The executive’s guide to hiring a digital marketing agency: Consultant vs freelancer – what are the differences?

Consultant vs freelancer – what are the differences?

Our team speaks with hundreds of companies a month who are looking to hire a digital marketing provider, and within those conversations we often ask the type of provider they’re looking for.

Often times we’ll hear something about wanting a consultant “who will also do the work”, and the work is usually multiple channels. It’s a bad ask for a full time person, much less someone who is not a full time employee.

There seems to be a misunderstanding in the world about consultants and freelancers, and namely their differences.

Today I am here to tell you that the scope of your needs is what determines the kind of provider you need. There often isn’t just one answer, but a few different options each with their own tradeoffs.

This chapter will cover cover a comparison of agencies vs freelancers.

Don’t forget to check out our agency vs consultant chapter as well.


First, let’s define the difference between the two types of providers.

Consultants are individuals who offer their services to clients and are often focused on identification and diagnosis of issues, and then the strategy to fix and move the company forward. Most consultants do not do services, as the rates-to-time ratio required by consultants to make ends meet are often not feasible with offering services. And, most consultants are not multi-disciplinary. An SEO consultant should be very good at diagnosing SEO issues and creating a strategy for your company to rank better in the SERPs, but they are not a developer and should not be the one writing the code to fix certain issues on your site.

Freelancers are also solo individuals offering services to clients, but they are usually less strategic and more “boots on the ground” meaning they are executing on the strategies created by a consultant/in-house. Freelancers are sometimes overseas, but can be onshore/in your country. They do tend to be cheaper than consultants because the work they are doing is not as strategic (and therefore arguably not as valuable), and will often work by the hour (though we at Credo do not advise this).

Strategy vs execution

When determining an agency vs consultant, the real question comes down to what do you need them to do?

Diagnosis and strategy – consultant

As stated above, consultants are best on diagnosis and strategy, along with consulting with internal teams who are executing on the work. If you need to figure out your strategy for a channel and have teams internally who will execute on anything (or you have the ability to hire) the consultant recommends, then working with a consultant can be very effective for you.

Some of the most common things that companies hire consultants for are audits (SEO audits or PPC audits), strategies (such as marketing strategy), and ongoing consulting that may be needed.

Doing things – freelancers (or agency)

Freelancers on the other hand are usually hired to do things at a rate that seems reasonable to the client.

If you need someone outside of a full time employee to operate a channel, or to be doing specific tasks consistently such as managing ad spend or writing content, multiple freelancers (or an agency) can be the right choice.

Freelancers can be awesome. We’ve used them many times at Credo. But don’t confuse them for consultants. These are hired guns hired to do things and are great order-takers, but they’re often not strategic and don’t have the buy-in from you to be strategic.

You are paying them to get the things done, usually on an hourly rate.

I’ll end this section by saying that it is not uncommon for companies to use consultants, freelancers, and agencies at the same time and sometimes even on the same channel. They can complement each other well and give you multiple perspectives which helps in the pursuit of truth and finding the things that will work.

Just remember – consultants are usually best for strategy whereas freelancers (and agencies) are best for execution.

Pros and cons

As with anything, there are pros and cons to both consultants and freelancers.

Consultant pros

Consultants are experts in one channel. While this can also be a con, it is a HUGE pro if you need deep expertise in that channel and the right strategy put together the first time. They’re true subject matter experts.

Consultants have deep experience working with clients to not only help them navigate challenges with the specific issue (channel/whatever the consultant consults on), but also with managing issues internally and helping their point of contact actually get things done. This is often why a consultant is retained when the company has an agency as well.

Third, you know exactly who you are hiring when you hire a consultant. You know their name, their background, and what to expect from them. This usually does not happen with an agency, as you’ll be assigned the account or project manager or team that has availability. You do know who you are hiring when you hire a freelancer, but they are often less proven than a consultant. That said, you’re hiring them to do different hings.

And fourth, consultants will often work on shorter engagements than agencies. Most agencies make their margin by hiring juniors and retaining clients for a long period of time, because onboarding and front-loading a lot of work is costly. Consultants, on the other hand, can usually onboard you much faster and can work faster because they’re more agile (no or low operational overhead). Freelancers will usually work on hourly arrangements, whereas consultants and agencies will not.

Consultant Cons

And here are some of the potential cons (they are not all real cons)

Consultants are most often experts in just one channel, thus if you have multiple channel needs then you will need multiple consultants.

Consultants are also best on strategy, as we’ve also discussed. If you use a consultant for your strategy, you will still need to hire an agency for the execution if you do not have teams internally to do the work.

Consultants also tend to cost more per hour than agencies or freelancers, because the work is more knowledge work and doesn’t fit neatly into a set of tasks. Consultants also have additional overhead for themselves, and thus charge more per hour for their high value work than agencies charge. Freelancers tend to charge too little.

Finally, consultants (and freelancers) are just one person. There is a chance they’ll burn out or get hit by a bus, but more likely they’ll take some time off and you may get frustrated that they’re out. Agency employees take vacations and time off of course, but they have a team supporting them. You won’t be left out in the cold without a team when you hire an agency; this could happen with a consultant.

Freelancers pros and cons

Freelancers of course also have their pros and cons.

Freelancer pros

There are quite a few good things about working with a freelancer.

First, freelancers will often work on shorter term and smaller budget projects than agencies and consultants.

Second, freelancers tend to be cheaper than consultants and agencies on a per-hour basis. This is because the work they are doing is more rote and focused on execution than consultants, and they don’t have the overhead of agencies.

Third, freelancers can often be hired very quickly and via platforms. And when you find a good one, they can keep producing.

Freelancer cons

There are of course some cons to freelancers.

First, they’re often lower priced than consultants or agencies for a reason. One of those reasons can be because they are not as effective or polished as those others, so you may experience performance issues and even them ghosting on you in the middle of a project.

Second, they are not set up to scale. If you need more of their time, they may not be able to give it to you. You’ll then need to go find another freelancer and either stop working with the first or work with both, which means that your work managing them will increase significantly.

Third, freelancers usually do not work well with each other. In order to work with multiple freelancers well, you’ll need someone internally who is a very good manager who can get them talking. Having multiple freelancers is not the same thing as having a team in-house.

What is right for me?

The right type of provider for you depends on your needs.

If you need strategy/diagnosis/consulting, a consultant is probably your best bet.

If you need the work to be executed on, a freelancer or set of freelancers or an agency is probably the way to go.

If you’re hiring an agency or need a consultant, get started here on Credo.

This page last updated on July 26, 2022 by John Doherty

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