‘What’s in it for me?! – consultancy dilemmas

Posted on in BrandBlab

A sad reality of business is the need for professional consultants to rely on clients fees to pursue their livelihoods. On the basis of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’ every client is entitled to expect the professional to optimise and protect their interests as the paying party. Unfortunately, professional relationships are vulnerable to perceptions of conflicting interests. Consultants are typically accused of using client resources to fund their own vested interests, maximising fee income to enhance egos and reputations. In the creative sector, this is typified by the cynics’ view that architects build monuments to themselves with fees based on escalating costs and advertising companies create unnecessary award winning campaigns growing rich on expensive media buying percentages. In fairness, while most of us aim to meet strategic and practical client needs, there is always the doubt caused by the nature of reimbursement. Today roles are blurred, everyone it seems is a ‘consultant’ but fees based on transactions rather than payment for impartial intellectual services can ultimately define the difference between agency and real consultancy.

In emerging markets, it gets even more difficult as international organisations buy up local operations. While there may be a sprinkling of ex pats and the name over the door is impressive, the local staff skill base, is sometimes, not unreasonably, viewed dubiously by the locals. Working in Russia since 1998, our company has seen major changes in the retail and real estate sector. However, finding professional consultant / agency services providing truly independent unbiased advice is a continuing challenge. This is not helped by a Russian psyche of natural distrust and cynicism. In marketing, it seems the lure of relatively easy money from organising massive billboard and TV advertising has perpetuated a reliance on relatively crude awareness campaign investment. Worse, it funds a substantial industry of often pointless quantitative research exercises to measure ‘awareness’. Maybe it allows marketing directors to tick the boxes but this hardly forwards the cause for achieving more clever strategic marketing investment based on insightful qualitative research with imaginative and coordinated media planning.

Similarly, in architecture and real estate, balancing clients’ aspirations with carefully evaluated commercial planning is difficult in a ‘new’ economy like Russia or India. Because of the relatively easy short term gains to be had in a ‘hot’ market there is a dearth of good retail and real estate existing or planned, to match the significant international money looking for investment opportunities in this market. This is the result of a get-rich-quick attitude combined with a lack of effective professional advice and resources. The invasion of international companies and professionals is starting to change expectations. Local professional markets are adopting western practices but are yet to reach the vital stage of providing real customer centric services to differentiate their offer. The good news is that the phenomenal development of end user consumer expectations and aspirations will force a demand for more imaginative and better offers, venues, destinations, services and facilities whatever the sector. This will force and justify increasingly higher levels of strategic thinking and creative skilled professional services.

As consultants, we have to accept ultimately it is the self interest of consumers and therefore clients that always provides the driving force for all involved. Consultants must constantly adapt and improve to ensure their survival. Ultimately, their self interest will be based on providing more for less and better like everyone in the marketplace.

Clive Woodger
SCG London
8 May 2006