEO of a Manila-based management consulting firm that utilized anthropologists to study consumer behavior. A year later he poured his knowledge of ethnography, human motivation, and social media into Sterling Rep Social Media and Reputation Management, the first independent reputation management agency in the Philippines, which he directed until it was acquired by one of the largest public relations firms in the country. In 2012, Tony Ahn opened the doors on Tony Ahn & Co., which he directs today.

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Comments

I absolutely agree. We brought services in house right away. To do real social media that works for the client, you need SEO skill, you need video skill, you need design and development skill, you need content creators and professional writers. For one consultant to do all this is impractical. I think the future is going to be made up of in-house social media, boutique social media agencies, and white labeled social media agencies who work for larger PR and ad firms. Our agency has 13 employees and we're hiring. The true social media strategy takes a lot of people.

Interesting post. I think the idea is right -- that social media and digital commuications is a complicated endeavor for both the client and for the consultant.

I've found that clients know and trust my work and appreciate my mind and what I bring to the table.

And certainly I am not an expert in everything. To fill the gaps, i have a vast network of people that I call upon - that includes other single practioners, small firms and large firms. It kinda works both ways- I bring them work, they bring me work. 

My model is a collaborative model where depending on what a client needs, I bring in the right people. PR firms appreciate when I bring them full execution projest. Or let's say I am working with someone and they need content creation - storyboarding and video production and syndication. I bring on someone for that.

I know myself very well. I am th best me in collaboration. And that is what is at the basis of the premise of social media- that more brains are better than one! @drnatalie Learn. Share. Grow!™

Hi Tony, I'm curious: how do you define digital marketing? And just what is it you are selling "that no one else has"? Content? Technology? Data? Resources? All?

I ask because I consult for a number of reputable companies (start-ups, brands and agencies), and I can tell you that I don't see the same competencies that you might see, and I also don't see agencies in particular being able to adapt to the shifts in the marketplace very well. Integrated marketing is something that any good agency knows and is expected to do (including being able to do social & PR) -- a few examples are Tribal DDB, Razorfish and Sapient: "digital" agencies that are also, in some cases, AORs for leading brands (meaning they do everything, and do it well). They outsource a lot of the production - as they should - but they also farm out a lot of their community management and digital brand development out to specialists (including consultants) -- people they would never be able to hire in-house, simply because these people will never go in-house (like me; been there, done that).

To boot, resources in the areas of brand journalism, data visualization and social media analytics are hard to find - and these are the opportunity areas that extend far beyond being able to do content marketing or social media management. A major reason why I am hired, for example, is because social media, digital and PR agencies typically don't have a clue as to how to staff for different types of editorial content, nor do they know how to build disciplines like transmedia storytelling, nor do they know how to build custom platforms to meet the needs of their brand clients and their consumer cohorts. Many aren't true technologists. They also don't have the resource pool that I have, since they typically don't build platforms or have experience putting service products into the market.

The other aspect of this are training and operations -- a good majority of my time is spent teaching both management and employess how to develop new skill-sets. Again, without these folks being on the ground floor in the tech and business worlds, it's pretty tough for them to keep pace with the rapid changes in digital media spaces, let alone stay ahead of the game.

To that end, buying up agencies and digital shops can also be a fruitless endeavor -- for one, these companies don't have full-time resources and attrition is high (building on your point about outsourcing); they also tend not have any real infrastructure in place (in other words, they don't really own anything of value). Most rollups have proven to be a disaster, operationally and creatively.

I agree that going forward that the landscape wiil likely be comprised of smaller, more nimble shops, but I disagree (with bias) that solo consultants will go by the wayside (btw, I have two companies of my own). Granted, there's not a whole lot of us that are multi-faceted, but any company (agency or brand) that wants to be innovative needs people like us before they go off and hire teams of people and spend gobs of money that they probably don't have.

Best,

Gunther

@goonth

 

Hi Gunther. Wow, your comment is a blog post in it own right! If you have a blog you should publish it as a response and let it garner its own comments! Anyway, on to your points:

What we're selling that no one else has (at least that I've seen) is a marriage of two or more technologies in a new way that clients find useful. We have a way of doing viral email campaigns that result in brick and mortar store sales, for example, that always generates a huge number of sales. And we have other products that marry say, social media monitoring, plus engagement, plus 24/7 monitoring, so that we can answer any mention of your brand anywhere, at any time. We've been making connections and combining technologies so that we have close to twenty different products, and we both sell them direct to clients as well as white label them to other marketing communications agencies that don't have the infrastructure to offer such products in-house, yet know they can't afford to not compete in this area.

You mention that you have two companies of your own. Since that's the case, you're not what I would call a solo consultant. I was referring to people that have a skill set, a computer, and the ability to offer their services in the marketplace. If you're supervising others, you're not the person I was talking about. And that was my point: the more entrepreneurial solo people will develop their own companies.

I don't think that buying a digital shop is a fruitless endeavor, if one does their due diligence beforehand. There are a number of respected firms here in Manila that would be fair candidates, without high attrition. Companies often buy other companies just to get the staff or a knowledge/technology transfer. If they are disastrous, that tells me that nobody checked to see if the corporate culture was going to be able to handle the influx of a new previously-formed team. Little attention may have been given to change management.

I agree that any company needs people with your skillset, but they don't necessarily need them solo. If they can get them by hiring an agency that is employing people with that skillset, they will.

Thanks again for taking the time to write. I really appreciate it!

Tony,

I absolutely agree. I reached the same conclusion around Xmas. Now I just have to convince my fellow soloists to join wioth me and put the band back together.

 

 

Let's admit, social media brought out digital marketers/consultants that capitalize on personal branding who have billions of followers on their social accounts but can't make a simple SWOT analysis for a brand/product. A great digital campaign should be comprised of vital ingredients that doesn't only come from a single mind. Collaboration is always a good thing, it's the very essence of social media.

I too take advantage of a collaborative model and bring in expertise when needed. I also think solo consultants can thrive if they specialize in a particular niche. Because of my legal background I specialize in working with professionals who have challenges using social media because of regulations they must comply with in order to stay in business. Many of the big agencies don't have this core competency. This is just one example of how a solo who specializes can stay afloat. One of the keys to success in this arena is being able to keep up with daily changes in the medium. If you only have to focus on keeping up with one particular niche, you are bound to develop a certain expertise that the "Big Guys" can't develop while they are trying to be all things to all people.

Awsome article...but how does a startup survive the big giants. I just registered my company but in the dark on how to go about it