Follow-Up Interview With Neil Patel: Should You Hire A Marketing Consultant?

I recently wrote a rebuttal to Neil Patel’s post on hiring marketing consultants, and simultaneously reached out to Neil to see if he’d be interested in doing an interview with me to discuss the topic. I’m delighted to report he agreed, and to share our dialogue with those who have been following the debate on whether or not you should hire a marketing consultant. Topics covered: what’s the difference between a consultant and a contractor, and what should entrepreneurs keep in mind when hiring? 

Sarah Brown: In your post, you mention how successful you were as a digital marketing consultant; you said you got rave reviews, and still receive tons of inquiries from companies wanting to hire you as a consultant. You clearly delivered real value to the companies with whom you worked. Even so, you say companies shouldn’t hire digital marketing consultants in most cases. Can you explain why you had this change in perspective?

Neil Patel: Hiring a consultant is great if you want to speed up your growth. Most people look to hire marketing consultants to solve broad problems. The issue with this is most consultants aren’t jack-of-all-trades. For this reason you should only look to hire a marketing consultant when you want them to help you solve a specific problem that will result in an increase in growth.

SB: You qualified your pretty controversial article title by saying that companies should sometimes hire marketing consultants, but only after they’ve laid the groundwork themselves and are truly ready. How do you define “readiness” for taking on a digital marketing consultant? Can you elaborate on this?

NP: Once you have a business that is generating revenues well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and you’ve tested a lot of different marketing channels and approaches yourself, you can then take that data to consultants and see what they can help you with.

SB: You mention that digital marketing consultants can’t solve every problem for a client. I completely agree! But, I’m curious, are you really seeing a lot of consultants billing themselves as miracle workers to prospective clients?

NP: A lot are. Consulting shops make more money when they are full service, for this reason they try and do everything even if they aren’t experts at “everything”.

SB: I totally agree that a CEO needs to lay the groundwork before they are ready to hire anyone (sales, marketing, customer success, PR, etc.). But can’t a consultant help with that process, especially if they’re super experienced in the market niche? Wouldn’t that be a good case for companies to hire a consultant, as long as goals and deliverables are clearly defined?

NP: In this scenario it would work, but it is an expensive solution. Unless your business is well funded, I wouldn’t recommend this solution. Nonetheless, if you hired the right consultant, it would speed this process along.

SB: Sometimes, startups can’t afford to hire a full-time expert in content marketing, social media, PR, etc. but they can afford an expert consultant for part-time work. In that case, the marketer is more like an “in-house asset” vs. an employee or typical consultant. Would you still recommend companies hire interns or college students rather than take on an expert in these cases?

NP: Yes, I would prefer to hire hungry college students. Ones that are quick learners and can help you with a lot of your marketing problems. At the beginning you don’t need an expert to come in and solve your problems. You need someone junior who can just execute and lay the ground work. An intern is going to be much cheaper as consultants rather not focus on the execution part.

SB: Given the growing remote workforce movement, would you recommend a first hire be a marketing employee vs. a consultant? Or, maybe an employee-ish consultant? Maybe we’re having trouble with terms, here. I consider myself an in-house asset or contractor, someone who strategizes and executes vs. what you’re describing. What do you recommend for startups?

 NP: I prefer a contractor. This way you can pay them for the time you use, yet they won’t charge you an arm and leg like a consultant.

Thanks to Neil Patel for engaging in this dialogue. In the comments, I’d love to hear your views on the subject.

Neil PatelNeil Patel is the co-founder of Crazy Egg, Hello Bar and KISSmetrics. He helps companies like Amazon, NBC, GM, HP and Viacom grow their revenue. The Wall Street Journal calls him a top influencer on the web, Forbes says he is one of the top 10 online marketers, and Entrepreneur Magazine says he created one of the 100 most brilliant companies in the world. He was recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama and one of the top 100 entrepreneurs under the age of 35 by the United Nations. Neil has also been awarded Congressional Recognition from the United States House of Representatives.

 

Why You Should Hire A Marketing Consultant: A Rebuttal To Neil Patel’s Post

Why you should hire a marketing consultant

A recent post on Neil Patel’s blog suggests you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. The gist of the article is that, despite having been a lauded, successful marketing consultant himself, Patel argues against hiring marketing consultants.

Before launching into my rebuttal, I feel it necessary to point out that Neil Patel offers paid online marketing courses for entrepreneurs to teach themselves how to do marketing. It’s in Patel’s best financial interest to convince entrepreneurs not to hire marketing consultants and instead pay him money for his products and e-courses. It’s likely he wrote this just to get people to click the controversial headline and convert (aka buy his instructional products).

So, knowing this article is likely just click bait to sell his own products, as a professional digital marketing consultant, I feel it necessary to respond. I respectfully disagree with Patel’s sweeping claim that hiring marketing consultants is never a good idea. I think he’s doing a disservice to his audience of entrepreneurs in a lot of his misguided, if well-intentioned, advice.

We’re going to go through Patel’s post line-by line, reader, to point out where his words are false. I’ve used Patel’s original article subheadings to organize my critique.

Consultants aren’t miracle workers

Patel starts out his troubling post by letting us know how in-demand he was and is as a marketing consultant. It’s not empty bragging; we all know Patel is skillful businessperson, which is why we all read Quick Sprout. Patel even says he still gets a thousand inquiries or more per month, despite no longer running his marketing consultancy. Patel tells readers that he received rave reviews and got great results for his clients while running a multi-million dollar marketing consultancy. He then goes on to say that hiring all marketing consultants is a bad idea. If you’re having trouble following the logic, you’re not alone.

“I’m telling you that you shouldn’t hire me, or any consultant for that matter, to help you with your marketing.” – Neil Patel.

