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SME and start-up owners often get poor advice when it comes to marketing. In a landscape littered with digital marketing specialists/ experts/ fundis/ creators/ consultants, why does this happen? I’ve come across three key reasons in my 20+ year career.

  1. Small to mid-sized business owners rarely get independent marketing advice. You see, most marketing consultants want to give the advice, as well as do the marketing. A pure consulting model is difficult to maintain with smaller clients, which leads to marketers often having a vested interest in selling additional, related services – like design, digital advertising or social media management. This can mean they are not truly independent, and may have a skewed view of what to prioritise.
  2. The advice you get doesn’t fit your strategic needs and set-up: There’s a difference between how large companies maintain established brands through marketing, and how smaller or start-up companies need to build a brand (and make sales!) through marketing. Many good marketers come from a large company background, so when they try to guide smaller businesses, their advice falls flat due to a lack of budget or an approach that’s too rigid, given the unique needs and rapidly-changing circumstances of an entrepreneurial business.
  3. Marketing endeavours end up being too hard to execute, or a flash in the pan: Much of the marketing advice available to small businesses relates to so-called “digital marketing,” which requires a level of time and technical skill that most business owners don’t have. They try, but inevitably cannot maintain the effort. Employing a marketing agency or freelancer to “do it for you” can also end in disaster because they generally take a short-term or template approach that may work for a promo or campaign, but won’t make a dent in the long-term.

The result? Frustration creeps in. Combined with impatience and dwindling budgets, business owners feel increased pressure to differentiate their company from their competition in an affordable and effective way.

The dilemma these businesses face is this – where should they start when it comes to scaling the intimidating heights of marketing from scratch? And what kind of marketing consultant should they hire first to make the most profitable and sustainable impact?

Scale the mount of marketing alongside a strategy consultant

Imagine growing your business is the same as climbing a mountain – which, at the best of times, it is. The first thing you need is someone to walk the strategy journey with you, helping you understand what marketing approach will works best for your business, and gradually helping you implement it with only limited outside help.

Here’s my take on what to look for, and expect, when seeking out the kind of marketing consultant I mean.

  1. The consultant is a pure advisor, and does not typically execute the actual marketing. Marketing specialists usually want to lead the way and get to the top of the mountain as fast as possible. In their ardour to complete a project, they might even speed ahead, leaving you behind! In contrast, a marketing consultant works with you to plot the best route to the summit, thereby avoiding missteps that could lead to catastrophe. Think of the difference as a task-driven adventurer versus a knowledgeable companion.
  2. An advisor starts by helping you define a strategic direction, instead of immediately obsessing over tactical tools, like which platform to post on and when. Receiving a flurry of content plans, social posts, digital ads and thought leadership pieces may sound like you’ve gotten the ball rolling, but before jumping headlong into a plethora of marketing actions, a good advisor will examine both your business and the market, get to know your team, and recommend two or three key initiatives based on time-tested marketing fundamentals.
  3. Marketing advisors plot the way forward with your team. There must be a meeting of minds. A coming together of expertise and experience. It is not a case of simply parading into your office with designers in tow to pitch eye-catching concepts. Advisors work closely with business decision-makers to listen and learn, analyse and clarify, educate and empower. In doing so, they incrementally tip business engagement from strategy into execution.
  4. Advisors are mentors who encourage growth and independence. Remember, the job of setting your company’s marketing strategy should never be completely outsourced. As an SME or startup owner, you must determine yourself – at a broad level – how you want to do marketing, before involving marketing agencies or freelancers to execute it. A top-level consultant helps facilitate an in-house approach which leaves a market strategy and capability in your hands (as opposed to leaving your marketing wholly in theirs). The advisor’s goal: equipping and building capacity for effective marketing within your business.

So, if you’re looking for an all-in-one silver marketing bullet – stop. Put first things first. Good marketing is not a hit-and-run – it’s a steady and strategic climb to the top. To reach the summit, it’s worth leaning on a strategy sherpa.