The difference between consultancy and agency
by Dan Larden, Head of UK
What I have learnt in my first three months in consultancy
Having worked in various roles on the demand side of digital advertising across technology and agency, this year I decided to make a career change and move into a pure consultancy role. Since joining TPA in
September, I have been lucky enough to observe and learn from some of the brightest people in the industry working on some of the biggest challenges brands have today in digital advertising. I have also been tasked with building out the team further, which has meant interviewing candidates, some of which are looking for their first roles in consultancy from the agency side. A lot of the questions they have were my first ones too before joining, what’s it like to be a digital consultant? What skills are important and how is the client relationship different from the agency side? Here is what I have learned so far.
Difference between agency and consultancy – time, honest & transparent conversations and impartiality
Often on the agency side, you are expected to have an answer to all client questions – especially in a pitch scenario for a new client, or for up weighting media spend – “we don’t know” or “we haven’t done that before” isn’t a popular answer. Working consultancy side is almost the opposite – very often the right answer is not immediately obvious and if you start speaking in absolute ‘right or wrongs’ too early into a project and start making assumptions, that’s often when projects can go off track. Ultimately, it is the process and a certain type of expertise you put in place to find that right answer which a client is paying for and, therefore, an expectation that it will take time to get there.
Honesty and transparency
Could clients find those answers themselves? Yes perhaps. But it often comes down to a lack of expertise or sometimes a lack of time. That is why good consultants spend time immersing themselves in a client’s business to understand what drives their day to day as well as their longer-term ambitions. Only by doing this can you become an extension of the client team and create trust in the process, workings, and solutions that you present.
Clients also understand this and therefore the level of detail and information that you have access to is uncensored and quick to access. It is a two-way street, the more you know about the client, and the quicker you have access to people or data, the better and faster you can help them. Some agency brand relationships are very strong and, in the best cases I’ve seen in the market, or the cases that the team at TPA have helped put in place through pitch management, the agency is a trusted consultant and there is an excellent relationship. However, for many, there will always be a level of commercial tension – as the agency is often incentivised for media spend to increase and likewise the client wants to get maximum value from their media spend. Taking media spend out of the equation and offering impartial expertise removes a lot of friction from the relationship and allows more focus on digital strategic objectives.
The other freedom in being consultancy side is the ability to be impartial and partner agnostic. Having worked on the partnership side for a lot of my agency career, I understand the importance of having very close ties to the largest parts of the media supply chain – platforms, publishers, and intermediaries. Building the relationships, expertise, technical integrations, and commercial agreements takes time and skill which is a key part of why agencies exist. However, those close ties can mean that a brand may end up using an agency partner or technology that is not necessarily the right one for them.
Building and investing in products and partnerships that are customised solely to the needs of one client is a refreshing exercise as, ultimately, you are leaving that advertiser in a more empowered position for the future. It’s also exciting to meet new solutions consistently, as opposed to some agencies having ‘preferred supplier lists’ where if your name’s not down you aren’t coming in. It means that, as a consultant, I can have different types of conversations with suppliers, whereas in some agencies it is heavily weighted around commercial incentives.
What skills are important if you want a career in consultancy
Consultancy is a completely different mindset from agency side – it’s about asking questions, exploring the why, a whole lot more listening and investigating and seeing through often complex processes. Switching on the analytical side of your brain is a must but, at the same time, building relationships and trust with multiple stakeholders is also key. Therefore, it will only suit someone comfortable dealing with people of varying personality types. The projects you get to work on as a consultant can be very wide-ranging and intellectually stimulating, as opposed to some of the repetitive day to day that can happen in ‘hands on’ agency roles.
All in all, moving consultancy side can be a great career for those that want to use their experience agency side differently, and it can act as a very good steppingstone to those that are potentially thinking of going brand side at some point in their careers. You gain access to a different set of problems which can be a lot broader than those you tackle at an agency and therefore the work you do has the ability to make a larger and longer-lasting impact which can be a very rewarding thing if done right. In reality, a good consultancy can work well alongside an agency, something TPA has always believed in since the beginning, so agency experience is especially beneficial here.