Consultancy – the SAS of Marketing and Advertising

I’m at Zinc, Federation Square. Russell Howcroft is on stage. The place is chock a block cause he’s an ad land hero and lots of clients, consultants and media people have come along to hear pearls of wisdom drip from the mouth of one of our mega Gods.

The breakfasts are better here than most corporate functions cause somebody realized people hate the yellow mushy scrambled eggs the rest serve and something in their wild soul said ‘hey, we could use real eggs, wouldn’t that be radical?.’ And so I look around and see people actually finishing their plate. If they could only get the coffee right, I’d be tempted to go there every morning. Why is it, in the coffee capital of the Universe, Melbourne, the place where lattes and machiato’s made from Coffex, Map, Lavazza, are everywhere, the event places insist on trying to get us to drink old stale filtered coffee? It smells like teenage boys socks and tastes like vegemite mixed with sugar and milk.

So I’m there listening to Russell give his 2011 speech. I know it’s the same speech cause I’ve heard him say it twice in the last few weeks because for one reason or another I’ve been to several conferences lately. I guess the creative team who put it together for him figured no-body would be daft enough to hear a bloke speak more than once in a year, but here I am, living proof that certain jokes get the same laugh every time. I now have a great deal more respect for those amongst us who talk off the cuff on new subjects. They are so much more talented than those ‘actors’ amongst us, the politicians, industry gurus, who only recite lines written by their teams.

So Russell is talking about the ‘creative process’ and showing videos, and the media landscape and showing videos, and I find myself drifting off, cause I’ve heard it  before, thinking, ‘how would you be trying to compete with this slickly rolled out presentation’?

How would you feel if you were a competitor, seeing these nifty 5 minute films explaining one aspect or another of the ad world so well even cynical old me is buying into it. Then I realize, I am a competitor, and it gets me thinking about where I started and what the early days were like.

I remember them well. They were tough, dude. I was starving. It was 1990 and there was no work. The world as I knew it had imploded. The recession we had to have hit and nobody was spending anything on anything. I was unemployed. Said to myself, shit, why not start my own show? I could be a consultant.

What do I need? A business name, a few cards a pc and off I’d go. And so I did. Miraculously, I survived. Through some hard work, a lot of dumb luck and a dodged determination not to work for a boss cause I figured they’d get to tell me what to do once in a while and I hate that.

There’s lots of you out there in marketing land doing exactly the same right now. There’s a lot more who think about being a consultant and are unsure what to do to get started.

Yes, you’ll be the bad guy. Yes, you’ll be the one who fucked up. Took the loss, had to think of the solution. You are also, months later, the one who gets to buy the slick new car or go to Vanuatu on the weekend simply because you can.

Yes, the down side is the buck stops right there, at your feet. The upside is so incredibly tremendous. You can look in the mirror every morning and say to the face staring back at you, what will we do today, honey?

In my humble opinion consultants deserve immense respect. They’re the business world’s SAS troops. The elite of the business world. The tough ones they call up when they know the normal troops aren’t up to it. The guys they drop behind enemy lines who will be able to do the nasty job. As a marketing consultant, it’s a hard, dirty life, but you really know you are alive. Want to play?

How to be a great Marketing Consultant

Stand for something

Have a purpose – a reason to set up your business that sounds better than ‘cause I needed a job’. Be wanting to change a situation, fix a pressing problem, or lead a new technology etc.

Niche Consultancy

Anybody who says they can do anything usually can’t even tie their own shoelaces.

Consultants are supposed to be experts at something and bloody good at only a couple of other things. And that’s about it.

You get a consulting Micro Surgeon to work on your hand after you’ve shoved it into the blender trying to fish out the sugar spoon during a Christmas Cocktail party. He’s flown in by The Epworth and he costs $2,000 an hour, which you don’t mind paying, cause you’ll never play the fiddle /piano/your genitals again if the surgery goes wrong. You pay the big bucks for the top expert. He has a narrow niche of expertise. Fingers. That’s what you want him for. Yours. So what if you never see him again even if you set up a website about him and tweet how great he is and why you want to have his babies. He’s done his job and you can at least wipe your bum now.

I don’t care what you are good at. Pricing strategies. Rescuing family companies from the divorce courts. Launching French companies into Australia. It doesn’t matter as long as you have some hope that the niche is big enough that you could sustain a business in that field.

Have a long-term plan

Most people working on their own have never debated what they really should be doing. A percentage just want to be their own boss and not anybody elses. Let’s call them the hard workers, cause sure as apples they will have to work like dogs to survive.

A percentage will want to employ a team of people sooner than later and they will usually be more successful. A few will have grand plans for running this massive business and that’s OK too as long as it has some chance. Unless you plant the right type of tree, in the right soil etc. there’s no point in just watering the ground hoping something big will pop up. It might, but flukes don’t come around that often. A little planning goes a long way.

Plan the industry you want, the size of the business you want, they type of clients you want and the kind of work you’re going to do for them.

Branding in Consultancy

Do the right thing by your brand. Treat it with the same respect and intellect you give your customers. So few consultants do. They get a cheap logo done up featuring their bloody dog and/or their bloody name. I did when I was first a consultant in 1990, cause I didn’t give it a moment’s thought – that’s why you can’t find Geoffrey Bowll and Associates on google – that little brand died. I started Starship a couple of years later and that brand has grown. Every day, I thank the stars.


It is absolutely standard to write at least one book. Better still, you could set up a TV show, or a You-Tube show, or get interviewed on the radio every week. Or join a political party who wants a pretty face. The better you are known, the better you will do.


