Marketing Consultant Rules of Engagement

Clickbait alert! You thought you were coming for a witty guide to the world of marketing and working with clients. First, a word from our sponsor (me) to let you know I recently became a free agent and am available for consulting projects. Growth marketing, accelerator management, fundraising support, song & dance ensembles, surprise me.


However, since you’re here already let’s not let have you leave empty-handed. As I’ve been reentering the consulting world I’ve been thinking back to engagements that worked or didn’t work well.

It’s only after some 12+ years and maybe 100+ projects that have I managed to find the right structure(s). I’m sharing some of those learnings here for the many marketing consultants out there. As a bonus, If you’re thinking about hiring me this guide is helpful to read beforehand.

Use Me Like a Scalpel

Often marketing consulting arrangements don’t work out due to bad project scoping. In addition to a client’s overly eager tendencies to maximize your time and output. That leads to scope creep, unfocused workloads and generally a bad experience for everyone. So I always try to start new client discussions with that exact phrase:

“Use me like a scalpel”

Sean Percival, MD

I’m a precession instrument and on a limited-time engagement so let’s keep my work hyper-focused. It’s the only way we’ll complete it. More often than not this is not the case.

That’s because most consultants are talented individuals and multi-discipline. They know a bit about acquisition, optimization, strategy and all the other little pieces in between. As such the client is going to try to rope you into just about everything. This is especially true when you’re working for smaller teams who may not have any full-time marketers onboard. The challenge then falls on you as a part-time consultant trying to the job of a full-time CMO. It’s not sustainable. If the client needs the engagement of a full-time CMO then they need to go hire a full-time CMO. Don’t try and fail to be that for them.

Scope of Work

Most initial conversations while scoping a marketing or growth project usually go something like this with a new client. Imagine this person has just drunk an unhealthy amount of coffee before spewing all this:

So great to have you here! Well our analytics are all messed up so let’s fix all that, we need to launch ads on every social platform, our IT guy and my 3rd cousin wants the website to be more blue so let’s A/B test it, we’re not sure where most of our data is, some partner needs some content like yesturday, I heard influencer marketing is cool, this one other consultant did this thing 2 years ago, maybe you should do the same? What do you think about blogs? Should we have a blog? Maybe two blogs?

Oh! Also no one is buying, like anything, so we need a full audit of all flows. Thanks!

That’s more of a spaghetti ball mess than a foundation to build upon. It also happens to be the state of just about every early-stage startup. Even some later stage ones are this messy! You might be good at your job but you’re not a miracle worker. That’s why it’s recommended to start early with discussions on the engagement scope and ideally, the consultant is the one structuring it after gathering all the client’s needs.

The format I use is very similar to Google’s OKR (objectives and key results) format. With each objective being top-level and representing roughly 1 month of work. Underneath each objective would be 2 or 3 smaller tasks, aka the key results.

In terms of engagement time, I almost always stick to 3-month engagements. With the option to extend another 3 months if things are going well. I generally don’t believe you should be on long engagements with any single client but that may be a personal preference. Variety is a spice of life and I like my work spicy. There are a few other reasons for this:

  • It forces both client and consultant to move fast on the deliverables. A month goes by quick and you’ve only got 3 of them.
  • It limits each engagement a total of 3 large objectives, keeping scope under control. As new requests come in they either need to replace current tasks or be added to future 3-month engagement.
  • It gives you enough time to show results, but not too much time where projects drag out or the relationship strains. From my experience, full-time employees love a fast-moving consultant, but that love fades pretty quickly.

So in the above ranty example from our over-caffeinated client I might break it down as such:


1. Analytics

  • Review and audit existing analytics and taxonomy
  • Create scope doc for analytics fixes needed

2. Funnel Optimization

  • Review and document current funnels
  • Provide a list of best practices to implement
  • Run (5) user interviews and present findings

3. Experiments

  • Blue homepage A/B test
  • Launch campaign on Adwords

Now we have some structure and have already significantly limited scope. Instead of having a goal of “fix all analytics” it’s broken down into the first steps needed to accomplish that goal. Baby steps.

The client is also forced to pick the things that are most important to them, and you as the consultant have a nice checklist to follow for your engagement. I actually put this document in the contract files and at the end of every month, I send a copy with notes on which items were completed. This is a great thing to send along with your monthly invoice. Show the work done right next to the request for payment.

