By Tony Ahn
Digital marketing professionals currently fall into three tiers: the solo consultant, the small digital firm, and the large PR or marketing communications agency. If you fall into the first tier, your days are numbered. You will face increasing competition from fellow consultants, as well as stiffer competition from better funded digital firms that have twenty people like you on staff.
Digital Marketing’s Evolution is Like Web Design’s Evolution
The field of digital marketing is evolving in a manner not dissimilar to how web design evolved around the turn of the millennium. In 1997, a friend called me and said “Hey, can you teach me HTML?” 18 months later he was making $70k a year as a web designer, with a firm that contracted with Microsoft. These are the days of wine and roses for digital marketing professionals. In the mid-to-late 90′s, there were few degrees specializing in web design. Supply of qualified professionals was scarce and demand was high. Today we digital marketing professionals find ourselves in the same situation. A knowledgeable social media professional can freelance as an independent consultant and do quite well. However, digital marketing programs are springing up and thousands of people are entering the field. As the supply of qualified professionals increases, solo professionals will have a harder time, especially as they compete with the digital firms that are starting to grab market share.
These digital firms have better resources, and can do more in-house. In the digital arena, it is common for a client to have wide and varied digital marketing needs, including content marketing (in all its various forms), SEO, reputation management, web design, social media marketing, and more. Many solo consultants specialize in a couple of those, and that’s all they do. The more established ones are able offer a wider menu and outsource the work they don’t do themselves. Their clients tend to be small to medium enterprises (SME’s). Digital firms, who can handle more and larger clients, tend to establish reputations that give them a better shot at landing large corporate clients, partly because they have marketing budgets.
Enter the 800 Pound Gorilla
However, a third type of entity is beginning to enter the digital market: forward-thinking full service PR agencies and marketing communications agencies . And these entities are going to one day dominate the landscape, as they pose a threat to both digital marketing consultants/firms as well as firms in their traditional industries. Local firms that service a single major city as well as large global international firms have access to large corporate clients. While most full service PR firms and marketing communications agencies outsource digital marketing to small firms that specialize in it, the ones that see the lay of the digital land are quietly buying small firms or hiring full departments of digital marketing professionals. They are beginning by selling digital marketing services to their current client rosters. As they learn how to integrate their new-found capabilities into their existing marketing services, they’ll innovate new approaches to digital marketing that integrate with non-digital initiatives. How do I know? Because I work for an agency that’s doing just that, and I’m not the only one, although there aren’t that many of us worldwide yet. But we’re coming, and we’re doing well because we’re early. We’re selling something nobody else has, although we won’t be for long, so we’re innovating as we go, in order to capitalize on a first-to-market advantage that won’t be an advantage forever.
The most business-savvy of the current independent digital marketing professionals will go on to start their own digital firms, while others will become heads of digital marketing departments in companies, working for marketing directors. The majority of the rest who stay in the field will eventually go to work for the ones I just mentioned. This is similar to what happened to late 90′s web designers. Digital marketing firms will face increasing competition from large full-service marketing communications agencies that know marketing to the core and have access to larger, better paying clients. If you’re Fortune 500, who do you want to work with? An ad agency, a PR firm, and a digital firm? Or one company that can do serve all those functions and make sure that each part works in concert with the other?