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
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
‘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.