The check’s in the mail!

On the topic of getting payment, I like to joke that…

“Being a consultant is great! You get paid twice as much but have to wait ten times longer to actually get paid.”

Me, and like every freelancer

It’s amusing to me that clients basically want you to pull off miracles and quickly, but they can’t be bothered to send a simple payment on time. It’s the one thing they can do to keep a consultant super excited and engaged but it’s the thing they take least seriously. They must not know that clients who pay the fastest are always at the top of our list in terms of priority.

The only hack I’ve come up to ease the problem is to simply invoice clients right of the bat. Or in some cases, require payment before you can start any of the work. If you’re not able to do that, you just have to get the invoices into their accounting system as quickly as possible. Clients sometimes have a simple PDF with ‘how to invoice us’ directions. Ask to get a copy to avoid your invoice getting rejected or put on hold.

Most companies will also insist on NET30 (payment within 30 days). Those are fine payment terms for most business to business transactions but not for consulting and sole proprietors. I just put NET15 on all invoices and in the contract regardless. There will of course still be delays and lame excuses when it comes to getting paid…

“Oh so sorry! Sally didn’t push the right button in some accounting system somewhere, lol!”.

– Your client


Ya thanks Sally, I guess I’ll just pay bills by donating blood 20 times this month instead, lol!

*passes out from lack of blood*

On billing hours and pricing one’s self

Finally, let’s talk about something I get a lot of questions about from fellow growth marketing consultants. How do you structure the time and costs of an engagement?

Truth be told this will depend on a lot of factors like the type of work you’re doing and your previous experience. The range of costs is also very wide, with the top growth people commanding huge sums (if you can even manage to hire them). Everyone else, however, is usually slugging away for billable hours. This is actually something I don’t agree with and have moved away from.

The mean reason for this trying to put a higher value to any of my time, and to attempt to take on more meaningful engagements. If it’s just a few hours a month it’s probably not going be very exciting (or effective). Additionally, if we’re counting minutes instead of results I would say both parties are doing it wrong.

So I’ve switched more to a day rate structure and priced accordingly depending on the work involved. I also make the day ‘bought’ the same every week for the client and repeat throughout the engagement. In an example of a typical week Client A might buy every Monday and Tuesday with Client B buying every Wednesday. I spell this out very clearly in the contract for each engagement. This has a few additional benefits in terms of work structure and communications:

For the consultant:

  • Get more routine and structure to your weekly calendar.
  • Avoid having to switch between several different clients in a single day. No one can do this well.
  • Signals to the client what days you’re ‘on-call’ and always available.
  • It helps to set the expectation that you’re not at their beckoning call every single weekday. When possible restrict the bulk of your communications to the client’s dedicated day(s).
  • It helps clients to get their shit together. If they know they owe you something and you’re working the next day they’re more likely to prioritize it.

For the client:

  • They know when it’s a good time to book reoccurring or ad-hoc meetings. Avoids much back and forth aka ‘are you available on….” emails.
  • It helps clients know when deliverables for projects will need to get to you by. At the same time, it gives them some time to actually do the deliverable. A week is a perfect amount of time to push a task forward or complete it.
  • They can be less concerned about hours worked or tracking hours altogether.

No more rules

I hope those tips were helpful to my fellow growth hackers and hecklers out there. These are some of the structures that have worked for me but if you have other recommendations please feel free to let me know. Best of luck out there!


Bonus: Marketing Consultant Tools Kit

Here are a few tools, books and services I use.

*Contains affiliate links, previous investments and various other conflicts of interest:

Insurance

  • SafetyWing: Providing affordable travel medical insurance for consultants and digital nomads.

Company Structure/Accounting

  • Freshbooks: It’s just plain and simple invoicing and reliable as all hell.
  • Xolo: Corporate setup, accounting, and banking in the EU financial system for freelancers.

Communications

  • Whereby: Super simple video meetings from anywhere.
  • 15Five: Performance tracking and easy weekly reporting.

Time Tracking

  • Memory – If you must do time tracking at least do it the smart and easy way.

Books

Sean Percival

Sean Percival is an American author, investor and entrepreneur.