Professional services companies used to think that marketing themselves was the equivalent of farting at the dinner table, writes Robert Dwek. It’s very different now

Professional services companies used to think that marketing themselves

was the equivalent of farting at the dinner table, writes Robert Dwek.

It’s very different now

In 1979, George Westropp, newly ensconced as director of communications

at accountants Deloitte & Touche, was making a speech at a company

dinner. ‘I was talking about business development and how we were

heading rapidly towards a more sophisticated kind of marketing,’ he


He suddenly noticed ‘a tremendous flurry of scribbling on the top

table’, which resulted in his being passed a note. ‘One of the senior

partners had written: ‘This is a professional firm and you will never

mention the word marketing again!’.’

Has the passing of 17 years done anything to make professional types any

less anti marketing? Or is it still treated with disdain, considered

something unseemly and inappropriate to ‘people like us’?

It’s difficult to find a clear answer. While there is more acceptance of

the need for some sort of marketing, the problem is how the word is

defined. After all, cosying up to clients with a pleasant round of golf

might be considered marketing in some quarters, but it’s not marketing

with a capital M.

Moreover, attitudes towards marketing among the professions are very

hard to gauge. For example, one marketer at a large accounting firm was

recommended by an ex-colleague as someone with ‘particularly insightful

views on marketing’. But on being approached, he claimed he could not

speak because ‘the focus here is very much on the partners rather than

on the marketing team which supports them’.

There still seems to be a lot of this ‘marketing is something we do, not

something we talk about’ attitude among professional services companies.

The view expressed last July in this magazine by Martin Scicluna,

chairman of Touche Ross, would still appear to be the exception rather

than the rule: ‘There is a lot of money available (for advertising) if

agencies can persuade us that it’s worth investing.’

Certainly, there is no shortage of cash. In 1994, the UK’s professional

services sector had an estimated pounds 10bn in revenues.

But even Scicluna talks about the need to be ‘persuaded’ when it comes

to big-time marketing and advertising. Shouldn’t these professional

types take a more professional approach to marketing?

Back to George Westropp, who notes that he was the first in-house PR

person to be appointed by any of the professional firms in London. You

have to appreciate, he explains, how far this secretive sector has

already come since the dark days of 1979.

‘At that time, our own institute said it was unethical to send any of

our publications to people who weren’t already our clients - you could

get struck off for doing so! Nor were we allowed to place advertisements

that weren’t specifically for the purposes of recruitment.’

Westropp and others - most notably Coopers & Lybrand and KPMG (then Peat

Marwick), waged a sustained campaign for more marketing freedom that

eventually resulted, in October 1984, in a new set of regulations.

From then on, it was all right to place more general ads, take stands at

exhibitions, stage seminars and so on. Westropp describes it as ‘D-Day,

a sea change in professional services marketing.’

But, with a few exceptions - such as Ernst & Young’s arts sponsorship

programme - most of the marketing in this sector has been relatively low

key. Will it not become something more akin to the brand-building

campaigns that so many companies in other industries consider vital to

their survival?

Westropp thinks this is unlikely and sounds a lot less gung ho than he

must have done in 1979. ‘I’m not so sure marketing will change much in

the next ten years. The big change has already happened,’ he says.

If the accounting world seems unconvinced by the merits of marketing,

then law firms are even more backward. They too have gone through a

period of dramatic change thanks to relaxed regulations, but there has

been no great rush to clamber aboard the branding bandwagon.

‘There are some law firms using PR and sponsorship, but there are still

many which are very stuffy and resistant to the whole idea,’ says Tim

Steadman, a partner at the London office of US-based law firm Baker &


Although the biggest London law firms have ‘fairly sophisticated’

marketing systems, they are hindered by a ‘lack of uniformity as to how

this effort should be structured and financed. There is still no

standard pattern and the marketing function is handled by people with

very different backgrounds and levels of seniority’, adds Steadman.

It seems that it is the smaller firms which are making the running. One

regional firm, Dibb, Lupton & Broomhead, is generally admired for its

‘aggressive’, ‘hard-nosed’, ‘hungry’ approach. ‘A lot of regional firms

want to gain credibility in London and so are trying harder to develop a

clear brand image,’ says one observer.

Another middle-sized player which is keen to make its mark is law firm

Stephenson Harwood, which has taken on marketing consultancy Aspen

Business Communications. This relationship has so far resulted in some

awareness ads, according to Evan Ivey, Aspen’s planning director.

