How to hire a Digital Consultant

10 Questions To Ask Before You Hire A Digital Consultant

by Jon Bains
Founding Partner


For every Kodak or Blockbuster that hits the headlines, there are thousands of business being disrupted and industries in flux that you never hear about. When a Fortune 500 business hits the rocks it’s news but for the vast majority of business it’s often barely noticed. 


  • Historically, agencies would invest time trying to convince a company their wonderful idea is the right idea. However, that methodology doesn’t work in this instance as the end product is you.
  • To make real progress, hire an agency that fits the culture of the ‘Doers’ of your business otherwise there is no transformation, evolution or progression – just ‘C’ suite massaging.
  • To ensure the process will be as effective as possible you need to have buy-in and engagement from the very top of the organisation so you don’t get derailed down the line.

Hopefully, you aren’t in one of those businesses yet, but as a marketer you may recognise that if action isn’t taken soon you could be. More often than not that’s when you start thinking about getting some outside help.

Recognising The Problem

For those businesses which are feeling a bit shaky, especially the ones who don’t regularly engage consulting services, it can be extremely difficult to know where to go, what to ask and who to trust when faced with digital disruption. Typically the kinds of situations that trigger the desire for external help are the likes of:

  • We know where we are going, we just need some help getting there,
  • We have no idea where we are going,
  • We have an extraordinary group of individuals that we can’t utilise properly,
  • We want to increase revenues and recognise that marketing and sales are only part of the solution,
  • We will hit our numbers, but those numbers don’t nearly reflect the opportunity we have,
  • We did this, we made money, the world changed and we don’t anymore. Now what?

‘Disrupted’ is one of the keywords which triggers these programmes in the first place but it’s often overlooked that you are choosing to disrupt – voluntarily and possibly fundamentally – your own business. Hence it’s extremely important to get the right fit.

Asking Around

So who can help? The Digital Transformation universe has become extremely crowded of late. Many of the traditional flavours of agencies and consultancies have invested heavily in expanding their skillset in the area and it’s well recognised that there is a war on between the big consultancies and the ad networks to remain relevant to businesses in the digital future. For many companies looking for help it’s inappropriate to go to the traditional consulting tree, whoever happens to be scrapping around at the top, but if not them… who?

There is a broad mix of vendors out there who can potentially help. They range from the more traditional disciplines who have moved into the space from branding, comms and PR, to what were the digital “marketing” and social agencies transitioning to User Experience and service design agencies, as well as a host of independent boutique consultancies many of which are built to order around sectors or specialist services.

Therefore the ‘who’ very much depends on what the problem is. I know that doesn’t help much but it’s worth speaking to peers in other businesses, reading as much as you can and seeing what your existing agencies are up to to get a sense of who and what is out there.

Making Decisions

So you’ve identified a prospective partner, now what are you going ask? Historically, when evaluating agency tasks the agencies themselves would invest time and effort trying to convince that their wonderful idea is the right one. That methodology doesn’t really work in this instance as the end product is YOU – just different. It also doesn’t help matters that consultancies will have differing approaches and focal points in an effort to differentiate themselves.

1. What Is A Typical Engagement?

Most will be reluctant to pitch strategy upfront because frankly that’s what consultants get paid for. If they do then it means that their revenue model will most likely be pushing to recoup further down the process. Asking if they tend to be Project or Retained and what their exit strategy is should expose enough insight to work out whether they are appropriate.

2. What Is The Shape Of The Billing Curve?

Front- or back-loaded? Ordinarily you’ll have a ‘getting to know you’ period which can have many names, with interviews and the like in order to get a sense of where you need to be going. There are differing schools of thought on this, from an extended discovery period to really understand you, to hitting the ground running and iterating through. Both approaches have their merits and the likelihood is that a larger or slower businesses will require more work upfront than a smaller, more agile one.

3. Who Are We Likely To Be Working With?

Who is the core team? How often do you swap out members? What happens if there is someone we don’t like? It happens in any third-party relationship but knowing where you stand and getting commitment from the key players to stay involved for the duration is crucial.

4. Has Your Team Worked Together Before?

Sounds like a silly question but the big guys have thousands of people who may never even have met. On the flipside there is an emerging collective consulting model that is personally my favourite way to work.  This entails having a fantastic bespoke mix of big brains on the project, each with their own speciality. The downside is however if it’s a ‘random’ group it can lead to a clash of methodologies.

5. How Well Do You Know The Sector?

Have you got practical experience? What other sectors have similar issues to ours? What breadth can you bring to the table? Sometimes you actually want to run as far away from your own sector as possible, especially if it’s in the middle of being disrupted, so an objective view is great. At other times, and especially where there is a strong level of specialism, then a good understanding can be a plus.

6. Do You Expect To Do Any Related Production Work?

We already have a number of agencies that do other things – is this a backdoor pitch? This is an extremely important question in order to gauge potential partners’ objectivity and motivations. That is not to say that because they can help execute as well as shape is necessarily bad – just be aware that often it isn’t a ‘thing’ to be built – it might be a process or way of thinking. ‘Solutions’ are rarely the answer.

7. Who Is In Your Extended Network – What Are You Likely To Cross-Sell?

It’s good to understand where objectivity may be coloured by commerciality. It’s also a test of honesty – ‘I’m part of a big network but there will be no pressure to utilise any of our other services’. Starting a sensitive project and having somebody sell constantly once they are in the door can be pretty ugly.

8. Which Lines Of The Org Chart Are You Most Comfortable Working With?

You find out more about a business from ‘the bottom’ than from ‘the top’. Fact. You need to make sure you bring in people that fit the culture of the ‘Doers’ of your business – otherwise there is no transformation, evolution or progression – just ‘C’ suite massaging. Which is of course fine if what’s needed is some pain relief in the short term – but ultimately it won’t fix the underlying condition.

9. Have You Done This Before (Successfully)? 

What were the key points to success?  How was that experience analogous with our situation? Don’t expect too many facts back as these things are usually confidential, however you might as well tap them for some free advice.

10. Why Do These Programmes Fail?

Do they have any tips on how to ensure the process will be as effective as possible? They will most likely and correctly state that if you don’t have buy-in and engagement from the very top then it’s very easy to get derailed. Most consultancies bill on time and materials so it’s up to you how much internal time you waste, but unlike in other areas it will objectively be ‘your fault’ and therefore you will pay for the time.

Hopefully just speaking to a few folk will shape your thoughts. Whoever you choose I would strongly advise keeping your approach agile-ish and breaking the projecet into chunks so you can gracefully exit if necessary!

About Jon Bains

Jon Bains, who is celebrating his twenty-first year in the industry, is best known for founding Lateral, one of the original digital marketing agencies.

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