OPINION: Do accountants count too much in UK business?

There are certain enduring truths about business, and one of them is that for all the talk about cross-functional dialogue, the world can still be divided into the bean counters and the business builders.

There are certain enduring truths about business, and one of them

is that for all the talk about cross-functional dialogue, the world can

still be divided into the bean counters and the business builders.

Inside the latest edition of The Marketing Society’s journal, Market

Leader, there is an article setting out seven questions a marketing

director should ask the finance director and vice versa. The two

protagonists are Andrew Marsden, marketing director of Britvic Soft

Drinks, and Robert Lerwill, executive director of finance for Cable &

Wireless. It makes for depressing reading.

Depressing, because it reaffirms the fact that accountants still have

little clue the world has changed, that looking inward at costs is no

longer enough, and that organic growth does not come about through

busily counting your beans.

Sounds unfair? Here is the (slightly embellished) essence of the

questions the finance director had for his marketing counterpart:

Wouldn’t it be better to outsource marketing, because then the company

would have access to quality marketing advice -and probably better than

yours - at less cost?

How do you justify your activity? We accountants look for the

incremental revenues that result from projects. You marketing people, on

the other hand, try to snow us with ’proxy’ measures like market share

and awareness, which we then have to reconcile with our measuring

systems. Are you really responsible and accountable enough to grasp the

implications of what happens if we did put brands on the balance


The marketing director, Andrew Marsden, asks the finance director: What

are your plans for changing the way the company reports its results,

rather than carrying on with the same old accountancy measures? Are

accountants, who focus solely on tangible assets, the last of the


Just maybe it’s time accountants began to undergo the same sort of

scrutiny their marketing colleagues have been subjected to. A global

manufacturing study covering nearly 900 executives in 35 countries,

carried out by Deloitte Consulting, shows that companies described as

’customer-centric’ are 60% more profitable and more likely to exceed

their goals for growth and shareholder value and have lower operating


Customer-centric is more than a vague desire to satisfy customer


According to the study, companies which qualify set definite objectives

for customer loyalty and retention, and track performance. In other

words, customer-centric companies focus as much on external information

as internal.

Perhaps this obsession with bean counting to the exclusion of all else

is more of a UK-thing. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School

professor, points out in the same issue of Market Leader, American

companies are financially managed just as tightly as those in the UK,

but in the UK the tendency has been to equate management with

accounting. Historically, the acquisition of financial expertise has

been considered the only real and worthwhile business training.

Companies where the bean counters rule, however, keep their eyes focused

on the costs of everything while understanding the value of nothing. And

that’s too bad because, inevitably, they end up with no beans to count


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