‘They have a very bright marketing lady who understands that the firm

has to raise its profile so it isn’t squeezed with the rest of the

medium-sized firms,’ he says. This profile-raising exercise will lead

onto differentiation work, which Ivey believes has untapped potential in

this arena.

‘You can’t pretend that a professional services company is a product

just like a can of baked beans, but you can still do a great deal to

distinguish it from the competition. So far, however, there hasn’t been

much attempt to do so.’

Ivey puts this down to the nature of these businesses, the fact that

they are partnerships rather than corporations. ‘The power of marketing

isn’t understood. And when you’ve been able to charge whatever you like

and see the money roll in, it’s understandable that you don’t see the

point in spending money on marketing.’

Nevertheless, Ivey thinks more firms - accountants as well as lawyers -

are starting to look seriously at marketing. His one concern is that

they might be viewing it as a panacea and expecting it to perform

miracles in a very short space of time.

One company which has had several years to see the powerful effects of

marketing is management consulting giant Andersen Consulting.

When it was split off from the main Arthur Andersen accounting group in

1989, it realised it had to do something pretty quickly to create a

fresh, strong identity for itself.

‘We had to do some very dramatic differentiation,’ says Sarah McMahon,

AC’s director of marketing and communications. Advised by ad agency

Young & Rubicam, AC has developed some very high-profile marketing

initiatives, including poster and TV campaigns, and sports sponsorship

of the Williams Renault Formula One team and a top golfing tournament.

A recent poster campaign won praise from Marketing’s sister title,

Campaign. It showed a shoal of small fish arranged into the shape of a

shark, accompanied by the caption: ‘What shape is your business in?’.

McMahon attributes her company’s meteoric rise from nothing to 93% name

recognition to its big spending - she puts it at twice that of its

nearest rival - and a bold approach to marketing. ‘The key thing was to

start focusing on personality, for us to come across as fun, lively and


The marketing mentality has also undergone a fundamental switch, she

believes, from ‘knee-jerk corporate hospitality to a much more focused

and sophisticated kind of relationship, where we constantly ask: what

does the client want to know about us?’. To this end, AC spends serious

money on customer and market research.

AC’s motivation to get into marketing was also the result of increasing

competition in the high-tech management consultancy field, from

companies such as IBM, EDS and Cap Gemini. ‘Our market is changing’,

suggests McMahon, ‘perhaps more so than traditional accounting.’

But Francis Quinlan, director of marketing at Arthur Andersen, believes

that change is also having a big impact on his side of the fence. ‘There

is a need to build stronger brand identities,’ he asserts.

As far as he’s concerned: ‘Marketing is no longer a taboo word, although

it has taken quite a time for professional people to realise that they

are all actively involved in marketing. It’s impossible not to be when

you are working in such a client-focused industry.’

Quinlan’s own background is in FMCG marketing, having done stints at

Procter & Gamble and Guinness. He believes it is misguided to assume

FMCG marketing techniques can be grafted wholesale onto the professions.

‘It’s unlikely they will become common currency here, we work with

different tools,’ he says. But he agrees that below-the-line and

telemarketing is certainly a viable option.

Others seem to be much more convinced by the benefits of above-the-line

campaigns. Baker Tilly, a top-20 accounting firm, is looking to

advertising to help it extend its client base downwards into the medium-

and small-company sector.

Through consultancy Teamspirit, Baker Tilly has created its first

serious marketing campaign. Using the headline ‘It’s not always so easy

to recognise the time for a change’, a series of press ads have included

an oversized mouse next to a mouse hole and an oversized fish in a bowl.

They have also used 0500 freefone numbers.

Teamspirit has developed a corporate slogan - ‘Understanding your

business is our business’ - and advised its client to offer a free

initial consultation to potential clients. This is designed to overcome

the ‘fear factor’, conjured up by an accountant’s ticking clock.

‘It’s all about a change of attitude, showing that the customer comes

first,’ says Tracey Spuyman, Teamspirit director.

This kind of thinking, however, is still a long way from the more common

approach. For the moment, it seems that up-front marketing methods will

remain alien to the professional services industry.

But for how long? Many firms admit they are interested in more

sophisticated marketing, it’s just that they want more evidence that it

works before committing to it.

They shouldn’t wait too long. It might be that in ten years’ time, the

hesitant attitudes expressed today will look as blinkered, ridiculous

and self-deluding as those of the senior partner with Deloitte & Touche,

who declared back in 1979 that marketing and the professions should

never be uttered in the same breath.


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