Patel’s first reason you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant is that consultants aren’t “miracle workers.”

He says: “If you have a bad product, a low converting site, or an offer that just doesn’t make sense, driving thousands of visitors to your website won’t fix your business.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this one. No marketing consultant should take on a client  they think has a bad product or broken business model. But for every entrepreneur who hires a marketing consultant thinking it’ll be a panacea for their broken business, there are those who do have viable products and just need to figure out how to tell the right stories about them to the right audiences, aka marketing. Marketing consultants are not doing their jobs correctly if they don’t manage expectations from the outset.

I’m not sure what Neil claimed to be for his clients, but I personally care about a lot more than clicks and site traffic. There may be marketing experts who are just focused on bringing in visitors, but I urge against categorizing all marketers as single-minded in their approach. Perhaps his article should have been called, “Why You Shouldn’t Hire Someone Just To Drive Traffic To Your Site If Your Site Is Terrible And Your Product Needs Work.”

You can’t build a skyscraper without laying the foundation

The next point Patel makes is that entrepreneurs should “build their foundation” instead of hiring a digital marketing consultant. “Even the best marketers can’t turn around a shitty business, which is why you need to focus on creating a great product or service before you talk to a marketing consultant.”

At this point, Patel is saying you should consider hiring a digital marketing consultant, just after building the foundation of your business. We’ve already touched on the hypocrisy of this claim, but it warrants further exploration. It isn’t clear why Patel doesn’t just stake the claim that you should wait until hiring a marketing consultant until you’ve built a business foundation. Why throw all marketing consultants under the bus, per the title? Part of my job as a marketing consultant is to not take on any clients who I think lack the foundational elements of their business. This includes: solid value propositions and at least awareness and plans for ameliorating things like lackluster websites and social media presences.

You need to walk before you run

In the next point, Patel seems to be firmly changing his position that you shouldn’t hire a marketing consultant. He says he recommends trying to market your business by yourself before hiring a consultant. Again, that sounds rational–much more so than the title and thesis claim that you should never hire a marketing consultant. Just as many advise doing sales, customer success, and other business aspects before hiring, I think advising CEOs to do their own marketing first is a great idea. A CEO especially needs to have a strong grasp on the market positioning of his or her product. Patel recommends things like optimizing SEO, speeding up your site, starting a blog, interacting on social networks, etc. as things leaders should do before hiring. Again, Patel and I couldn’t agree more.

But then Patel loses me yet again. He says, “If you aren’t able to do all of the things above, you can always hire an intern or a college kid to help you out. Again, don’t look for a consultant.”

This part is especially troubling to me, and I believe is the worst advice given throughout the piece. I am all for lean startup business models, but hiring inexperienced help early on can seriously sabotage your startup and sap your energy. It’s a shame that Patel advises this, because hiring an amateur always leads to wasting time and money, undoing mistakes instead of reaping the benefits of a seasoned professional who has helped numerous other startups solve similar problems. Imagine if Patel had advised hiring a designer who is still in school learning Adobe, or a developer who just finished reading a book on Rails.

There’s nothing wrong with startups hiring interns to help with marketing, but that should be no substitute for expert marketing strategy and implementation. At the least, a marketing consultant can hire and manage a less experienced team to ensure all efforts are aligned and goals are being met. Patel laments that marketing consultants are “expensive,” which is another worrisome claim. What’s expensive is your business never getting off the ground because you’ve hired someone who has never done startup marketing before. Do you really want to hire someone who has little experience in your market and have them spend your time and money doing trial and error? Imagine your product never taking off because you’ve become burnt out trying to redo your website copy without the help of a professional content marketing expert. Do you really want to go the “cheap” route?

When to hire consultants

In the penultimate paragraph, Patel finally admits that hiring a marketing consultant is actually a good idea.

“Once you test the waters and try to grow your business on your own, you can consider hiring a consultant. Make sure you hire him or her for specific tasks instead of all your marketing needs.”

This is great to see, but I wish Patel had been more upfront about his perspective that someone should hire a marketing consultant after they’ve done the necessary work instead of not at all. He suggests the cases in which hiring consultants who meet specific needs has really helped his business, and advises not to look for “one-size-fits-all marketing consultants.”

I absolutely agree with Patel on this. I am sometimes asked to do things outside of my core competences, and I am always upfront about where my strengths and weaknesses lie. For example, I will not run and/or optimize clients’ PPC campaigns. It’s just not what I do.

Final thoughts

I completely agree that a lot needs to happen before you can bring on a marketing consultant or team (just as a lot needs to happen before you can hire a sales team). An excellent consultant can and will work with you to identify and build out assets you need, and/or advise when you need to improve other aspects of marketing than those they specialize in.

In my experience, startups and marketing consultants are often perfect matches. Many great startups can’t afford to hire full-time marketing experts, but they can afford to pay for an expert marketing consultant who can work as an “in-house asset” to strategize and deliver on measurable goals. A great marketing consultant can be agile and meet the unique needs of a company. S/he can work directly with CEOs and other consultants, and act as if they were an employee. Delivering measurable value should be their primary concern. Like any field, there are top performers and those who under-deliver and underwhelm. A great marketing consultant would never charge clients for what Patel calls “thumb twiddling”.

The right marketing consultant—one who works with you as if they were an employee, who has already worked with dozens of other startups and helped them accomplish their goals across various market segments—is a fantastic choice. They can also help you build out the foundation elements that Patel mentions in the post. Hiring an “intern” or “kid” can waste a lot of time and money. It’s far better to find a marketing consultant with reasonable rates who will get it right the first time.

In sum, I’m grateful for Patel’s dialogue, and would love to continue the discussion here. Have you ever hired a marketing consultant? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.