The evolution of markets, and the role of marketing

Consulting projects don’t emerge out of nothing – unlike the universe, there’s not a vast expanse of emptiness in clients’ minds into which pops—miraculously—the idea for a new project, writes Fiona Czerniawska, co-Founder of Source.


Consulting projects don’t emerge out of nothing. Unlike the universe, there’s not a vast expanse of emptiness in clients’ minds into which pops—miraculously—the idea for a new project. No: clients’ minds are teeming with life. But much of what’s swimming around is at an early stage of evolution, singled-celled organisms if you like. So what takes an amoeba and turns it into a fully-fledged consulting project, and what role can marketing play in that process?

There are really three evolutionary stages we need to think about.

The first is all about the survival of the fittest: some of those single-celled ideas will turn out to have legs. What separates the winners from the losers is the extent to which clients can find corroborating evidence to support the idea that other people are thinking about their fledgling notion, too. They don’t want to waste time on an issue or opportunity that’s going nowhere, and the only way to find out whether it’s going somewhere is to look around, talk to people, and see if others agree with them that it’s worth pursuing. In the second stage, the client now knows they should do something, they’re just not sure what to do and whether they have the skills to do it. Cue more research and more conversations with colleagues, but in a much more focused, in-depth way. This is where an idea morphs into a concrete project, one that you can do, or decide you need help to do. Which takes us to the third and final stage in which some work becomes consulting projects consultants can pitch to win.

We know from research that around 50% of amoeba never make it out of the primordial sludge, and a further 45% become pieces of work clients can do themselves. Just 5% of the possible work actually becomes consulting projects.

So where would you place your bets as an organisation? Well, you’d probably spread it fairly evenly across all three stages. You’d want to increase the number of ideas that make it out of stage 1, and the number of projects that clients realise need specialist skills to execute in stage 2; you’d then also want to maximise your firm’s chance of winning the pitches in stage 3. In the past most marketing expenditure was focused on stage 3—wining work in a competitive situation—largely because it’s hard to know who’s thinking about what in stage 1, and clients generally don’t want to talk to consulting firms in stage 2 (they want to sort themselves out internally before they go to the market, if they need to). Over the last decade, the increasingly sophisticated response to both of those problems has been thought leadership. That works because it can be broadcast, picked up by the people who need it in stage 1, and because, at its best, it can help clients conceptualise the issue and clarify the expertise consultants can bring.

But perhaps future success will depend less on excelling at each stage, and more on moving the boundaries between them. Clients may be reluctant to engage directly with consultants during stage 2, but the firm that can shift point at which they move into stage 3 or ensure that it’s already having a conversation with the client at the moment they do so will have a huge advantage. The key to this is that it takes marketing away from what has essentially been a remote stance, sending out information in the hope it has an impact, waiting for complex projects to emerge from simple starting points, etc., to one of active intervention: less marketeers, more geneticists.


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