Marketing consultants are frequently brought in to help a business well after its “formative” stage. Products have already been launched, logos designed, prices set, mission statements written — in other words, the company has already fallen into its various grooves.

In this sense, the business has already manifest as a living entity. It has a personality, it has a backstory, it has a goals and ideals that are extensions of the people who created it. Granted, these aren’t always optimal manifestations (which is why marketing consultants get called in), but they’re there.

Regardless of their efficacy, these aspects of the business have deep roots. Since they’re the product of the business’ leadership team, either through choice or happenstance, they likely have some level of importance. (Even if they’re just serving as a sketch of what the business owner wanted to create.)

Because of this, there’s a level of intricacy involved when one of us comes into a business with the goal of transforming their marketing. The process requires finesse. I do not believe in rolling in, slapping my “expert opinion” on the table, and jumping immediately into tactical deployment.

Such an approach cannot be effective. How can you strategize without first learning the business you’re trying to transform?

When you bring in a marketing consultant, their first priority should be learning your business and intimately understanding everything about what you do and why you do it.

There are extreme perils to doing it any other way. (How often does it make sense to take action without knowing your surroundings? It’s like diving into a swimming pool without checking to make sure there’s water in it.)

One of my favorite stories about this comes from world-renowned economic expert Dr. Ernesto Sirolli. In his twenties, he worked for an Italian NGO that was trying to set up sustainable agriculture in Africa.

According to his story (told at a TEDx conference in 2012), his first project was to teach villagers in Zambia to grow tomatoes.

“Everything in Africa grew beautifully,” he said. “We had these magnificent tomatoes…we were telling the Zambians ‘Look how easy agriculture is’.”

He and his team had rolled in and, with their expertise in agriculture, grown a nice crop. This would have been a happy ending, except that roughly two hundred hippos emerged from the nearby river and ate everything overnight.

Sirolli’s people said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

To which the Zambians replied, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”

When Sirolli’s team asked the villagers why they hadn’t warned them of the hippos, they got a reply straight out of a sitcom: “You didn’t ask.”

This is precisely what happens when an expert swoops in, takes over, and applies their knowledge without any understanding of the situation. This is why questions are important. That’s why deferring to the reality of what’s going on and the people you’re working with will always create better results than barreling in with existing knowledge and generic application.

As Dr. Sirolli would say (after learning the hard way): “You never arrive in a community with any ideas.”

Makes sense, right? Your existing ideas are based on previous experience, not what will work in this situation for these people. Many marketing efforts suffer because an expert came in, applied the same “strategy” to a company that they’ve applied to dozens of others, without due respect for the reality of the situation.

This is why I shudder when a client tells me about a marketing consultant who, during their first call, was already talking about Facebook posts and email marketing campaigns. It’s like they’ve already drawn a map without knowing the origin, destination, or terrain to be crossed. (That’s a good way to drive your car straight into a river full of hippos.)

I’ve noticed that some consultants, once they’ve labelled themselves as experts, are afraid to ask questions. For reasons of ego, they see it as a weakness. “I’m the expert. If I kick down the door and start throwing my brilliance around, their marketing HAS to get better! If I ask questions, it’ll look like I don’t know what I’m doing!”

I wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, any marketing professional who doesn’t ask questions has demonstrated that they don’t know what they’re doing. They’ve confused false confidence with competence…a mistake that human beings are incredibly prone to making.

Don’t let your business suffer because of someone’s ego. If you want real help with your marketing, be prepared to answer questions. Enjoy the process of rediscovering your business through an outsider’s eyes. When all is said and done, you’ll be reaping the benefits of truly strategic marketing based on your business and your operational reality.

Which is much better than watching a bunch of hippos eat your tomatoes.

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Categories: MSP Marketing Blog