If you are not working for someone else you have more time and an obligation, no a desperate need, to self-promote. The people who are invariably the most vocal on LinkedIn are the consultants. There they are, sitting home alone at 11.15 am, second cup of coffee burning a hole in their stomachs, angrily wanting action in their lives.

And they are bored and lonely, so of course they run several conversations a day on all sorts of issues. They are being read by thousands of other professionals every day, who occasionally need a consultant for this or that. You are competing with them. Tweet, write blogs, do whatever it is you do well to grab market share. I write, not that it gets me very far, but you are reading it, so it must be working to some extent.

So meet and keep in contact with people, via phone, facebook or linked-in. It works.


We humans have friends who come to our aid cause they remember needing similar help. And cause it’s fun. As a consultant your network is a vital thing. You never know when you’ll need what kind of help and you never know where your next job will come from. If you have a mate who’s the best brand guy/media buyer/ researcher/ sales manager etc, they will come in handy some time, somewhere. A good, big, healthy network of people you know, and who like and want to work with you, is like a nice warm fluffy bed. You can sleep easy.

Say no more than say yes

The magical thing about life is the more you say No, the more people want you, and the less time you spend with dickheads who are wasting your time or are not profitable enough.

Go for big fish

You are way better off to do stuff that you are cut out for, that you understand, that you’ll be able to do well, for clients big enough to make it profitable, than to just do anything to make a quid. Small, money-pinching clients are to be avoided at all costs. There are millions of small companies who need and want help. Invariably they are small cause they don’t listen to people like you. You’ll never make money servicing them. They will take up your time you could be spending on more productive clients. And they drain you of love and energy. Small, needy clients are not ‘little fish are sweet’. They are a recipe for disaster.

Hourly rates versus projects

Projects sound profitable and fair and sometimes are. They can be nightmares.

Hourly rates sound too little and too much work, but often aren’t.

I’m a huge believer in remaining very flexible. Some clients have systems that only allow them to pay for things in a project system (purchase orders etc) where all costs are locked off. That’s OK as long as you build in some fat, cause invariably people think they can do things in X time but it takes twice as long, or clients change their minds about an issue and unless you’re really tough on them, they’ll get you to do more work for the same money, which drives the profits out of the business.

Hourly rates or retainers work very well for most consultants because it’s relatively easy to track your time and life is very good if you are working 30-40 or so hours a week on $300 bucks an hour, and you’re still able to play golf on Wednesday mornings or sail Thursday arvos etc.

Trading Terms

Really matter. 30 days will often stretch to 45 or 60 days. 7 will stretch to 14, even 21, but rarely get to 30. Half in advance will mean they won’t stuff around with the brief or the timing as much. Getting it right before you invoice will mean you’ll end up in Court almost never. Be tough. Bill regularly. Pull a job if the money is not in the bank and get respect. Nobody worth working with ever wants to work with a pussy.

Track results/do a folio

Case studies are very convincing and I can’t think of anyone who sacked a consultant exceeding their KPI’s.

People think in, and remember, visuals. I don’t care what your actual role is, nothing works better than pretty pictures about how things worked and what results people got, what the ads looked like etc. Even if you do psychological studies on human behavior, show them in pictures, via some kind of folio. By the way, a web site is mostly a folio on-line in this game.


Work out the best way to do things, make adjustments, follow process. Formal process and systems are what makes successful businesses sellable.

Contract out unpleasant jobs

Most of us are only good at a few things. But what kills almost all small business people is doing everything. Doing the books, when it’s 11.30 pm and you’re so tired you can’t see. Vacuuming the front room so you can have a client over. Get a frickin cleaner in. Get a bookkeeper. Get rid of things that you are either hopeless at or that depress you. Every time you find yourself doing something for long periods of time, like say 3 hours a week, that you don’t like, hire somebody to do it

One of the weird but miraculous laws of the Universe is that whatever you don’t like, somebody else will. And that frees you up to enjoy life more and normally to make more money.


Consultants get lonely. They are also inherently weak cause they don’t have additional resources to enlist with any projects they might want to win.

Because large companies understand concepts like capacity, individual consultants often find it hard to land bigger jobs because few companies want to take on somebody who they are unsure can manage it. Yes, I hear you saying, ‘But I can gear up. I know people. I can just run it’. They don’t believe you. Bad luck.

An agency like Starship is really only a group of individuals working together under one brand. Same can be done by consultants if they are prepared to work together like grown-ups.

If you can’t stand other humans, or only getting half your ideas up, don’t bother ganging up. It will be too painful. But for the rest of us who are able to bend a little, it’s a great way to work some of the time.

The thing to watch out for most when ganging up is when people try to own/steal the client (ie. Go behind other peoples back and try to do a deal on their own) or split up the money in a different way to what was originally agreed. So get the critical stuff put in writing – email the others your understanding of the relationship.

Shoot Turkeys

There are dickheads who say things designed to cut your lunch like ‘half my advertising works and half of it doesn’t, but I don’t know which half’ Wasn’t that Lord Lever? The implication of that line is you could save half your money. The reality is, no you can’t. All marketing works to a greater or lesser extent and it’s a marketing consultants job to tweak the formulae to maximize income, not get rid of the budget. (This is the key take-out I got from the Zinc speech – thanks Russell) If you are in a room with a nob, politely (or not so politely) challenge the veracity of their argument. Tell them they are wrong and why. I don’t care if you don’t make friends, you will have more self-respect and the other people in the room will want to work with you.

Remember, the SAS does not take prisoners. They take the city.

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