What is the Difference Between a Marketing Consulting Firm and a Marketing Agency?

by Trisha Gallagher | May 8, 2020

If you’re not “in marketing” you might not realize how many approaches you can take to structure your marketing program. You might be reading this blog and thinking, “OK, Marketri is a group of marketing consultants, clearly they’re going to try selling me on the consultant route.”

But hear me out. That’s not always the best choice for your organization. I’ve been an in-house marketing team of just one, on an in-house marketing team of many, in a marketing agency, and in a marketing consultancy. And if you’re trying to decide whether you should even outsource or not, here are some things to consider.

  • If you already have a profit center marketing strategy in place and need someone to execute on your strategic marketing plan, look to an agency to help plan specific campaigns and deliver on those plans.
  • If you don’t know where to start, have started but haven’t seen results, or need help validating your strategy, look to a consulting firm to help turn your marketing function into a profit center. 

What is a marketing consulting firm?

A marketing consulting firm is an outside advisor that works with an organization to develop and implement marketing strategies. A consultant focuses on the marketing program as a whole to produce a strategic marketing plan, often starting with foundational elements including SWOT, messaging, and core differentiators, before drilling down into specific strategies for targeting the right audience for your products or services.

What is a marketing agency?

To oversimplify it, marketing agencies execute on marketing activities. There are some agencies that can help guide the strategic marketing plan, but for the most part, a marketing agency focuses on tactical outputs identified in an overarching plan. Some agencies are all-encompassing and provide services from branding to digital campaign execution. Other agencies opt to specialize in a particular area (only SEO or only web development). 

So, primary difference: marketing consulting firm plans, marketing agency executes.

What is it like working with a consulting firm versus an agency?

The People

Who would you be working with in a consulting firm model versus with an agency?

An agency often partners with a leader in the marketing department, whether a CMO, marketing manager/director, or marketing coordinator. Typically with an agency, you’ll engage with a single strategist and/or account manager and a group of production team members (e.g., designers, developers, writers). This relationship works best if you have a solid marketing plan and an in-house resource dedicated to managing or overseeing the agency’s production with clear direction.

A good marketing agency will partner with you to drive your marketing strategy forward and not just be an order-taker. However, because the relationship’s goal is to produce tangible outputs, the strategic planning will most likely be (and often should be) focused on specific campaign or project deliverables. 

A consulting firm typically partners with an executive leader in the C-suite (e.g., CEO, COO, CMO). With a consultant, you’re often working with a strategist that will help plug in different production members as needed (i.e., utilizing in-house team members, agency vendors, or other third-party contractors). Your organization may or may not have an in-house marketing department (of one or of many), but because the relationship’s goal is to help shape a strategic marketing plan, it’s important to have input from your top-level business decision makers. A good strategic marketing plan will transform your business as a whole, not just provide an influx in leads. 

Pro tip: With a Fractional CMO Pod model, you’re working with multiple strategists that then help to plug in different production members as needed. If you’re not familiar with us, Marketri is more of a pod-like structure. Our consultants collaborate on multiple accounts. You often work with a single point person, but you get the brain power of the whole team. (And here’s more on that topic if you’ve got the time).

The Services

What do I “get” with a consultant versus an agency?

A marketing agency executes tactical marketing work on behalf of your company. And, because they typically focus on executing marketing activities, will steer your plan in the direction of the specific services they offer. This could include things like: branding, SEO services, advertising, websites. 

A consulting firm works closely to craft a strategy and plan unique for your organization. As previously mentioned, this typically starts at the top, so your end result should be a strategic marketing plan. Outputs could include things like: customer and competitor analysis, calculating marketing ROI, messaging, and so on. From there, a consulting firm will create an actionable marketing plan and, depending on your working relationship, help to find the best resources to execute it. (That might mean helping to fill in-house positions or find qualified outsourced vendors.)

So, primary difference: a marketing consultant will often oversee an agency’s output, whereas the agency executes on the items identified in the marketing plan.

More on Structuring your Marketing Department

If you’re looking for more guidance on how to structure your marketing department, we’ve put together a Guide for building a strong marketing department.